Advent reflection: Waiting is more than unfulfilled longing


"Oh that You would rend the heavens and come down..." (Isaiah 54:1)

An increasing challenge for those who treasure the Christian year is preventing Advent from being swallowed up by 'Christmas' before it has begun. Our high streets, pubs and restaurants, TV adverts and supermarkets with their incessant seasonal ditties know or care little for Advent.

This is not one of those carps about the increasingly practical atheism of a contemporary western Christmas. Many Christians seem loath to pilgrimage through Advent and embrace too quickly mangers and carols.

It's easy to see why. Key Advent themes clash with our cultural expectations, and urge us to think about things we'd rather not think about. Advent doesn't easily 'sell well'.

For a start, there's all that emphasis on death and judgement and heaven and hell. These so-called 'Four Last Things' are the last things on our minds, surely? To be sure, we're aware of those poor people dying of Ebola, and hunger, and most surely judgement (and hell?) will come to those committing evil and atrocities throughout the world, but who wants to dwell on all that at this time of year? And so our proclaimed sureties of faith, and an oh-so-easy reliance on God's saving love, prevent us from staying a little while in a place where, from time to time, God would have us be.

Then there's that stuff about watching and waiting. Who wants to watch the world as it is today, with so many flash points, continuing obscene inequality – of resources, education, health and opportunity? Who wants to be reminded that the global number of refugees has surpassed 50 million for the first time since World War Two? At the end of a recent Sunday service, a grandmother bouncing a grandchild on her arm came to me. "I can't remember a time when I was more fearful about the future of the world," she said, looking anxiously and significantly at her grandchild. It's petrifying, a sure fire recipe for depression, I mean, what can we actually do about any of it? Surely God doesn't want us to get frustrated, or angry, with Christmas round the corner?

And waiting! Can there be a less culture-friendly theme than waiting for anything? I know kids have to wait for Christmas morning, and that drives them – and everyone else – mad, but most of us can 'go off on one' waiting for a parking place at the supermarket.

Is there really any benefit in reminding ourselves that some things need waiting for, and that patience is a virtue? After all, it takes a certain time for a baby to fully develop in the womb or a wound to heal: that's just how it is. But 'peace on earth': we'll be waiting forever.

Which brings us to the really big challenge of Advent. Hope. Watching and waiting in hope. That's what the ancient 'O's' in scripture and liturgy are about. They are not 'O's' said by the resigned or even sympathetic. They are guttural and visceral. They are said by those who yearn for wrongs to be righted; who long for peace and justice to prevail; who ache for what is good. Those who go on yearning and longing and aching even when there seems so little change or cause for hope. So much so that they continue to act as if hoping in hope actually makes sense! And it's often those who have least to be hopeful about who take the lead. Fools! But faithful fools. Faithful to the notion that God gives hope rejoices in hope and is the very source of hope. Leaving most would-be disciples like me feeling shallow and faithless, or embarrassed.

So no wonder so many of us opt out of Advent, with its reminders of death and mortality, the persistence of sin, and its flat refusal to reduce the stature of waiting to unfulfilled wanting. Advent, with its impossible challenge to hope in God and live as if it were true, making the journey, pausing, reflecting, praying, protesting, giving, living as if it all depending on us while knowing ultimately it all depends on God.

Who, in their right minds, would want to do that? But O, Lord Christ of Advent, place a truly right mind within us and come to us we pray... even before Christmas!

Rev Dr Martyn Atkins is the general secretary of the Methodist Church.