Waiting and Watching, Without Control but not Helpless, in Advent
Advent - from the Latin root adventus, from the root ad- (to) and venir (come). Adventus is the Latin rendering of the Greek parousia, used to refer to the second coming of Christ.
Advent - to come. Synonyms - onset, beginning, commencement, start.
Advent for us means waiting for the start, the onset, the beginning. We wait for the breaking of Christ into the world. The temptation is to think we’re waiting for the coming of the Christ child again as a form of remembrance; that the waiting is just ritual and tradition. Take note, though, that our root for Advent is ultimately in the Greek that refers to the second coming of Christ.
We are being reminded in this season that we await the return of Christ, not the ceremonial recollection of his initial incarnation. On the first Sunday in Advent (Advent 1) you will hear read in our worship together the words of Christ from Mark 13, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” Again and again Jesus spoke of his return and our need to be ready.
Waiting is one of life’s great challenges. In our digital age we rarely have to wait without something else to either distract us or make us feel like we aren’t wasting time. In every store check-out line you’ll see people on their phones, checking email and social media accounts, myself included. I’m a relatively patient person but I still don’t like to wait. Standing in line I think about the million other things I could or “need” to be doing with that time.
Waiting touches on one of the worst aspects of the human condition: a lack of control. Anytime we wait, we are waiting for someone else to do whatever it is they need to do. We are no longer in control. Instead, our time is at the mercy of someone else’s competency and efficiency. There is nothing we can do to expedite the other person’s process with any guarantee of outcome. We have to sit, and wait.
We don’t like to feel out of control. We like to be in command of our lives and all that is in it. We try to control our environment so as to control the impact those factors have on us. We try to control our friends and family members in an effort to make their actions better line up with our desires. The first step of AA is to admit powerlessness over alcohol, to admit a lack of control. My friends in AA have told me this has been the most difficult step for them and many of their fellow AA members.
I think it is for this reason that Advent is more important now than perhaps it has ever been. The cycle of the liturgical calendar, the church year, forces us into spaces and periods of reflection on realities that make us uncomfortable. Advent pushes us to accept our own powerlessness and lack of control. We need to spend four weeks in waiting (really we need more but the calendar provides for four) because we like to delude ourselves into thinking we can control everything. It is imperative that we sit together to contemplate who we are as those who wait, as watchers.
Part of the blessing of the liturgical calendar is helps us practice for the realities of life. We will have seasons of waiting over the course of our lifetime, whether we’re waiting for the arrival of a new baby or for the death of a loved one. Waiting is a natural part of life so it shouldn’t surprise us or catch us unprepared. In Advent we learn the art of waiting and watching, and learn the power of hope and promise in this season of waiting.
Waiting might mean we are not in control but it does not mean we are helpless. Waiting is not the same thing as doing nothing. Waiting should not mean idleness and inactivity. On the contrary, Christ calls to us again and again to “Keep watch”. On Advent 1 we will hear him say “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (Mark 13:37).
What does watchfulness mean? How do we keep awake? Advent is a season of preparation while waiting and preparation means activity. Our temptation is to distract ourselves with preparations for Christmas in this season. I have been buying Christmas presents for over a month now and soon will be knee deep in the yearly task of decorating our house and putting up the tree. There is much for which we prepare right now. We can pretend that the yearly remembrance of the birth child takes much preparation and demands all of our attention, but that would be participation in corporate denial.
When John the baptist called to mind the words of Isaiah 40:3 “Make straight the way of the Lord”, he wasn’t commanding the community to organize a work day to clean the roads and pick up debris from the walking paths. He fervently spoke of a reformation of the heart, calling us all to preparation in the form of repentance.
Repentance is not about beating ourselves up or giving ourselves a guilt trip. It should not be about heaping shame upon ourselves or wallowing in embarrassment. Repentance for the sake of engaging only in self-flagellation and self-pity is not repentance at all but is a product of the ego. To repent is to return. The root of repent is from the Latin repere, which means “to creep”. Creeping requires a direction and that direction is back to God. We return to God on our knees, creeping if you will, in an act of humility. We are aware that we have strayed from the path of discipleship onto a path of our own choosing according to our own desires. After we fail and fall then we realize we are, in fact, not in control and seek the forgiveness, protection, grace, and love of God again. We return with head in hand.
During the season of Advent, to keep awake and be watchful is to turn our gaze inward, not outward. The process of looking for the coming of Christ is not one of looking out to the horizon but instead of looking into our hearts to see where we need repentance, return, reconciliation, and reform. We are actively waiting and we consider how our sins distract us from seeing the moments Christ has been with us, watching and waiting for our attention.
Let us take up our post this Advent season with earnestness and a commitment to clarity of purpose, not allowing ourselves to be distracted by the noise of the secular Christmas season. How do you let yourself get distracted or even spiritually fall asleep so that you miss the appearance of Christ in your life? What in your life needs reform and renewal, that needs to be changed in order to make you ready for the coming of Christ, not just in the Christ child but as he comes in glory?
I wish you all a very happy and reflective Advent season so that you may, indeed, have a very merry Christmas and season that follows.