God’s promises are accomplished within the boundaries of time. The promise of a Saviour was made in the Garden of Eden, but it was fulfilled slowly, and many centuries were to pass before the coming of Jesus.
The scripture readings of Advent invite us to recall our faith history, to assume the posture of the expectant people of Israel, waiting in joyful hope for the coming of the Messiah. Seeing what is happening in our world today, we realise, like our ancestors in the faith, that we have a very real need of a Saviour. So words like waiting, yearning, hoping, longing, listening, praying, and staying awake are Advent words, Advent concepts. Through them, we enter into the wistful atmosphere of the Advent season.
Three times in chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel (which is read on the First Sunday of Advent), Jesus tells us, Stay awake! When we’re waiting, we’re “awake”, we’re on the alert for something or someone: news, a bus or a train, a dear friend, a family member, a letter, an email, a phone call, a Skype or text message, a sign or a sound, some information that is important to us. While we wait, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will experience God’s presence in what is happening around us.
Waiting can give us the opportunity to see and hear and feel things we’re often too busy to notice. And while we wait, we may see other waiting people, pensioners, parents, disabled people, teenagers, young children, and notice the look in their eyes, the joy, the pain, the hope, the despair; we may see beautiful things, ugly things; we may hear a kind word, a cruel word, a baby’s cry, a shout of rage, a snatch of music… Such experiences are all part of the Advent journey.
“Waiting in hope” is the signature tune of Advent, and this year, perhaps more than ever because of the pandemic, we long to hear the melody of hope in our lives. Anna’s waiting for a word from her doctor on the results of a biopsy, fearful that “it” has come back… Richard watches daily for a letter, expecting word from the university, wondering if he’s been accepted… Ellen’s invited her husband to sit down and talk, realising that their marriage is on the rocks, but he’s left the house in a rage, and now she’s asking herself if he’ll ever come back… Ted’s firm closed down six weeks ago, and he’s anxious and exhausted, looking for a new job… Marie, at the end of a long queue, all her belongings in two black bin bags, is afraid that by the time she gets to the door of the Salvation Army night shelter, all the beds will be taken… Alan wants a drink badly, it’s been three months since his last one, and he can sense himself falling… This morning, Meg had an interview for a job she really wanted, and now she’s waiting to hear the outcome… These are all Advent people. They’re waiting in hope.
In his book, Dynamics of Faith, Paul Tillich says that often it is in moments of helplessness that we experience the transforming power of grace: “Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness… It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.”
When grace “strikes” us in this way, things may not be outwardly better than before, but we know in the depths of our being that God has touched us, and that our time of waiting in hope has not been in vain.
Sr Teresa White fcJ is former teacher and has spent many years in the ministry of spirituality at Katherine House FCJ, a retreat centre in Salford. Read other contributions by Teresa on this website.
Art work: Sr Claire Sykes fcJ.
Image of candles: used with permission of Mercy Homes USA