The Gift is in the Waiting

  • Posted on Jan 19, 2017

The spiritual lesson of Advent is waiting.


“The season of Advent usually begins with an eschatological text–a text about the end of the world– as a way of framing Advent as the end of an old order and the birth of a new era.”


There are many endings and beginnings in our lives.

And in between those endings and beginnings, there are often periods of waiting.

The time of “not yet”


In the late 1700s there lived a famous Hasidic Rabbi known as Rebbe Nachman of Breslow.

Rebbe Nachman was born in 1772, in the Ukrainian village of Medzeboz.

He was the great-grandson of the great Rabbi, Israel Baal Shem Tov who was the founder of the Hasidic movement of Judaism.

Rebbe Nachman, like his great-grandfather before him, was known as a man of great saintliness and wisdom.

Moreover, Rebbe Nachman lives at a significant point of history.

His lifetime spanned the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution and the French Revolution.  Great thinkers and artists lived during his lifetime such as Goethe, Kant, Byron, Beethoven and Mozart.

The time in which he lived was a time of shifting worldviews.

In fact, Rebbe Nachman put his finger on the pulse of the dawning age of his time and said:  “I’ll tell you a secret.  Great atheism is coming into the world.”



One of Rebbe Nachman’s famous sayings captures the leap of humankind into the modern and post-modern age.


It goes like this:


As Rebbe Nachman and his students sat around a table one day, Rebbe Nachman asked his students:


“Is the chair you are sitting on empty?”

The students looked at one another–thinking their beloved rabbi was out of his mind that day.

One student finally said:  “Rebbe Nachman, with all great love and respect, that is RIDICULOUS!  How could that be?  WE–each one of us–is sitting in our chair!”

Rebbe Nachman smiled his wise smile and let the students agree with one another—it was a ridiculous question.

Finally, Rebbe Nachman said:  “My dear friends, you may physically be sitting in your chair; but it is possible for a person sitting on a chair to FEEL EMPTY.  Then, the chair is empty–even when occupied.”


This sense of human inner emptyness–that we all feel from time to time—became an idea that is front and center in the modern age.

In philosophy and theology, this emptyness has two faces.

First, the face of what is called existenitialism–of writers Camus and Satre and Neitzche–and it is passive and resigned acknowledgment of the futility of life, a life in which we wait for death.

We often feel this kind of emptiness when we are in a place of grief, a place of waiting for an illness to end or suffering to be alleviated.

But there is another kind of emptiness–a creative emptiness that is of a different sort of waiting altogether.

This kind of waiting is the waiting of Mary.

When you are expecting a child, the only thing to do is wait.

We do not want our unborn child to come to early.

The waiting an active internal waiting that knits together new life.

This kind of waiting is a profoundly creative act.

That is Advent waiting.


But how to we get fro the empty waiting of loss and grief to the creative waiting of new life?


I’m wondering if our National Holiday of Thanksgiving might actually give us a clue.

The holiday of Thanksgiving became truly engrained in the American psyche and tradition during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.

Although the fourth Thursday of November was set aside by George Washington as a day to give thanks, the importance of Thanksgiving in our national life did not happen until the Civil War.

It was in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln gave what would be the First Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation, he gave it in what must have seemed like the end times to many in our country.


In a year in which 27% of the Union fighting men and 37% of the Confederate army were killed during the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving proclamation in which he wrote “the year that is drawing to a close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”


In a year in which death, suffering and grief were ever present, he spoke as a President of an entire nation and made no references to victories or losses or rebels or enemies, but instead wrote of the nation remaining at peace with foreign countries, of expanding borders, of a growing population and farms, industries and mines producing resources to feed and care for the people of this land.  Lincoln called on “the whole American people” to celebrate Thanksgiving “with one heart and one voice.”


It was as if Lincoln was channeling the prophet Isaiah and asking Americans to beat their swords and spears and bayonets of war into plowshares, pruning hooks and hoes.


Lincoln saw the new possibility in the midst of the ending of the old.

He could wait through this cataclysmic ending for the new America.

He could wait for the end of the war–an active waiting, a creative waiting.

With a new kind of peace, a new kind of freedom on the horizon.

Not here yet, not knowing when, but not too far away.


Meg Cox, in her “The Book of New Family Traditions,” writes that sometimes a family’s most cherished holiday tradition is born from the perserverence of their ancestors in a time of upheaval and grief.


For example, some families had forebears made it through the Great Depression and Dust Bowl on a diet of turnips from their parched land.

Decades later, the dish at the center of their family’s Thanksgiving table is mashed turnips, now lavish with butter that a more affluent generation can afford.

But those turnips are more than a companion to turkey, stuffing and such.

They are a symbol of gratitude for the sacrifice, suffering and active waiting that paved the way to better times.


Waiting for the future means somehow transforming the present with the lessons from the past.

Learning to wait also means learning the time-honored traditions of our ancestors that help us wait.

Our Scripture is filled with stories of people who learn to wait.

Abraham and Sarah–who in old age had a child.

Moses–for the promised land.

Mary–for her newborn son to be called Jesus.

The women waiting at the tomb.


And so, we too, know that we can wait.

And while we wait, we are not sustained by turnips on Thanksgiving, but by something even more sustaining.

We come together–we go to the house of the Lord—and in all our moments–the waiting for a birth, the waiting for a healing, the waiting for a death, the waiting for forgiveness and reconciliation, the waiting in the emptyness—we learn a new way to wait.

We wait nourished by the bread and wine–the symbols of Christ’s suffering–to live creatively in the present for the future to come.


And we learn in this practice of regular Eucharist, that it is as the poet R.S. Thomas said:


“That the meaning of our lives is often in the waiting.”


For without the waiting, new life can not be born.

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