When my son doesn’t want to wait for something (a treat, a play date, or a much-anticipated Christmas present) I often tell him, “Patience is like a muscle. You have to exercise to make it stronger and to make waiting easier.” He does not tend to appreciate those exhortations.
In a young child whose brain is not yet fully capable of processing time the way adults do, even if he knows he’ll eventually get what he wants, waiting can be literal and existential torture. This is what I remind myself when I feel exasperated by his impatience and want to growl, “For pity’s sake, you’re going to get a cookie after dinner, just. calm. down.”
In the church year, Advent is a season of waiting. It’s a season when we are all encouraged to slow down and exercise our patience muscles in anticipation of the birth of our Savior. When I was baptized and joined the Episcopal Church six years ago, I was surprised to learn that Advent Is Not Christmas, and while people may joyfully decorate their homes and sing Christmas carols through the month of December without judgment, the liturgical tone of the season is something altogether different.
Advent is expectant and hopeful, but there is also a solemnity that I found to be unexpectedly welcome. It is as if we are gently being admonished to remember that the Savior will be born, but let us just calm down, step back, and prepare. Save the joy for Christmas; don’t worry, you’ll get that cookie after dinner. (Jesus=Cookie, yes, I just did that.)
Our anticipation of Jesus’ birth though, comes with the benefit of certainty, of history and time. There is, however, another type of waiting embedded in Advent and in life — waiting through uncertainty, when we don’t know what the end result will be.
In our family this year, we have done a lot of waiting of the uncertain kind: on pathology reports of the (multitude) of strange things my body has decided to grow in my leg, in my brain, and now, in my right breast. My husband and I stretch these particular patience muscles quietly; we don’t think our son is ready for this particular kind of waiting just yet. This most recent episode finds us on the border of the church year and we walk through the open door to the season of Advent, where our own waiting can be joined into one exercise in spiritual patience.
How can Advent help us with whatever uncertainty we might be called upon to bear, and how can that waiting help us to understand the other dimensions of the season, outside of the birth of Jesus as a much-anticipated, but certain, outcome?
I begin by remembering that the Israelites awaited their deliverance for centuries, and while foretold by the prophets, they did not know when He would come or what they would bear in the waiting, only that their patience would be rewarded.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. – Jeremiah 33:14-15, NRSV
[B]ut those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:31, NRSV
Like the Israelites who waited, we all have been given a promise for which we must patiently abide. We know that Jesus was born, died, was risen, and will come again, but it is not for us to know when. We must do the best we can to trust in the outcome.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.” – Luke 21:34-35, NRSV
We all live with moments (sometimes very long moments) of painful uncertainty in our lives when the outcome is unknown and very much out of our control. Will it be cancer this time or will I get another reprieve? There are very real concerns and worries of this life that are hard to put aside, even in this season of Advent.
There is nothing I can do to change the outcome — what will be, will be — all anyone can do is to try to wait with grace and forbearance. The words of Paul in his letter to the Philippians that are featured in this year’s Advent lectionary, provide comforting advice:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:4-7 NRSV
What waiting through uncertainty are you doing this Advent?