Waiting and Hope

Advent stretches over the four Sundays before Christmas, but in 1998 I began thinking Advent thoughts in late summer. Perhaps it was the presence of economists everywhere commenting on the financial collapses in Asia and Russia and giving their oracles of doom and deliverance for the rest of the world. Perhaps it was the day that the newspaper Metro section had no less than three reports of sexually abused children (including a case where a mother "rented" her daughter to a child molester to fund her drug habit).

Whatever the immediate cause, I began to long for tidings of great joy; I began to think about hope and dread and security and deliverance. I began to think about waiting, and what it is, really, that any of us wait for.

These are Advent thoughts, for Advent is marked by tension—tension between uncertainty and hope, fear and longing, the now and not-yet of God's promises. It is a time of penitential preparation for the birth of Christ. It is a dangerous time for the faithful, because it calls us to examine the end and the beginning of our faith.

Fittingly, the lectionary passages for this season are as much about judgment as about reassurance. Christmas may inevitably bring sentimental soft-focus scenes of mother and infant, but the scriptures for Advent make clear that such a scene is merely the eye of a hurricane. It is a mistake to think that just because God comes as a helpless child the effects of incarnation will be small and manageable, contained. During Advent, the words of the prophets—from Isaiah to John the Baptist—are foretelling change, potentially cataclysmic, at all levels: personal, political, cosmic. Why do we think that God being with us will make the ride less wild?

The prophets might be economists without the graphs and charts: Kingdoms will fall under the weight of their own corruption and lack of wisdom. Of course the prophets differ from many economists in that they do not place the burden of structural (and spiritual) readjustment on the debtor nations, but on the nations who flaunt their wealth and preen over their power and leave their children to the wolves.

WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR? The answer depends a lot on where you are and where you look for it. "We should read the financial news like we read the police reports—international economic conditions will affect us," a commentator on a radio show recently intoned. Everything from a mere short-term market dip to ominous murmurings of recession or even depression have been predicted in the future for the affluent West. A vague, anxious expectancy skitters around the edges of our media consciousness: What will happen to us? many ask in America. To our retirement funds and our stock portfolios?

Of course those who are struggling to survive, here or elsewhere, don't have time or energy for vague anxiety; the mundane terrors of the everyday are clear and concrete. In several Asian countries, the child sex trade has already increased, as families sell their children to buy food. In Jakarta, Indonesia, families live in garbage dumps, picking through the retch-inducing piles for scraps of plastic to sell and scraps of food to eat. Those children wait (if hope lives in them still) for bodily, utterly incarnated deliverance from suffering.

This is a key part of the good news that Advent prepares us to receive: The sovereign God of the universe came down, if you will, from a throne of remove to walk as a human being among a people poor and oppressed. God shared—and shares—the worst of human pain and tastes the depth of human despair. Good news that couldn't withstand the choking fumes of a garbage heap or that turned away from the child in Thailand (or Maryland) who is defiled and exploited for someone else's pleasure and profit wouldn't be good news at all.

In Christ we are not connected to international economic conditions when our stocks fall. In Christ we are connected when in the power of the Spirit (it takes nothing less) we do not turn away from human suffering in helplessness or cynicism.

The power of the universe became a babe in arms, not to teach us about the sweetness of love (although that is real too), but to teach us about its vulnerability and tangible expression and practical demands; and to teach us that on such as this, kingdoms are built. In a child, any child, the wealth and righteousness of a society, a nation, a world can be read. This isn't fuzzy sentimentality; this is the law of the universe and the word of the prophets.

What are we waiting for? For the one who has come and comes again, the child who leads us. For the living paradox of incarnation: That in Christ, hearts opened up to suffering are also opened up to joy. That in Christ, we draw closer to God not by removing ourselves from the world, but through deeper immersion in it.

Julie Polter is an associate editor at Sojourners.

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