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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Advent 101: Waiting

Does anyone else wonder about “waiting” during Advent? Waiting for what, the second coming of Christ? Good luck with that. Waiting for Christmas? Waiting for peace? Waiting for an intervention by God in the dysfunctional mess we glory in at worship?

Thinking about this over the years, and I've lived a lot of Advents now, even just counting my advents-as-liturgist, I think that we are using the word "wait" in Advent the way we use it in words like “waiter” and “ladies-in-waiting.”
In a really good restaurant (and let’s face it, the messianic banquet must be the best of all), the waiters aren’t killing time, flirting, looking at their watches, or trying to catch a few minutes of the Bears game on the bar TV. They’re not pacing, waiting for their shift to be over. And they’re sure not catching 40 winks in the corner. They’re busy. They’re working. They’re serving people, doing what they can to make their patrons’ experience a pleasant one. The waiting is in end in itself. In a sense, no one is waiting for anything—except perhaps for the opportunity to be of service.

I think about this with regard to Advent. Sunday, as in all three years of the lectionary cycle, the gospel is from one of the eschatological discourses in the synoptics, which are generally thought of as being about the distress in Jerusalem and throughout Israel stemming from violent the Roman suppression of the Jewish rebellion in 70 CE. But even the earlier preaching of Paul and the apostles, often cited in the Advent scriptures, expresses an anticipation that the Lord is going to return soon, perhaps, as is recorded in some of the gospels, before some of that very generation passed away. But the apostolic instruction was never to stop our daily activities and start praying more—it was just, “keep awake.” Stay aware of the inner reality of things. Be a waiter at the messianic banquet—keep an eye out for opportunities to serve—a glass of water here, a meal there, a friendly remark there.

Living in that time between the promise and the fulfilment, that is Advent. And, in a sense, that is all of time as we know it, chronos. We read various accounts of messianic expectation in Israel right up to the present. There would come a time, promised as early as the book of Exodus, when God would be with Israel as himself. The prophets pointed the way to that day, crafting a vision of a dominion where bear and calf, lion and lamb graze together in vegetarian delight, where the desert is lush and green, where the blind see and the lame walk. They shaped that vision in their darkest hour, their hope based on their experience of who God had been for them in covenant throughout their history. Among Jews, some have seen their entire people, in covenant and solidarity, as God’s moshiach, God’s anointed, today.

For many of us, there was a fulfillment of that expectation in Jesus, but even that promise is not completely present yet.  We ourselves, through the life of the Holy Spirit received in baptism, take part in the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies. It is through our being part of Christ and giving ourselves, caring for the world, that the dominion of God is unfolding. But we do find ourselves between the promise and the event, between what has been described as the “already” and the “not yet.” Those who had heard Jesus or the apostles promise the quick return of the Son of Man to set things right in the world had to deal with that reality back in the first century. Twenty centuries later, maybe we’re a bit more lethargic than they were, and need Advent every year to help us remember to “keep awake.” We still dream of beating the instruments of war into the tools of agriculture, we still dream of a world without borders and violence, where all people stream together to God’s house. We still dream of a world without hunger and disease. But in the meantime, we live with war. We live with barbed wire, terrorism, starvation, AIDS, and genocide. We take part, actively or passively, in the marginalization of people with beliefs, life styles, or any number of human variables that differ from our own. "Keep awake" to that, Advent says. Turn away from that tree. The ax is already laid at its root. 
I wrote some invocations for a prayer service a few years ago, about living in this “threshold” time, between God’s promise and the fulfillment. We know that the fulfillment is coming; Jesus, in fact, invites to believe that the fulfillment is simply as close as grasping it and starting to live in that reality and not in this one, choosing a different empire and its God who rules by agape, by self-emptying love. I thought I’d end these thoughts about Advent and time with those invocations, in case they help your Advent prayer.

Between the tears and pain and your promise of comfort, we cry to you:
O come, O come, Emmanuel.
Between those dying of thirst and your promise of streams in the desert, we cry to you:
O come, O come, Emmanuel. 
Between those dying of hunger and your promise of a banquet of rich food for all, we cry to you:
O come, O come, Emmanuel. 
Between the gunshots and bombs and your promise of peace forever, we cry to you:
O come, O come, Emmanuel. 
Between terror and mistrust and your promise of a world without fear, we cry to you:
O come, O come, Emmanuel.
Between the grief and loss and your promise that death will be no more, we cry to you:
O come, O come, Emmanuel.
Between our borders and divisions and your promise that all will be one in you, we cry to you.
O come, O come, Emmanuel..

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus. Catch me waiting.