What Are We Waiting For?

Advent is a time of waiting for Christ to come. We wait for the birth of a baby, and we wait for the return of Christ the King.

Waiting, waiting, waiting. Everybody hates waiting. When the line is long at the checkout, when the automated attendant repeats in my ear that “your call is important to us,” when I get a migraine and take the medicine and need to wait for it to take effect, I don’t like the waiting part. Children don’t like waiting for permission to open Christmas presents. We all feel both excited and frustrated by all the expectations of the season.

Advent is not about that kind of waiting. During this season we live out the admonition in Psalm 62 to “wait on the Lord.” Whether we focus on the Christ child in the manger or the victorious King of Kings, we are not simply passing time until the clock runs out. Advent waiting is work, in the same sense that the liturgy is the work of the people.

Waiting on the Lord is about paying attention, for one thing. Most of our waiting strategies involve finding a way not to pay attention to the passage of time. On the one hand, we are fervently focused on an image of the fulfillment of our wait, but on the other hand, we don’t even want to think about it. We hope to distract ourselves from the important moment until it actually happens. Otherwise the excitement gives way to frustration and maybe even boredom and discontent. Waiting to board a flight turns into waiting to board a delayed flight and graduates from annoyance to vexation to outrage. This is not Advent waiting. These are not the characteristics of Advent waiting.

To “wait on the Lord” invites contemplation of our God and his many promises, and during Advent we focus our attention on the way Christ the baby and Christ the King are the fulfillment of all those promises. The baby was fulfillment just as certainly as the King will be the fulfillment. Advent sets us squarely on the boundary between “already” and “not yet.” How do we keep our balance on this cosmic knife-edge?

The answer, I believe, is to ask what changes when Christ comes. What difference does it make that the baby was born? What difference will it make when Christ returns to reign over a new heaven and a new earth? The answer to those questions is the answer to what we do while we wait. Instead of simply trying not to fixate on our expectations and anticipation, we have work to do.

Because the Christ child was born, while waiting in a long line that never seems to move, we speak words of grace and love to those around us, pouring peace out in the midst of the chaos and frustration. Because the King is coming, we see Christ in the poor and the sick, and we give our time and money to serve them. Because the Christ child was born, we invite a lonely neighbor with no one coming for Christmas to join in our family feasting and celebration. Because the King is coming, we speak out at the neighborhood association meeting in defense of an elderly neighbor who can no longer keep up the landscaping standards and lead the group to find a way to help rather than harm this neighbor.

There is so much to do to get ready for the Christ child and the King that we should all find ourselves too busy to fret about waiting for anything. To “wait on the Lord” will keep us quite busy until the fulfillment of all our anticipation. At the right time, Christ will be born in Bethlehem. When the time is right, the King will stand with one foot on land and one foot on the sea and all eyes will turn to him in homage and praise. But right now, the question is, what are we waiting for? We shouldn’t be standing around looking down the road or up in the sky; we should be busy “waiting” on the Lord.

Advent waiting is waiting on the Lord. That is what we are waiting for.