As anyone knows who has sat at a traffic light clearly controlled by an electronic switch that is out to lunch, waiting is not always constructive. There are at least two ways waiting can be warped out of true. Neither one results in real advent waiting.
First, waiting stripped of expectation is a resigned passivity. We’ve all experienced it when we’ve waited too long and see no sign of the arrival of whoever or whatever has kept us waiting. In Samuel Becket’s play Waiting for Godot, life is painted as waiting drawn out to absurdity because Godot never comes. The one who never comes fades into fantasy. Waiting pales to mere wishful thinking. Life goes on as usual without much hope of change.
There is a second, more active form of waiting that is still not Advent waiting. It happens when expectation has become dread because the watcher does not look forward to the arrival of the one awaited. The apocalyptic passages read during the last weeks of the liturgical year and the first week of Advent give voice to this dark side of our waiting. When Christ comes, they say, the world as we know it will fall apart. Complacency stands up and cries “Amen! That’s exactly what I was afraid of! Let him take is time, life is fine just the way it is. Not perfect, maybe, but tolerable, familiar, comfortable as an old pair of slippers that my feet have grown to fit. We can wait awhile longer.” As long as we can envision Christ’s dreaded coming as something far in the future, we can remain as we are. What we perhaps don’t want to hear from these readings is that they are not necessarily about the cosmic future. They are about the moment Christ becomes real in our lives, and we fall apart in that radical makeover we call conversion. Waiting in dread for this kind of change to afflict us becomes a matter of warding off what we do not desire.
Waiting stripped of resignation becomes a destructive apathy. How many Advent seasons are undermined from the start because we don’t really expect anything to be different when Christmas arrives, except that we’ll probably be a little tireder, a little more frazzled, and a lot poorer. We might as well fill up our time as best we can because we’re going to be waiting a long time. Let’s make ourselves useful in the meantime, or at least let’s make ourselves happy. Waiting shaped by dread becomes an even more destructive impetus to frantic distraction from the underlying abyss of despair. Let’s keep ourselves busy enough to shut out the unsettling fear that what we see might not be all we get and that what we get under the artificial Christmas tree might not be the goodies we asked for but might, instead, be Christ—a consummation we devoutly do not wish.
And real Advent waiting? Look for the next post ...
©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga