The Psalmist frequently cries “How long?” or some other similar refrain which implies impatience with the way things are. At the same time they lay the blame with squarely with God. The reason I am reflecting on this terse refrain is that I have been somewhat impatient today, albeit not in an appropriate psalm-like manner. Impatience directed at others is not prayer nor is it rooted in faith. I am in danger, and I imagine I am not alone, of being quicker to buy into the impatience of consumerism rather than the spirit of the psalmist.
In the Western world of the twenty-first century, our individualism, relative wealth and cultural expectations can make us singly impatient. We can at a moment buy more variety of food, gadgets, clothes and luxuries than would have seemed imaginable even a few decades ago. This issue is especially acute at Christmas where we struggle to find gifts for those we love because so often there is very little actual need of anything material. We resort to luxuries quickly consumed, atomised or drunk. Or we resort to browsing a ‘wish list’ to find something we do not even understand as a gift. Perhaps, even more pointlessly, we might exchange gift vouchers with someone, hoping we have guessed the amount we will receive, so as to match what we will be given. I fear I am sounding like I am having a mid-life crisis or becoming an ally of Scrooge. I hope, however, that I am highlighting something that we literally buy into with all too little thought. I confess I partake of these conventions as both giver and receiver. Breaking the cycle can take one beyond echoing Scrooge to being renamed as such. And in a sense I am not even advocating even this, but pointing to the bigger issue of losing sight of the meaning of Christmas.
The abundance we experience can lessen any sense of anticipation of Christmas Day. And surely this was part of the point of Christmas? — Gifts remind us of the greatest of gifts, and anticipation of good things is a reminder of the necessity and value of waiting. The biblical concepts of Faith and Trust only make sense, and can only be honed, by waiting. Our faith is just as much about waiting as fulfillment. Abraham certainly learnt this, as did Israel in her long wait for a Messiah. Even for those of us who know the risen Christ the wait is not over. The Spirit is a down payment for both a salvation and a re-creation; a denouement that all of creation yearns for and groans for in expectation.
All of this makes the idea of Advent far more important than a singular day. In cultivating expectation and patient waiting we are reminded of our pilgrim status. Advent’s waiting also coheres with the unfashionable concept of discipleship. To await the Christ Child requires time and space; in other words discipline. The twin poles of pilgrimage and discipleship sound passé and perhaps Dickensian to a consumerist Christianity which can be as impatient for the latest album, fad or programme as the rest of our culture.
What is perhaps puzzling is that the necessary slowness of waiting is actually desirable and attractive to anyone in our culture, even to those that do not own the gospel. In an age of surplus, a slowing down to wait rather than gain is itself good news. If we can learn to be more visible in our pilgrimage and more transparent in our discipline, then we might find a local incarnation occurs as we celebrate the Incarnation.
Of course waiting does not end on the 25th December. Advent might crystallise and remind us of the patient waiting of the Psalmist and other men and women of faith. But the Psalmist and the Psalter in turn remind us that the Life of Faith is about pilgrimage and the need for discipline along the way. This side of the birth of the Messiah, the key change is that the refrain of “How Long?” has evolved into words of the same meaning but which carry greater weight and longing. Maranatha.