As a kid, I waited a lot. With two older brothers, we’d all huddle around the Nintendo as my brothers passed the controller back and forth. My forays were unskillful and therefore brief. It would be a long time until another turn came around. During my late teens and early twenties, again I waited a lot – this time for trains and buses, the occasional airplane. In Frankfurt, I’d sit in the cold of a train station heading to school or basketball practice waiting, hands in pockets, listening to a mixtape, breath crystals forming in front of me.
Later, when I moved to the US, I would travel back home for Summers and Christmas, usually with one or two layovers from the West Coast back to Frankfurt. To travel is to wait. We wait in line for security, for the plane, for take-off, in customs, and even for the body itself to acclimate to the time change. Layovers extend the process. Strange then that this season of Advent and light is also one of waiting, which we so often associate with boredom and frustration, with unnecessary delay.
The Old Testament passages associated with waiting contain the Hebrew word “qavah.” This word is also sometimes translated “to expect,” “to eagerly await,” “to look for.” This subtly shifts the idea from the feeling we get when the person in front of us at the store spills their coins, to the feeling of seeing a lover’s train pull into the station.
There’s eagerness. There’s excitement. Our being is almost totally oriented toward the person we’re expecting. Or like a child with its nose pressed to the window on Christmas Eve. Qavah can be that sort of expectation. That sort of waiting.
And what is it we’re waiting for?
Transformation. The wholeness that Christ both manifests and symbolizes.
This gift involves an inner excavation, a relinquishing. And so often, much of what we struggle with, much of the obstacles to growth are our own unconscious thought patterns, behavior patterns, and emotional patterns. They’re the memories we turn over in our mind, the past relationship we romanticize, the resentments we wield like weapons, the sense of self we’ve lost touch with.
And again I find myself going through the mental shift of what waiting is: we want something to happen that isn’t happening, and we wait, patiently or impatiently doesn’t matter. It’s not that kind of waiting. It is a relaxed anticipation. It is in this receptive posture, this waiting-in-fullness, this expectation, this orientation, that the change begins to occur. But there’s also a fullness, a simple joy, as we know the annual ritual, the ceremony symbolizes a reality that is already ever-present.
The gift is a new way of being altogether, but it involves a stripping away of the dross that prevents it. We are reminded that one of the gifts of the Magi was myrrh, used in embalming, and often seen as prefiguring affliction suffering, and death. The gift of life was involves death, both the physical and the thousand spiritual deaths that allow us to live more fully, to love more fully. As Anthony De Mello puts it, “to come to the land of love, we pass through the pains of death.”
For many of us, Advent occurs during colder, shorter days. There’s greater permission to turn inward, to embrace a more receptive posture, to move away from what Imbach calls our “addiction to achievement and toward a more gentle receptivity.” And yet, the contemplative practice involves an attentive awareness, precisely for those things our ego clings to for a false sense of security. Advent is a natural time to develop practices that cultivate this awareness. For twenty minutes twice a day we learn to move to what Eugene Peterson calls the unforced rhythms of grace.