Here’s a line from the poet, author and conservationist Wendell Berry. It fits the season: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
Here we are waiting. What do you do while you wait? Americans aren’t all that good at waiting. It’s not part of our culture. Other cultures are better at it. As some of you know, I was in Zimbabwe for a couple of years, 30 years ago. Which, BTW, it’s sobering to think that something that happened in your lifetime happened 30 years ago. Makes you sit up straight. Anyway, back then most people in Zimbabwe traveled longer distances by bus or rail. People of modest means took buses. Most of these trips were uneventful, but sometimes there’d be a problem: the bus would break down or have a flat tire. And so you waited for the next scheduled bus to come along. If there was a town or something nearby with a telephone, the driver might start out on foot to get help. You couldn’t call and tell the person you were going to see that you’d be late. There were no mobile phones. So you got out of the bus, found some shade, and waited – for however long it took. Could be an hour, could be a day. You waited, and you were prepared to wait. You’d have a blanket to spread on the ground, some water, something to eat, and something to read. Adults mostly chatted while the kids played an impromptu game of soccer. Nobody was impatient. The waiting wasn’t unpleasant, and anyway these things happened. Everyone knew that spare parts were hard to come by. And tires? No such things, anywhere in Zimbabwe. For an inner tube you had to go to Botswana, 600 miles away.
That’s one kind of waiting. There are worse kinds of waiting: Waiting to hear about a possible job, waiting for Mom or Dad to get home when you know you’re in trouble, or waiting for a loved one to pass. That’s waiting when you don’t know what to do and when you don’t know when the waiting will end. That’s when the waiting can seem interminable. That’s when waiting humbles you in a particularly sharp-edged way.
The best kind of waiting is waiting for something that’s both likely to happen and likely to be happy, like a reunion with a friend or – appropriately to the season – waiting for Christmas. That’s when the waiting can be as much fun as the event itself. That’s when preparing for what’s to come can be a joyful thing: joyful and life-giving and healing. So we’re preparing for Christmas, which is what Advent is for. Of course it’s going to be different this year. Everything is different this year.
But there’s Christmas and then there’s Christmas. There’s the Christmas that’s the linchpin of the so-called Holiday Season, the secular juggernaut that flattens everything in its path, the perfect storm of shopping and lights and spending and tinsel and shopping and yard displays – there’s that Christmas. Then there’s the real Christmas, the celebration of the Nativity and the feast of the Incarnation. You have to prepare for both of them – as you wait.
Waiting is rarely passive. Neither is it hopeless. Neither is it associated with despair. Those who have fallen into despair do not wait for anything – there is nothing to wait for, and they have no expectations that things will ever be different.
There’s a lot of waiting these days. There’s a lot to wait for. We’re waiting for the pandemic to end – even as we do the things that we know will not only save lives but make life a little easier for those who work in health care. And, truth be told, a lot of us are waiting for that day in January when a long nightmare will end and there will appear a new way forward; when we’ll be able to address as a nation some of the very issues that have come to define us: the rights of women, racial justice, economic justice, immigration, climate change. So we wait, and we wait in hope.
You wait for justice. You do the things that make justice more likely. That’s how waiting and hoping fit together. Think of the Black Americans who wait for justice. Never hopeless. Never passive. Like so many other Americans, Black Americans turned out to vote in record numbers – as an expression of hope. Black American votes made a difference everywhere and made all the difference in places like Georgia – even as other Americans, to their shame, worked hard to effectively disenfranchise Black Americans with false and groundless assertions of election fraud. Ironic in a system that has defrauded Americans of color for centuries.
Hopeful waiting has never been passive. Never have Black Americans surrendered to passivity. Certainly not during the centuries when slavery was the law of the land in the so-called land of the free. That’s not something I learned as a child. I was taught that the men, women and children caught up in slavery were passive and docile. They weren’t. That’s what the whips and chains were for. That’s what the overseers and the patrols and the jails and the militias were for. For four hundred years Black Americans both enslaved and free have asserted their human dignity and their moral agency at every turn, chipping away with honor and purpose at this country’s massive edifice of state-sponsored terrorism. And then as now, in a society that continues to say that the lives and dreams and aspirations of some Americans don’t matter, every assertion of human dignity is an act of righteous rebellion.
We do not wait as those who have no hope. In fact we are called to be hopeful and to encourage others to hope. Because every calling is also a challenge, hope is a choice – we choose to be hopeful. We choose to read the signs of the times. We choose to remain alert and awake. We don’t have to. We can even allow ourselves to become – God forbid – part of the problem. I don’t want that and I know you don’t either – not for any one of us, not for this parish community, and not for this Church. The God we worship and uphold charges us to be part of the solution: to be alert and watchful, to name things for what they are, to read and understand the signs of the times, and to watch for the signs of that which is to come. We choose to be what we’re called to be: Signs of the very things we wait for and part of that which is to come.
Some say that Christian hope is hope where there hope seems impossible – at least impossible in terms the world understands. It’s a powerful thing, to believe – and not just to believe but to understand – that God can, wants to, and will bring the entirety of creation to redemption. It’s a powerful thing to affirm in word and deed that God will take what is fallen and broken and make it healthy and whole.
The power of hope resides in people who hope. Which means the People of God: Religious sisters and nuns and bishops and religious brothers and priests – and you. Especially you. As Pope Francis has pointed out so frequently, the Church is not a private club – it’s for you. You, sitting there in the pews, are the ones who will carry this ancient enterprise forward into brighter days.
And you have what you need. Brothers and sisters, “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Talk about words of power. Please – take those words to heart; let them live in you. It’s all there. Love and friendship have always been there. Generosity, listening, courage and compassion are no less powerful now than when they first came into being. And the arc of the moral universe may be long, but it tends toward justice. And always will.
And so as we head into Advent, let us wait with hope. Let us trust in what is to come. And as we wait and trust, let us choose to be signs of hope, love, and redemption, together. And praise God.