advent journal: what are we waiting for?


Somewhere in one of The Boxes Yet To Be Unpacked is my copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season, which is the book that first taught me how the church marks time by the liturgical calendar. It starts and ends with essays on Advent, beginning with the words from Romans, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand.” (Romans 13:12) For all but four days of this man-waiting-on-benchseason, the days will be growing shorter. Here in our new home in Connecticut we are far enough north that the sun sets before 4:30; a cloudy day means we never turn the lights off. Though I’m not sure the early Christians were thinking about the short days when the repurposed the Roman celebration of Saturnalia to tell their Core Story, as the church moved into Europe and the bleak midwinters the promise that it would not always keep getting darker became a central metaphor, it seems.

So we light candles and we wait.

Sitting in church this morning, it struck me that not all waiting is the same. Waiting for a diagnosis from a biopsy is not the same as my waiting for the train in the morning to go to New Haven. Waiting for a pizza is different from waiting for the world to change. Somewhere in the course of the afternoon I remembered a blog post from six years ago when I was cooking in the restaurant at Duke and I wrote about learning the Spanish word for wait—espera—because our dishwasher, whom I was training to cook, didn’t speak very much English. And I wrote:

If I can go back to the kitchen for a minute, when the ticket prints, telling me someone wants the chicken for dinner, I make a choice. I can choose to let my sense of time be controlled by the little piece of paper saying they want dinner NOW, which leads me to rush the dish; or I can see the ticket as an invitation to take the time I need to prepare the dish well: taking a minute or two to get the pan hot, and more time for the oil to warm, and more time for the chicken to brown, and the sauce to reduce, until the dish that goes to the table does so with, well, timefulness.

As much as the latter choice seems the obvious one, I’m well aware of how hard it is for me to live timefully. Espera doesn’t come easy. Whether it’s the dinner rush or some other self-imposed deadline, I can quickly become consumed with The Task at Hand, and push time and everyone else around with the pugnacious impatience of a conductor determined for the train to leave on time at all costs. I know what needs to happen and I want it to happen now.

Time too easily becomes a force, rather than a friend.

The ways languages work sometimes fascinates me. The sounds of words make things possible regardless of their meaning. In English, we get to rhyme heart and art, for example. Not everyone gets that poetic possibility. In Spanish, espera and esperanza sound like relatives—wait and hope—that give us a vocabulary for Advent: here in the dark we wait and hope the day is at hand.

Searching for the blog post led me to another one with this quote from Annie Dillard:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return. (Teaching a Stone to Talk)

There is something beautiful about the circling seasons of our faith and the reenactment of the Incarnation again and again, connecting us with our brothers and sisters in Christ down all the days, and we come back to the Manger year after year and we could also say not much has changed. We begin this season in the gathering dark as refugees from Syria struggle to find shelter, as the tenor of our political discourse has degenerated into the screaming of playground bullies, as fear has become the primary currency or our country begging the question: what are we waiting for?

One of the quotes I come back to most every year is from Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth century monk, who wrote: “What good is it for me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1400 years ago and I don’t give birth to God’s son in my person and my culture and my times?” What would it look like for us to be waiting to go into labor, for us to wait to be the carriers of God’s love rather than just the recipients? We are not waiting for Christ to come to us, but for Christ to come through us. Crash helmets, indeed.

Though this post feels as disjointed as these days we are living, the talk of labor pains makes me think of one of the synonyms we use for pregnancy: expecting—another way of saying hope. In these days of noise and confusion, we wait, we hope, we hurt, and we expect. We trust that the trajectory of existence is not destined for darkness, nor the curve of life pointed toward cynicism. We wait, we hope, we hurt, and we are expecting to give birth to the Love of God in our time and in our culture.

Come, let us wait together. The night is far gone; the day is at hand.



  1. That was beautiful, Milton. Thank you.
    Waiting. Waiting is a new picture book by Kevin Henkes because he knows children are always waiting–for parents, for Christmas, for school to be out, for dinner, to be heard, to grow up, etc.
    Today at Pilgrim Church we waited to see who the Prophet Isaiah would be since you were not here. Suddenly Suzanne the storyteller’s voice sang out loud and strong! The tradition carries on…though we couldn’t imagine it would without you.

  2. I have always thought those words “espera” and “esperanza” are beautiful words all by themselves. How wonderfully you have tied them together. Thank you, Milton. This post is a prayer to me.

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