This year feels significant — it has my attention. I turned 39 in November, the last birthday in a decade marked by several years of suffering, painful blows to my health. Other years have been marked by healing and deliverance. I flip backwards through layers of my memory and wince at some images and smile at others. I’ve also been pondering the hardships, and blessings, of two of my heroines: Flannery O’Connor, who died of lupus at age 39, and my grandmother, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 39 when she was pregnant with my uncle. I don’t expect anything quite so traumatic to happen this year. I actually expect, in true hope, to feel well and to thrive. But that word — expect. It involves waiting. It seems like all I ever do is wait, especially in regards to my health. I’ve come to believe that the theme of my life is waiting. Or at least the theme of my thirties. The thing is, I do not wait well. Patience is not my virtue.
Even so, I have one more year in this decade to try my hand at the art of waiting — my 39th year of life, and now, a new year in the Christian calendar which begins with Advent. I love this liturgical season that cries out through every gray day sky and silent night, Come, Thou, long expected Jesus. Though He has come as an infant, we wait for His return that one fine day. It occurred to me that as I’ve observed Advent during this decade, its traditions have tried to teach me how to wait well. Sadly, I must confess that I’ve been disappointed during many Advent seasons. My eyes were focused on other comforts — not Jesus. I wasn’t satisfied with waiting for His arrival. But whether or not I waited as I should have, He waited on me. And He still waits here in the middle of Advent.
My perfectionist personality type is such that I want to be able to proclaim: I’ve mastered the spiritual lessons of Advent! My eyes are not weary with waiting for my unwavering focus is on Christ. I am content with the present and I’ve discarded my deepest expectations. Thus far during Advent, these statements are true some days. Other days, not so much. But on one of the recent difficult days, it dawned on me that I will never master the spiritual lessons of Advent, and that’s not even the point of this season. These four Sundays and weeks proceeding the 12 days of Christmastide are about waiting, yes — waiting to celebrate the birth of our Savior, and waiting to celebrate the fact that He will come again and make all things new, and banish every root of our tears. And waiting involves learning, and learning takes time, relative to each person. God created me to be slow in nature — I read voraciously but slowly; my body heals slowly; and though I eventually “get it,” I learn slowly.
Today the wind whispers and wisps through our pine trees and around the red brick corners of our house. I sit in my rocking chair under a white paper lantern and truly believe there is grace in the learning and the waiting — there is even grace in my earnest, imperfect attempts to glean wisdom and focus from this watchful season. I take a sip of tea, look out the window, and reflect on what I’m learning during Advent this year. It feels important to try and live differently than years past, at least with attention to the arts of learning and waiting.
I am learning to believe God’s promises no matter what I see or don’t see. This has been a year in which He has given me many promises through my prayers — dreams, even. He has illumined the great promises written in the thin, delicate pages of His word. Advent is a season of time set apart to intentionally practice my belief in His promises. It is a space to exercise my faith, and we all know faith doesn’t always involve visibility or identification of our longings fulfilled. I empathize with my forbears in Israel who received glorious prophecies about the Messiah, and how frustrating it must have been to wait on God’s promises to come in the flesh. And wait. And wait. Many generations of Israelites died with a faith in their Maker’s promises that I can only dream of learning. Some of these Adventine nights all I can do is rest in an armchair and gaze at our white Christmas tree lights as if they were stars in the sky come to hang in our living room. I think of God’s promise to elderly Abraham of descendants greater in number than stars in the sky and grains of sand on the shore. I think of the sea of stars above the shepherds’ heads that glorious night when the angels peeled back the sky to proclaim the birth of the long awaited Messiah.
Hark the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”
I am learning to let my heart take courage as I wait on the Lord. There is not one, but two Psalms (27 and 31) which say exactly that — “let your heart take courage” — in regards to waiting on the Lord. Those Psalms also encourage me to be strong in this waiting and allowing my heart to be courageous. During Advent this has been a quiet kind of strength for me. I set a reminder on my iPhone with a quote by Anne Lamott: “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” When this alert pops up on my phone and laptop, I take a long walk around our neighborhood. Two days ago I neared a spindly tree and a hawk perched on one of its fragile branches looking straight at me. I stopped and stared right back. I wondered if this was the same hawk that feasted on a poor, small bird on our lawn as I pulled into the driveway last month. That hawk stared at me, too, with all of its startling beauty. But in both scenarios, I won the staring contest as the hawk flew away in a breathtaking soar.
