Advent – The Theology of Waiting
“Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” - Psalm 27:14 NRSV.
Advent calendars and Advent candles are used by millions of people across the country every December. The anticipation of opening a cardboard door-a-day, the patience involved in folding over the edges of your candle so the wax doesn’t drip down the numbers below, and the suspense of the lead up to Christmas all reflect the most valuable theological qualities of Advent as Christians wait in anticipation, patience, and suspense to give thanks for the birth of a baby.
There are many Hebrew words used throughout the Bible to express the process of waiting: qavah, meaning ‘to wait’; yachal, which refers to hopeful expectant waiting; chakah, a drawn-out desperate wait; and chuwl, meaning to wait anxiously.
Advent, which comes from the Latin Adventus (meaning ‘to come or arise’) takes place from the last Sunday of November until Christmas Eve. These weeks represent our expectant waiting for Christ’s birth and, subsequently, his second coming in the unknown future. The idea of having to wait for good things to come is a recurring theme throughout scripture, as is the idea of waiting for bad things to pass; however, in this age of next-day-delivery and speedy Google searches the theology of waiting becomes even more valuable during the weeks of Advent.
Ten Bridesmaids Waiting
In the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (Matthew 25), the women wait expectantly for the delayed groom to arrive at an unknown hour of the night. Half the women bring extra oil to fuel their lamps, while the other half bring none. By the time the groom has arrived all their lamps have died out. With not enough to go around, the unprepared bridesmaids are forced to leave their wedding duties in order to buy more oil. For many scholars the bridegroom represents Christ, and he ends the parable by warning these bridesmaids to “keep awake… for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13).
This parable recognises some degree of division in humanity which is represented by the bridesmaids, some wise and some foolish, who wait together for Christ’s arrival. “It is quite evident that wisdom lies in careful preparation” (1) because waiting is centred around trust. Firstly, trust in the arrival of the thing or person being waiting for, in this case the groom, but also trust that those waiting will fulfil their duties and be ready when they are needed most. “Waiting is not a throwaway time”, but one of intentionality and preparation for the moments that have not yet arrived and cannot be predicted (1). The coming of Christ is one of these moments for which we must prepare through the celebration of Advent.
So, what should we do while we wait for Christ?
Substitutes in sport and understudies in the theatre do not wait aimlessly or unproductively until they are needed. Instead, they live in anticipation, patience, and suspense, continuing to train and prepare, all the while waiting for an unconfirmed moment. However, in Matthew’s parable, the value of everyday living is given great importance too. “We must never seek to calculate that which we simply do not know”, such as the arrival time of the groom or the longevity of an oil lit flame (1). Thereby, when the bridesmaids become drowsy and fall asleep waiting (Matthew 25:5), this emphasises to the reader “that waiting involves the ordinary things of living” and that sleep is “an ordinary activity of life” that need not be pushed aside (1). Jesus warns the foolish bridesmaids to “stay awake” only as a reminder of the importance of remaining attentive even when at rest (Matthew 25:13). For the spirit to grow and mature, we need to live mundanely but intentionally; knowing that our lives should not be stunted by waiting but celebrated as purposeful. Advent is a wonderful way to remind us of the importance of intentional and patient waiting in both remembrance of Christ’s birth and expectation of his return “at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44).
As poet W.H. Auden writes in his poem Heavy Date: “For when love is waiting logic will not do” (1). While the love of God is ever-present, we must wait to feel the effects of Christ’s return and trust that everything will be ok in the end, which doesn’t always feel possible or logical but is an important thought to familiarise yourself with this Advent.
Waiting is trusting, and trusting is relinquishing some degree of control in good faith that God will not make us wait forever.
A Call to Action this Advent:
While we wait, thoughtful and aware, please take some time to think about all the people in this world waiting desperately to be reunited with their families, waiting anxiously to be granted asylum or waiting fearfully in immigration camps to be sent back to the countries they fled.
This week, please write to your MP expressing your concerns about the new Nationality and Borders Bill, which is due to pass early next year.
If you are unsure about the details of this Bill, please read SCM’s blog breaking down what the Bill is and why we are so concerned: Detailed overview: I Was a Stranger and You Invited Me In: The Nationality and Borders Bill Campaign | Student Christian Movement... Brief overview: When Theological Thinking Ceases to be Theory | Student Christian Movement.
Here is a link to the Refugee Council’s call for more compassion towards Refugees, as it is they who will be most affected by the passing of the Bill: Urgent MP action: Call for a more compassionate asylum system | Refugee Council.
(1) Preaching Magazine. (2018). ‘Managing Time: a theology of waiting’, Preaching. Available at: Managing Time: a Theology of Waiting - Preaching Magazine (Accessed 6th December 2021).