In the world of quirky factoids and interesting anecdotes, I have often heard that if one lives to be seventy years old, one will have spent three years of her life just waiting. Waiting in line at the grocery store; waiting in the doctor's office; waiting in traffic; waiting for lunch to be ready; waiting for recess time at school; waiting. In his book, Oh, the Places You'll Go, children's author Theodor Geisel, or "Dr. Seuss," describes a place called "the waiting place." It sounds like the place most of us inhabit. He describes it as a useless place where people are just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Waiting Houses, color woodcut, 1969.
Sometimes waiting feels useless and futile. We are waiting around for what, exactly? More than this, waiting is difficult. It is difficult to have patience. It is something we admire in others, but find difficult for ourselves. Patience is something I can admire in the driver behind me, for example, but not in the one ahead of me!
The patience required by waiting is counterintuitive in our busy, fast-paced world. When our daily lives are made up of high speed Internet, instant messaging, and fast food, waiting for anything seems like an eternity. Moreover, in a world where so much beckons us, waiting asks us to be still and this can feel meaningless. English poet John Milton once wrote that those who serve stand and wait. Indeed, waiting asks us to be disciplined, self-controlled, and emotionally mature as the world speeds by us. Waiting requires an unshakeable faith, hope, and love that will trump all the action done for the sake of expediency. Waiting is often our best, hard work.
Waiting comprises a large part of the Christian worldview. But it is not the useless waiting of "the waiting place" that Dr. Seuss writes about, nor is it simply waiting for certain things or events, a trip or a raise, or even fulfillment. Christians await the return of Jesus in glory.
The season of Advent that precedes Christmas is a season of hope-filled waiting. Advent looks forward in anticipation of Christ's return, but also remembers all those who awaited his arrival into our world more than two thousand years ago. Advent is a season of stillness and reflection and as such, it is the antithesis of all the busyness and chaos of the Christmas shopping season.
The consumer mentality overwhelms and demands a fever pitch of activity. Sadly, any waiting one might do is more likely waiting for Christmas to be over. And rather than being filled with hope and joy, we wait in a state of anxiety, or cynicism, or harried indifference toward the miracle that is upon us. In all of our busyness, we miss the gift of waiting with hope and expectation.
Yet, the Advent season extends an invitation to do just this: to watch and wait for the coming of the King, to wait for the Christ who comes in new ways into the very messy stuff of our lives—not just one season a year. But we cannot hope to catch a glimpse of him without the hard waiting for him to show up.
Of course, there are those who feel they have been waiting so long for God to show up in the messy details of their lives. Giving up on waiting seems to hold the promise of rest, as the work of waiting is wearisome. Just as there were those in the early days of the Christian movement who began to ask "Where is the promise of his coming?" and those who mocked the divine silence of inactivity, it is not difficult to understand how those who wait for answers—for an end to suffering, for reconciliation, for transformation—are tempted towards cynical despair.
Is there hope in remembering that Advent invites us to wait for the God who shows up? Can encouragement be found in the celebration of Christmas, a celebration proclaiming that God has come and that God will come again in the waiting of today? Is there reason to watch and wait for a God who arrives in ways we could not expect?
Advent invites the world to examine these things with courage. The very act of waiting opens eyes, hands, and hearts to receive this most precious gift.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.