Waiting in hope
The French philosopher Simone Weil once wrote that “waiting in hope is the foundation of the spiritual life.”
We’re doing a lot of waiting these days. We wait for the day that we can visit our loved ones in care homes and hospitals. We wait for the day that we can gather together without restrictions. We wait for the day that we no longer live in fear of a virus. We wait for the vaccine that we hope will end this pandemic.
Waiting in hope is the foundation of the spiritual life.
Advent always begins in the shadows. In darkness, where there is despair and suffering, where the sun grows weak and the nights get longer.
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light.”
Advent begins in darkness. But Advent also begins with hope:
“When you see these things taking place, know that he is near, at the very gates.”
It is dark. But God is coming.
Waiting in hope is the foundation of the spiritual life.
But I’m not very good at waiting. For me, waiting can go one of two ways:
Sometimes I get impatient. Sometimes I get frustrated. Why is this pandemic lasting so long? Why do I have to wait? Can’t God see that we’re suffering here?
Isaiah gives voice to this sort of impatience and frustration in our Old Testament reading:
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!”
Enough of this hidden God, enough of this time of waiting, forget about subtlety or nuance. If you’re there God, make it clear, erase any doubt, do it now.
Isaiah speaks to our frustration and impatience. It’s almost like he’s getting it out of his system. But once he’s given voice to that frustration and impatience, once he’s made his plea for God to show up, he seems to back off a bit. Maybe we’re not ready for a mighty theophany just yet. Maybe we need time to get ready.
Waiting in hope is a time to get ready. To reflect, to prepare. To be reshaped like the clay in a potter’s hand.
The other problem I have with waiting is that sometimes, I just fall asleep.
I have a friend that I went to university with, we played hockey together, lived in the same residence. He liked to take naps in the afternoon, in fact he liked to take naps all day long, and he had this expression that he was fond of repeating: “sleep is never a waste of time.” And you know, part of me agrees with him. Sleep is good for us, and besides, saying “sleep is never a waste of time” is a great way to justify taking a nap.
But the problem with sleeping, especially if you’re sleeping at the wrong time, is that you can miss things. Pity the doorkeeper, the greeter, the security guard who falls asleep. Someone might come and they would never even know it. So beware. Stay alert. Keep awake.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of a new church year. One of the gifts of a new year is that it provides us with the opportunity to reflect a bit about the past year, and perhaps to learn some lessons or make some resolutions that we can carry forward into the new year.
So let me ask you a question: what did you sleep through during the past year? What were you not awake to in your own life and in the world around you? What did you miss because you were asleep?
Of course, that’s a hard question to answer. We may never know what we missed while we were asleep, or pre-occupied, or not paying attention. But as I was reflecting on that question this week, it occurred to me that what I’ve most often slept through this past year were the people around me. What they were thinking or feeling, what they were celebrating or what they were struggling with. So often I’ve been unaware of how my words and actions impact people that I love. There were people I didn’t see at all, because I was busy with something else. There were times that I was so pre-occupied with my own stuff that I missed the people who came into my life.
The word Advent literally means “coming”. This is the time of year when we are reminded to be alert to the things that are coming into our lives. Be aware. Keep alert. Stay awake. You don’t want to miss it. You don’t want to miss the people who are coming into your life. You don’t want to be asleep when God comes into your life. You remember the goats from last Sunday’s gospel reading? When they encountered Christ in their lives, in the hungry and the stranger, they missed it completely.
How about you? Are you awake? Will you see God when God comes?
It’s not easy. God’s presence can be subtle. God’s coming can be veiled, hard to see, unexpected. That just calls for heightened wakefulness on our part. It can be frustrating, especially when things are not going well. Listen again to Isaiah’s frustration in our first reading. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Isaiah isn’t looking for nuance and subtlety. He wants God to come like an earthquake that shakes the mountains, a coming that would wake the deepest sleeper. Do we need to be woke?
Times of darkness and suffering present a challenge to being woke, a challenge that Jesus speaks to in today’s gospel.
When times are hard, when we suffer, when we face health or relationship challenges, when we’re in a pandemic, it’s hard to be watchful. It’s hard to see in the dark. Sometimes we turn inward, we cocoon in an attempt at self-care or self-preservation. Times of suffering and crisis can consume us and make us feel isolated.
And yet, here in today’s gospel, just two days before the cross, Jesus makes a startling promise. When you see these things taking place, when we suffer, when it is dark all around us, know that God is near, at the very gates. God is coming.
Because it’s not just about waiting. We are to wait in hope.
We are to be a people shaped by hope, a movement in the direction of hope, a sign of hope, a community that gives hope to others. Be aware, stay alert, keep awake.
When will God come? When will our hope be realized? “About that day or hour, no one knows.” Today’s gospel and the season of Advent itself, they play with our sense of time. We begin Advent with apocalyptic readings, readings which point to the future, to the end of time. Then, like time-travelers, we will move backwards in time, to John the Baptist and Jesus as adults in the year 30AD. Then we travel even further back in time, to the Annunciation, to the young woman Mary, who is just about to find out that she will conceive a child. And then, time moves forward again as we approach Christmas, the birth of the child that tells us that God has come. Advent plays with time, past, present and future swirling together.
God has come, God is coming, God will come.
We are shaped by the past. We move to the future in hope. But we can be awake only in the present.
And so stay awake. Be aware. Keep alert. Live not as people who sleep-walk their way through life. Live rather as people who are aware that God is near, that God comes suddenly, that God draws near to us in suffering and in the need of others, that God is with us. Advent is a time to get ready, the season when we look for God’s coming, when we practice being woke, when we intentionally live our lives in such a way that when God comes, we won’t miss it.
Keep awake. Wait in hope.
Homily. Yr B Advent 1. Nov 29 2020. St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 64.1-9; Ps 80. 1-7,16-18; 1 Cor 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37
Image by Ana C, Creative Commons