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Time to wait — and to trust

22 December 2023

As Christmas arrives, Rachel Mann reflects on the joy of Advent expectation


An Old Woman Reading, Probably the Prophetess Hannah (1631) by Rembrandt (1606-69) depicts Anna reading a Hebrew Bible

An Old Woman Reading, Probably the Prophetess Hannah (1631) by Rembrandt (1606-69) depicts Anna reading a Hebrew Bible

SOMEWHERE — sometimes deeply buried in the midst of the tinsel and sentiment, the excess and indulgence — lies the deep joy of Christmas.

I don’t mind admitting that, since losing my father on Christmas Day two years ago, I’ve struggled to find my way to that joy. None the less, the joy of Christmas waits to be found.

And, for me, somehow it is in the waiting for Christmas to arrive that I find my deepest joy in the Christ-child. If that sounds strange, so be it. As I wait patiently, I find my expectation grows; the promise is released in joy on Christmas Day.

Waiting for something, however, does not necessarily have positive implications. Indeed, the medieval Anglo-French word from which we get “waiting” — waitier — could mean to watch with hostile intent. The word was closely related to gaitier, to be on one’s guard, or lie in wait for an enemy. From the 14th century, to wait had implications of “ambush” and “trap”.

In our own time, we seem to be at risk of losing the positive power of waiting. Advent has become so overwhelmed by Christmas brought forward ever earlier into December, it barely registers as a season of prayerful restraint, attention, and watching. Even Advent calendars — which can offer helpful ways of focusing and waiting — have become, in our consumerist world, marked by indulgence; they often offer us (sometimes through a daily shot of gin or piece of cheese) a foretaste of secular ideas of Christmas feasting.

Those of us who follow Christ, however, are called to wait alertly and expectantly for his arrival among us. Certainly, for me, Christmas seems weightless without the waiting. It is in the watching and waiting for the arrival of Christ at Christmas that we find ourselves dwelling in the remarkable, pregnant, and holy space between the old world that is passing away and God’s new creation.

In Advent’s exquisite waiting, we have a foretaste of the Kingdom that is here and yet to come. Christina Rossetti’s line was “Love came down at Christmas”; I want to suggest that we savour this truth when we wait hopefully and expectantly; for all that the waiting can be frustrating, exhausting, and irritating — even for British people trained to wait in a queue — as we wait on, and for, Christ as Christmas approaches, we are called into a great gift from God.

IN HIS classic study of Jesus, The Stature of Waiting, W. H. Vanstone suggests that waiting, theologically, is a gift. It offers a way to dwell in love. To dwell in the stature of waiting is to trust in the dignity and freedom of another. It involves not seeking to pursue action at all times, but to let go of power.

Such loving restraint and hope entails humility, and a willingness to open ourselves to the prospect that we might not receive exactly what we hope for; we might be surprised by unexpected horizons of love, or we might be hurt, betrayed, or let down.

George Eliot’s great novel Middlemarch presents a classic example of this dynamic at work in human romance. The idealistic parson Camden Farebrother falls in love with blunt, strong-willed Mary Garth. Inexplicably, however, and yet very humanly, Mary prefers the essentially useless and feckless Fred Vincy.

Farebrother is left in the painful position — in the midst of his love, perhaps because of his love — of helping Fred to win Mary’s hand. Simply because Farebrother loves Mary, there is no guarantee that such love will be requited. As Vanstone reminds us in his book on God’s love, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, “Where the object of love is truly an ‘other,’ the activity of love is always precarious.”

The joy of Christmas lies, for me, in being invited to recognise this precarious but beautifully open and holy dynamic of love at play at a cosmic level. As we, God’s people, wait on the arrival of the Saviour in our midst, he also waits on us with expectant and generous love. He invites us to trust that God will come and provide for his people; that he will bring forth the New Creation.

Like Simeon or Anna, who waited long to see the Saviour, or like the Blessed Virgin Mary, who carried the long-expected promises of God’s salvation within her in the form of a baby, waiting is revealed to be a defining aspect of God’s way. Its stature has a divine warrant.

THE God who comes to greet us at Christmas is, as much as any of us, formed in and with the body of another. In the womb of Mary, Christ is woven into life. He is born as one of us, with nothing more than the power of a babe in arms; this power (if that is even the correct word) holds within it no means of compulsion.

All a baby can do is elicit a response. As we hold a newborn and look into their features, they call forth our love. Babies are utterly dependent and trusting beings; to survive, they must call forth love from those on whom they depend.

From the outset, they are in the hands of others who might reject, use, or abuse them. They reveal the precariousness of love. It is a token of God’s profound trust in the operation of love that Christ, as much as the rest of us, begins his life in dependency.

In Vanstone’s words, “Love proceeds by no assured programme.” The God who empties himself into Christ comes as one who will not impose himself on those whom he loves. He waits, but does not compel.

It should not surprise us that Christ came into the world as one who serves. A person who serves is also one who “waits upon”. Christ waits upon his people and upon the world. He does so without anxiety, or a need to prove himself. He is able to inhabit the stature of waiting because he does not need praise or affirmation. He simply shows us who God is and invites us to be and do likewise through him.

At Advent, we watch and wait with hope and expectation, but, most of all, with trust. God in Jesus Christ offers a love that has the form of gift — of self-giving, of a life lived freely for others — and, because it is gift, it does not demand or require reciprocity.

One may discover, however — as I and countless others have — that, in acknowledging and receiving the gift, one wants to make a response. Indeed, in Christ’s self-giving he reveals the likeness into which we are called.

Waiting is revealed to be a token of letting go, of refusing the temptation to seek control. In offering love, one trusts that that which is freely offered may as easily be refused. One might become that fool who waits and never receives even a glance. The servant Jesus Christ might not receive even a second glance from those whom he has come to love and serve.

Ultimately, the realm of Christ is not the realm of right belief, or even right practice. It is right relationship, and right relationship has the character of gift. As we proclaim him Messiah, Prince of Peace, King and Son of God, at Christmas, we respond to the abundance of God’s self-offering.

God makes of himself, in Jesus Christ, the greatest gift, which unpicks every tangled and damaged thread of the universe and rethreads it with the hope and promise of love and reconciliation.

The Ven. Rachel Mann is the Archdeacon of Bolton and Salford, in the diocese of Manchester.

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