If we can’t count on cold weather and snow this holiday season, one thing we can count on is that all of us will have many opportunities to wait. Checkout lines at the grocery are longer, more people flood the retail stores shopping for gifts and clogging the register, and in the Washington area we can always rely on traffic to slow us down.
Most of the time this feels like a waste of time, but there are ways this time can be redeemed. While we’re waiting is a good time for reflection, for longing and for praying, all of which is what the season in the Christian church year of Advent encourages us to do.
Many Christians are currently observing the season of Advent, these four weeks leading up to Christmas day, marking the birth of Jesus. It is a season of preparation for a celebration.
The English word advent is based on the Latin word for “coming” or “arrival.” In the Christian tradition, these weeks are used to reflect on the fulfillment of God’s promises to the Jewish people through Jesus Christ, as well as reminding and encouraging believers that Christ will come again, a “second coming” or “second Advent.” So Advent is a season of thanksgiving and hope at the same time. We remember and give thanks for what God has done and look forward in hope for what God will do.
And there are many places in the world where we hope that God will do something, and bring peace. In so many places right now we hope for and deeply want cease-fires and sustained peace, like this year in Israel and Palestine, Syria, Nigeria, South Sudan and a dozen other countries. Heavy on my mind and heart this year is the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I was there earlier this fall as part of a team with the Anglican Relief and Development Fund representing the board, meeting those who have suffered through its long-lasting wars and working with those who are trying to help. This region of Africa is often called the rape capitol of the world, and the country has experienced the deaths of more than five million people in the past 25 years due to wars and the devastating effect on its infrastructure and development. Our trip in October took us briefly through Goma, which just a few weeks later would experience a violent takeover by the rebel group M23 and more trauma than it’s already experienced. The towns of Butembo and Bukavu, where we also spent time, immediately became the destination for hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of whom remain there still.
Congo, Israel, Syria, the world–‘tis the season for longing for peace. In Bono’s words, “Heaven on Earth, we need it now // I’m sick of all of this hanging around // Sick of sorrow, sick of the pain // I’m sick of hearing again and again // That there’s gonna be peace on Earth // Hear it every Christmas time but hope and history won’t rhyme”.
At least hope and history doesn’t rhyme yet, which brings us back to the season of Advent and hoping for the day of Heaven on Earth. The words of the prophet are hopeful, we’re all waiting the time when “nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2.4) Meantime, we do what we can to work for peace. Sometimes that means actual work, or giving, and sometimes that can mean praying, and waiting creates space to do just that.
So I use the times when I’m forced to wait during the holiday season–in the checkout line, in traffic–to pray for the places in the world that make me long for peace, and this year especially Congo, and the people I met there, and organizations that are working there like World Relief. Inevitably praying for Congo leads to prayers for other parts and peoples in the world needing peace and prayers for those in government and aid agencies working to bring peace into being and helping those who suffer in the meantime.
We may not be able to speed up the person behind the register, or make the cars in front of us go any faster, but we can redeem the time of waiting so that it’s not just a frustrating exercise in futility. Using times of waiting though to bring our hopes to God and pray for peace seems to make the time go faster. Somehow it makes the season of waiting seem not quite so long.