Even amidst the turbulence in the news and the countdown before holiday visits and preparations, all of nature, including our bodily and inner selves, are reminded this is also the season of withdrawal. Whether we are plants, trees, animals, or humans relying (traditionally at least) on the stored food in our pantries or freezers, we are dependent on reserves for what we need during this time of withdrawal and scarcity. And because life, outward and inward, wants to settle us we take pause, and the dark, quiet days invite us to withdraw for reflection, to deepen our souls and our search for meaning in life. And to patiently wait with hope. I have often marveled of how the rhododendron plants dare to set their buds prior to the bitter cold of the winter in the promise and assurance of survival and glorious flowering in the spring.
In the Christian liturgical calendar this is the season of Advent, the four weeks before the celebration of the birth of Jesus. I love this season because it so embodies the coordination between nature and our efforts to express and contain our sense of meaning. Every year I return to my fascination that in Spanish the verb, esperar, translates in English both to hope and to wait. To simultaneously hope and to wait is a given. During Advent we could say it means, “Wait here with me during this time of pregnancy and expectation. And while we wait, let us share our hopes. Let us hold each other during these uncertain times with the expectation that light and love and the anticipated birth of a beloved community will indeed occur in its own time.” Throughout the millennia I can image people sitting around the fire, telling their variation of advent stories. They would tell of time past and their expectations of what they still hope will come to pass even amidst all their fears as they share a common plight of not knowing the future. And they wait. And they hope. And that is also the essence of Advent whether in ancient times or our current lives. We share our stories to help us bear the in-between times as together we wait and hope.
The Christian tradition provides a traditionally specific context and purpose for the waiting. I imagine the story being told over and over again about a miraculous birth occurring among one of their own, a child of poor parents born in an oppressive and occupied Palestine, who would lead the world into a new upside-down moral framework where compassion for the marginalized was given precedence over power and privilege. I can imagine the excitement such a story could generate for oppressed people, as I also imagine it has done for people over the centuries, and as it continue to do so today through the lens of those who are neglected and oppressed. And although it has a Christian context, I can imagine universal variations of this story for all who yearn for for peace and justice.
But the message always seems to have a condition. People must wait. And while they wait they are to do the hard word of clearing their own lives of what demeans and represses their own hearts and behaviors before they can fully love and liberate their neighbors. And this hard work often demands serious risk and sacrifice for those who choose to follow. The Jesus message, after all, is about compassionate sacrifice.
Paradoxically the Jesus narrative also teaches that the fullness of life is also available now. It is possible to live now into mutual lives of kindness and care that includes charity, advocacy, and attentiveness to the personal needs of others that I recently learned can be described by the three “h’s” of whether we need a hug, to be held, or to be heard.
So while we wait, we hope, and we carry on. For a number of years I was privileged to spend the first week of Advent, often during the quiet of the first snowfall, at the Benedictine monastery, Weston Priory, in the mountains of Vermont. Each candlelit morning at 5 am the prayers always included what became for me a signature piece for Advent called “We Go On Waiting.” We may not be ready for the transformations we seek, the song reminds us, but with God’s grace and love, we can “carry on.” The simple lyrics are included below as well as the monks singing this steadfast prayer to sustain us in hope and faith while we carry on each day and into the future.
In these coming weeks may you also enter into the spirit of Advent. We need the message of the profound truth of nature and our ancient traditions that teach us the importance of both waiting and hope.
We Go On Waiting
We go on waiting, knowing you have come,
yet we are not ready to be transformed.
Give us your Spirit and we’ll carry on.
The day is long ahead of us
and we’ll carry on, and we’ll carry on.
© 1973 The Benedictine Foundation of the State of Vermont, Inc.