advent and the work of waiting

This is a year that seems to have been about waiting. Waiting for the end of lockdown. Waiting to see how Brexit will pan out. Waiting for paperwork to be processed. Waiting for confirmation of whether training could go ahead in person. Waiting for discernment, our own and other people’s. Waiting for news of a vaccine. Waiting for election results to be confirmed. 

What is the work of waiting in our lives, I wonder? I mean, in what ways does waiting form us?

This weekend will mark the beginning of another time of waiting, the season of Advent. This is the time of year when we rehearse the story of Messiah and the generations of waiting that led, ultimately, to his arrival. Given our own experiences of waiting over recent months, I was especially struck when I re-read what Luke wrote about Simeon in his account of Jesus’ birth:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, 

which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel”

(Luke 2:25-32).

How astonishing, that a man who had been waiting so long for the fulfilment of a word he thought was from God should still have such a sense of hope-filled expectation within him that, when he finally held the infant Jesus in his arms, he was able to recognise in him the fulfilment of that long-awaited promise.

I wonder if - after the ups and downs of disappointed expectations and extended delays - I am finally able to recognise and receive in faith and delight that for which I have been waiting? 

During Advent, we enter into this experience of waiting. Indeed, waiting is a posture that marks us as the people of God. Yes, the Christ and his salvation have appeared. And yes, we continue to wait for the full and final reconciliation of all things to God through him. We do not wait alone, but just as we ‘groan inwardly as we wait’ so ‘the creation waits in eager expectation (and) has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time’ (from Romans 8). I don’t know about you, but over the course of the past year I have certainly ‘groaned inwardly’ and imagined I could almost hear the mountains and the trees groaning with me.

So how might we enter into this season of waiting with intention, the better to process our own waiting in the light of the larger story? There are so many Advent resources out there, it is not always easy to pick one. A number of friends have asked me to recommend my favourites, and I thought I would make a note of a few here. I have listed six firm favourites and why they might appeal ... be sure to let me know which ones you tried and what the practice meant to you!

1. for advent newbies: pray as you go

If, like many people, you didn't grow up celebrating Advent and you're not really sure where to begin, then this could be a good place to start. As well as their website, Pray as you Go offer a great app that, in addition to daily readings and prayerful reflections, also features longer guided meditations. The series for Advent includes five sessions of about 25 minutes each, to correspond with the Mondays from the end of November to the end of December. This is extremely accessible for anyone wanting to deepen their Advent experience and is free of charge.

2. for those short on time: Pauses for Advent

This book by Trevor Hudson, a Methodist minister and retreat leader from South Africa, is top of our list this year. One of a series of ‘Pauses’ titles designed around the Church calendar, I love the way the daily readings are organised around a single word for each day, with longer readings for Sundays. This will be a practice to which we invite a friend living in another country, sharing photos inspired by the word for the day and connecting online for the Sunday reading. 

3. for creatives looking for more: Abbey of the Arts

Christine Valters Paintner, author of The Artist’s Rule, and her team at Abbey of the Arts offer an online creative retreat for Advent. While this is a pricier option at $160, the AOTA resources are always exceptional and very enriching for anyone in search of ways to deepen the integration between the creative and the spiritual.

4. for families rehearsing the christmas story: The Jesse Tree

The Jesse tree helps us connect the custom of decorating Christmas trees to the events leading to Jesus’ birth (although in our home we use a wire baobab tree, bought from a Zimbabwean artisan when we lived in Cape Town). The Jesse tree is named from Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Made familiar to many by Ann Voskamp through her book ‘The Greatest Gift,’ a Jesse tree is decorated with illustrated ornaments that represent the people, prophesies, and events leading up to the birth of Jesus. The short daily reading, followed by hanging an ornament, make this an annual feature of our family’s Advent time. Ann Voskamp’s book costs about £10 and offers readings for each day, although we pare them down for family enjoyment.

5. for cuture-philes: The Advent Project

Offered by the Centre for Christianity, Culture and the Arts, this is another Advent option that will appeal to creatives. Free to all subscribers, each day of the Advent Project features a Scripture passage, a devotion written by a member of the Biola University community, a work of visual art, a poem, and a piece of music. This is the kind of thing that, while easy to skim over when running through your inbox, will offer great returns on any intentional moments you are able to assign it.

6. for music lovers: Christmas Cornucopia

While this isn't strictly an Advent resource, when I stop to consider which soundtrack accompanies Advent for me, it would have to be this wonderful album by Annie Lennox I am a bit of an Ebenezer Scrooge when it comes to popular Christmas music (*barf*) and this album more than makes up for the non-stop jingles being played elsewhere.