Advent, the first season of the liturgical year, is a season of waiting. But it’s not a passive or a bored or an empty waiting. For waiting, as a spiritual practice, is always active. In Advent, we are called to be fully present to the moment and to trust that what we are waiting for has already begun. We are like a gardener waiting for the seed to grow, or like the parent waiting for the birth of a child. We wait, actively, knowing that the new thing is with us now and will come to its fullness. We wait, in hope, knowing that the present moment is not empty.
Henri Nouwen, in an excellent essay entitled Waiting on God, talks about how the problem many of us have with waiting is that we are filled with wishes. We are so focused on what we are wishing for, what we want to happen or not happen, that we are not truly present to the moment. We are not truly open to what God might be doing in our midst. Instead, we are consumed with our desire for the future to go in a very specific direction, and we quickly begin to despair when this does not happen.
Nouwen talks about how as spiritual people we must learn, in our waiting, to let go of our wishes and turn instead to hope. It is only when we stop wishing and start hoping that something new — something beyond our expectations — can take root and happen to us.
As I read his essay, it occurred to me that wishing is something that we do in the past, present and future tense. Sadly, many people have wishes that are really regrets: I wish I hadn’t done that; I wish I had done that.
But hope is always looking forward, and hope is not nearly as specific as wishing. While we wish for very specific things, we hope for things that we recognize are beyond us, that can only happen by the grace and power of God. We hope for peace, for joy, for fulfillment, for the incoming of God — for all the big things that are beyond us and that can only come by God’s grace.
As Nouwen writes:
“The whole meaning of the Christian community lies in offering a space in which we wait for that which we have already seen. Christian community is the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously, so that it can grow and become stronger in us. In this way we can live with courage, trusting that there is spiritual power in us that allows us to live in this world without being seduced constantly by despair, lostness, and darkness. That is how we dare to say that God is a God of love even when we see hatred all around us. That is why we can claim that God is a God of life even when we see death and destruction and agony all around us. We say it together. We affirm it in one another. Waiting, together, nurturing what has already begun, expecting its fulfillment — that is the meaning of Christian life.”
As we begin the season of Advent as a diocese, as the body of Christ, let us help one another learn what it is to wait, in hope, on a God who is both present and yet to come, and who is always and everywhere becoming incarnate in our world in vulnerable, beautiful and surprising ways.