We ask children what they’re hoping to get for Christmas and we smile at the delicious torture of delayed gratification, their palpable urge to rip the paper off the packages. Or we nod knowingly at the friend who has some ambivalence about going home for the holidays, remembering the awkward conversations around the dinner table that marked the transition from childhood to adulthood. These waitings that have defined beginnings and endings. You can count down to Christmas one day at a time as you open the doors of the Advent calendar. You can look ahead to New Year’s Eve as a tonic for the intensity of the Christmas reunion.
But what happens when there is no end in sight to the waiting that defines us? When your heart aches for a companion. When your body yearns to be touched. When the dreams you held for your future seem further away with each passing year. When the one you love — a parent, a spouse, a child, a sibling, a friend — is lost to death, or divorce, or disagreement. When illness becomes the single fact defining a life. When darkness seems truer than light.
There is waiting, and then there is waiting. There is anticipation, and then there is despair — the name we give to our fear of the future when we cannot imagine it could be any different from our present.
Our Advent vigil is filled with the stories of those who have known the second kind of waiting. Old Zechariah and Elizabeth, waiting year after year for the child that never came. Young Mary, waiting for an end to the tyranny of a violent empire. Loyal Joseph, waiting for the answer to an impossible situation. God’s people, waiting for a way forward when no way was in sight.
The endings to their stories are so familiar to us, it’s difficult to allow our imaginations the space they need to fully flesh out the depths of their despair, the totality of their anxiety. We know how their stories resolve. We don’t know how our stories resolve.
Consistently, however, the first words spoken by prophets and angels are “fear not!” Why is that? What is the use of telling people to be unafraid of the things that rightly terrify us to death? Modern science can describe with great precision what ancient wisdom could plainly see: when we are afraid, our natural response is to fight or to flee. It’s an adaptive response, incredibly useful when confronted with a predator, an immediate danger. It’s less useful when the threat is more abstract — an attack on our dreams, our beliefs, our values, our identities.
In moments like these, when neither fighting nor fleeing can remove the things that terrify us, we need a different response. We need faith. We need stories of times when dreams deferred were finally realized. When corrupt powers shattered in the face of undeniable truth. When moments of inspiration provided solutions to intractable problems. When a way forward opened up. We need a story bigger than ourselves, but told on a human-scale, a story we can fit our own lives inside.
And we need prophets, we need angels, we need messengers who will interrupt the story running roughshod over our fragile hope, lights in the darkness that contradict the persistent voice of despair that has made its home in our hearts. We need each other.
I don’t know what each of you is waiting for, or what kind of waiting you’re in the middle of tonight, the eve of the longest night. I don’t know if you’re waiting, or if you’re waiting. I do know that each of you knows what it’s like to be afraid, to wonder if your life, if the world, could ever feel new again. And I know that you are people of deep faith, people who have seen God raise people and places left for dead to new life. You, no less than Zechariah, or Mary, or Joseph, know that God’s life is wrapped up in your life and vice versa.
But if you have forgotten that, or if it’s simply too painful to keep hoping for something that seems forever away, then I have only one request of you this evening. Please let us hold on to that hope for you. Let us wait with you on this longest night for the light that is surely coming.