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Our neighbor Rebecca gave us an essential Advent education. She’s not a Christian, but was the preschool teacher for both of my sons (“Miss Rebecca” to them). On the final day of the year, she’d organize a party for all the families enrolled in our neighborhood preschool program. After the cupcakes and games and awards, Rebecca would gather all the children together one final time, and read them a final story: Dr. Seuss’s Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
There was never a dry eye left in the room by the time she finished the book. And among all the various twists and turns of the Kid’s journey, I was always most struck by “The Waiting Place”:
“The Waiting Place (is) for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or a No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting. Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.”
I’ve pondered that (however unintentional) piece of Advent wisdom lately. We Americans, of course, have a deep allergy to the Waiting Place. Seuss’s narrator in fact calls the Waiting Place “a most useless place.” We aren’t much for waiting, stillness, stopping.
After a year and a half or more of pandemic-forced stoppage, we’re poised to break travel records over Thanksgiving, and retailers are pulling out all the stops to get us online or out of the house to shop, shop, shop again, in the name of “getting back to normal.”
In the face of all this, Christian communities will light candles around the globe this Sunday to enter Advent — a four-week season of waiting.
In the Gospel of Luke, all the characters we first meet are waiting: Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Simeon and Anna. And in the Gospel’s narrative artistry, we hear in these figures echoes of the expectant people of God, yearning for the long-promised day in which YHWH would finally arrive in the world to put it right.
There’s an irony in aged Zechariah, cross-examining the angel who ambushes him with the Gospel announcement: Zechariah’s name means, “God has remembered.” He of course would remember the story of old Abram and Sarah, for whom YHWH does the impossible and gives them a son, birthing life in the midst of death. The language Luke uses in the first chapter of his Gospel is identical at several turns to this story. And yet, Mr. Remember can’t remember that God is in the business of doing the impossible, of generating new life in the midst of death.
I can’t help but conjecture that Zechariah’s punishment is a hidden grace; he’s given a pregnancy of his own, of sorts — time and space to be silent, to allow his awareness of God’s hidden activity to gestate and take shape. In one way, both Zechariah and Elizabeth undergo a pregnancy, in which they come to anticipate the imminently-arriving Desire of Nations.
As everything around me clamors to cram calendars full, max out the credit cards, and “get back to normal,” I hope to cultivate a pregnant Advent stillness, a holy interior anticipation of the coming Key of David and Sceptre of the House of Israel.
I’ve found a wise guide in this prayer by Walter Brueggemann, called “Grace and Impatience to Wait,” so I’ll offer it to you as we light candles and learn to wait for God:
“In our secret yearnings
we wait for your coming,
and in our grinding despair
we doubt that you will.
And in this privileged place
we are surrounded by witnesses who yearn more than do we
and by those who despair more deeply than do we.
Look upon your church and its pastors
in this season of hope
which runs so quickly to fatigue
and this season of yearning
which becomes so easily quarrelsome.
Give us the grace and the impatience
to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes,
to the edges of our finger tips.
We do not want our several worlds to end.
Come in your power
and come in your weakness
in any case
and make all things new.