The quiet strength that I can muster this season involves walking, and walking away. I’ll be sitting and reading or writing and some pesky fear will flit around my thoughts. I walk away from that place in our home and make a cup of tea. I bend over and touch the ground with my palms to stretch my back, stand up and look out a window to assess the weather, and say a prayer for courage, for peace. I’ll do a load of laundry, asking the Lord to clothe me with Himself. I take another walk and pray for anyone other than myself. I do as a festive, red and green glitter-laden decoration on our fireplace mantel says: “Keep Calm and Be Merry.” Or I do as the famous British wartime exhortation said — I “keep calm and carry on” with the matters of my life. Fear can paralyze me, but Jesus, whom I wait upon during Advent, walks with me, giving me courage and His strength. I take yet another walk and He speaks through a neighbor’s lawn decoration, Peace.
I am learning to focus my weary eyes on the glimmers of light that drive out the darkness. The truth is, “ . . . when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me (Micah 7:8).” I’m heartened by sunlight flirting from behind gloomy winter clouds; small flames gently swaying from the tops of purple and ink taper candles in our Advent wreath; soft, low lights in our bedroom while I work. I plug in the white Christmas tree lights every morning, especially when the sky is gray. I ask my husband to start a fire in our fireplace which crackles with comfort and warmth. I admire our neighbor’s elegant white-lit wire Christmas trees on their front lawn which I can see through a kitchen window as I rinse dishes. I give thanks for light, for electricity, for fire, for eyes to see — I give thanks to the Lord who is my light and my salvation. I recall an old favorite song, “July,” by The Innocence Mission:
The world at night has seen the greatest light: too much light to deny . . .
I am learning to sincerely thank God for each day that He makes with my first waking thoughts, which is a great feat before coffee. But with Him, all things are possible. En route to plug in the Christmas tree lights and turn on the blessed coffee maker, I hang that day’s little wooden piece on our Nativity Advent calendar. I take note of which piece marks the day — a shepherd, a drummer boy, a woman carrying empty water vessels, a boy carrying a sheep, an angel. I give thanks that the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. I give thanks for my sweet drummer husband. I give thanks for clean water, and for Jesus, the Living Water — I shall never thirst. I ask the Lord to speak to me, for I am His sheep and I hear His voice. I am trying my darndest to carry the spirit of thanksgiving throughout the day, and thank Him again as I lay my head on the pillow at night. I am trying to dwell in gratitude. To say Thank You when things are hard, and when they are not so hard.
I am learning to take note of what is beautiful and worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness — a cloud of incense hovering above the wooden altar at Church; crimson autumn leaves set against the concrete sidewalk; golden leaves dangling from white sycamore branches; the ruby-jewel hue of cranberry juice in my mother-in-law’s mocktail. I hold up a clementine slice to the natural light to see the orange flesh glow.
I am learning to rest in the Lord even when I don’t sleep well, or when my body doesn’t feel well. I practice being still physically, and also in my soul. I pray, without ceasing some days if I’m lucky. I read something nourishing — good books, and favorite passages in Isaiah or the Psalms. I eat something nourishing, which reminds me that the people in my life and in my path crave nourishment from my words, from my smile, from my hands. Lord, help me to nourish others, I pray.
I am learning to sing and laugh into the darkness, for we have seen a great Light. I sing along with Sufjan’s quirky and beautiful Christmas music. I sing Advent hymns as we celebrate and worship every Sunday at our Church, and as we carry our worship home. We light another candle on our small Advent wreath and I meditate on peace, hope, joy, and love — I pray to embody these virtues of Christ. We decorate our Christmas tree gradually to match the rhythms of Advent — only white lights the first Sunday; purple ornaments to symbolize Christ’s royalty and our repentance the second Sunday; silver ornaments to symbolize the riches of God’s Kingdom and purity the third Sunday, and our star ornaments to symbolize the angels and the Bethlehem star the fourth Sunday. On Christmas Eve, we hang our eclectic array of ornaments collected during childhood and our marriage. I perch a tiny sock monkey on one of the tree branches for the sake of pure mirth. Then my husband places a Pantocrator icon on top of the tree, we light the white Christ candle in the middle of the Advent wreath, and welcome our King. Then finally we break our Advent fast, feasting with family over mulled wine, my brother’s sangria, and tamales.
I look forward to the Christmas festivities and gifts soon to come, but as of today, it is still Advent. I am still waiting. I am still learning how to wait. Thankfully, in this very moment, my heart is at peace as I type and sip vanilla holy basil tea. There’s quite the late afternoon sunlight show on our bedroom wall. Our cat Milo is curled up under the bedcovers, making contented, sleepy sounds now and then. I am tired, too. I have closed my eyes often today to rest a moment and to pray. And I have heard a still, small Voice say, You are always waiting on Me, no matter what else you think you’re waiting for.
As Father Thomas McKenzie said in his wonderful Advent devotional, The Harpooner, “one day, one of these Advents will be the last one.” May Advent teach us the art of waiting all the days of our earthly lives. Come, Lord Jesus, with healing in Your wings.