Life today, perhaps more than ever, seems filled with waiting. We wait for the train or bus or plane to arrive, or the taxi or ride-share to show up. We wait for storms to pass. Children wait excitedly for the moment they can open their gifts or the new puppy appears. Prisoners wait for release, sometimes for many years. We wait for news about our loved ones who are sick or gone missing or serving abroad. Claimants wait for judicial decisions. Expectant parents wait for the birth of a child. The aged and weary wait to die.
Some wait in joyful hope, others in dreadful anticipation. And our readings today, this second Sunday of the Advent Season, the time of waiting, concern both. The
reading from Isaiah looks ahead to a glorious recreation of the peaceful garden that was God’s first gift to humankind and to the whole world, not only a place but also a time of harmony, gentleness, and joy. His vision of God’s holy mountain echoes and expands the promise found first in the prophet Hosea 2:18: “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety.”
But there is the other side of waiting, the dread anticipation that sums up many of the warnings of John the Baptist, the central figure in today’s gospel reading. John calls for a serious change of heart, “metanoia” (which literally means “changed mind”). Like Isaiah, whom he closely resembles, John looks to actual conduct, not just good intentions or lame promises. And for him, time is short. The wait is almost over.
And yet, here we are, almost two thousand years later, still waiting, still hoping, still trying to get it right. Fortunately for us, God’s patience has not run out, Nor should ours.
In the reading from Romans, St. Paul twice mentions patience, the virtue of trusting endurance that figures strikingly in the Book of Revelation, where it is mentioned seven times, the author’s pattern of significance. I am reminded here of the title of a classic book published some thirty-five years ago by an English spiritual writer, William H. Vanstone, titled The Stature of Waiting, which can still be found in used bookshops and on-line. Although the book focuses on the final period of Jesus’ life, as he waits for and patiently endures judgment and execution, it bears greatly on this ever-more-prominent feature of life in the present world, especially in regard to the sick and suffering, the homeless and hungry, refugees, and the victims of oppression and misfortune who long for safety, peace, and justice.
It isn’t surprising, then, that our Advent readings are all about waiting and yearning and longing. Isaiah, Paul, and Matthew all look ahead to the coming, the Advent, of the Kingdom of God — an era of peace, and even prosperity, but above all, of justice. What John especially is telling us, and this urgent message will be repeated often in the days to come, is to prepare ourselves, not by hoarding up presents for ourselves (which seems increasingly encouraged by advertisers) or even for others, much less by retreating from the struggle, but by actively and patiently restoring the natural and social world we have so mauled and battered. It can be done.
Christ asks us to put our money where our hearts should be — to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, support peacemakers, assist the poor, especially those who are aged and ill. Restoring the integrity of Creation, healing the earth itself, restoring our bond with “the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground,” must now be a part of that mission also, as Pope Francis has reminded us. But helping to close the terrible and still-growing economic chasm between the very rich and the very poor will especially foster the surpassing harmony among humankind that Isaiah and Paul so longed for. Cultivating that kind of generosity and care will make Christmas truly matter. And then we can give gifts with a full heart and receive them with grace, not to redeem the economy, but to express the joy of salvation. In Paul’s language, “May God, the source of all patience and encouragement, enable you to live in perfect harmony with one another according to the Spirit of Jesus Christ.”