On Advent and Hopeful Waiting

In response to the mad rush of the season that has now come to span Halloween to New Year’s Day, “the holiday season,” Christian leaders and writers have renewed the idea that it is good to wait for Christmas and that “Advent” is the name of the Christian season marked-out for that waiting. Sermons, devotional books, Bible-studies, etc., are churned-out with increasing strength encouraging us to labor long in the waiting for the celebration of Christmas. “Let the sweet fruit of the annual celebration of the Holy Nativity ripen to its fullness” is the central teaching. Yes and amen! This is great news. We must indeed learn to wait.

What I want to comment on here, however, is not a mere renewal of the call to wait through the four weeks of Advent but is to reflect on what it is exactly that Advent teaches us to wait for. Advent, after all, does not mean “waiting” it actually means “appearing.” If Christmas celebrates the Birth of Christ, his first Advent which already happened, then what does our current observance of Advent teach us to wait for? What is the Appearing that the Church finds herself awaiting?

When asked like this the answer becomes obvious: we are waiting for his Return, the joyful and terrible Appearing for which the Church waits in hope (Titus 2:13-14). Christ has come and Christ will come again. Advent reminds the Church that we live in the waiting. The season of Advent is not a time for practicing a kind of waiting which we never do during the rest of the year. It is, rather, an intensification of the waiting that the Church exists in until Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. In so doing, a well-kept Advent forms in us endurance and patience and glory as we groan inwardly for the renewal of all things (cf. Rom. 5:4, 8:23; 2 Cor. 5:2).

We remember the waiting of all of creation for that first Advent two millennia ago, even as we ourselves wait with all creation for the long-expected second Advent which lies gloriously ahead of us. Waiting during the season of Advent for the arrival of Christmas teaches us to wait for the Resurrection with hope. Rushing to seize the fruit of Christmas early, before it is time, is hopeless on a calendrical level in the same way that rushing to revolt and actualize an over-realized eschaton is hopeless on a political level. The hopelessness in both cases results from doubts that what we have been promised is coming will actually arrive. We doubt the promises, either doubting that He will be faithful to us this Christmas or doubting that He will be faithful to us in the End.

Advent is not just a season that teaches us “waiting” in some unqualified sense. Advent serves to teach us hopeful waiting. We are not like the men in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, who are waiting for something—anything—to happen (or maybe for nothing at all). We are waiting in hope for our Redeemer.

There’s a homiletical application here as well as a pastoral one. Advent sermons should concern themselves less with the run-of-the-mill preaching themes for pre-Christmas season (Gratitude, Year-End-Giving, Wonder, Christmas, etc.) and more with the Promise of His Appearing (2 Tim. 2:4-8). In the pain and difficulty of waiting, good Advent preaching should fill us with the hope that our “redeemer lives, and that at the last He shall stand upon the earth” and that with our eyes we shall see him face to face (Job 19:25-27). 

The pastoral application is this: hopeful waiting is a kind of trial, a kind of inward suffering. Waiting means “not moving-on” and demands the cost of foreclosed options we could have pursued if we had stopped waiting and “made things happen”—if we had just listened to the voice of Job’s wife who encourages us to just curse God and be done with it (Job 2:9). There is a kind of agony in allowing the Christmas season to come slowly, to watch it creep in, just as there is a kind of agony is laboring for the Gospel, watching it likewise creep in and work slowly, like leaven in a lump of dough (cf. Mark 13:33).

Particularly, contemporary culture is marked by a profound antipathy towards waiting and a simultaneous tendency to render everything difficult and “un-positive” as painful and therefore morally wrong. We want everything immediate, microwaved, high-speed 5G, and un-mediated by time, creation, or persons. For our culture even the microseconds required to buffer the next episode of The Great British Bake Off are experienced as a kind of suffering. Pastoral care and attention must be given to discipling those entrusted to our care in the holy waiting which marks the Church as we await the Second Coming.

We cannot merely call our churches and ministries to waiting, and to learn waiting in the rhythms of Advent. We must also pastor them through the intense difficulty of waiting in a culture of instant gratification. We must make the theological connection for them that when waiting becomes excruciating it is because “excruciating” means “coming from the Cross” and that Christ of the Cross is being formed in us while we wait (Gal. 4:19; Col. 1:27).

Advent is, finally, a season for singing the songs of waiting. Save the Christmas hymns for that last week before the 25th of December, spend Advent singing songs that give language to the inward groan of the Spirit. Begin with the Psalms and spiritual songs of Scripture (Eph. 5:19): the Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-56), Psalm 43, the Dignus est Agnus (Rev. 5:9-13), and the Venite (Ps. 95:1-11, 96:13) are absolute “musts.” And then move on to the great Advent hymns: O Come O Come Emmanuel, Hills of the North Rejoice, Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth, and Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending are all great selections.

Hopeful waiting is the work of the Church in this age and it is difficult. Advent intensifies the waiting and helps form us as a people who wait well, with lamps trimmed and burning (Matt. 25:1-13; cf. Luke 12:35). In all of the planning meetings surrounding Advent and Christmas let us consider how we can preach the Promise of his Appearing, pastor our people in the difficulty of waiting, and how we can transform that waiting into praise by turning it into song.