Here we are, almost in the fourth week of Advent already, and Christmas is just around the corner. Does it feel like you’ve been waiting a long time or does it seem to have gone by too quickly, left with little time to prepare? As I think about what the Advent season means to me, a season I never paid all that much attention to, I’ve been delving into the idea of holy waiting. This is a concept that my country coordinator, Rev. Tessa Moon Leiseth, brought up to all ten of the South Africa YAGMs scattered around the country when the season began. We wait for so many things in our daily lives as well as over long periods of time. We wait in line to get coffee at a café; we wait for our friends and family members to be ready to go; we wait for test results; we wait for the baby to come; we wait. Sometimes this makes us impatient where we just want it to happen already. Other times it makes us anxious, the closer the ‘happening’ is the more nervous we get. In this Advent season, there is certainly a mix of feelings along these lines. We just want Christmas to come already or we don’t feel ready for it.
In the Advent season, we are waiting for the birth of Jesus, the coming of God to live as flesh among us. We are urged to prepare our minds, our hearts, our spirits for the coming of God with us, Emmanuel (Nkosi nathi). This is holy waiting, the period of preparation before something happens. But really, what can we actually do to prepare ourselves for this momentous occasion or for any occasion for that matter? Can we prepare ourselves for the coming of a baby: the embodiment of God or simply the birth of a first-born? Can we prepare our hearts and minds for the way we will be fed both bodily and spiritually by strangers who welcome us in? The answer is, truly, no. We can prepare and prepare but we can never be ready. This is holy waiting.
We wait for the unknown. We make plans and build up expectations for something we cannot prepare for or predict. Our expectations are often shattered, leaving us in a place we didn’t prepare for and we don’t understand. At orientation in Chicago for all of the Young Adults in Global Mission, we were told to have as little expectations as possible, allowing ourselves room to absorb and wonder. Again, once the ten of us got to Johannesburg and in-country orientation, still waiting to live in our communities, it was emphasized to shed our expectations. We all tried in vain to do this, but of course many expectations still remained. So many of the expectations that I didn’t even realize that I had about coming here have been totally broken, some of which seemed like disappointments at first, some a pleasant surprise, and some perplexing realities. However, during that period of waiting we all had before going into our communities, we all built up expectations and made plans. We all engaged in active waiting because we couldn’t just count down the days passively, checking our watches as we went. We had to prepare our hearts and minds for the journey to come, we couldn’t just idle until the main event. It was our Advent, our period of holy waiting.
Some days in South Africa I feel as though I am in a perpetual state of waiting. I wait at the office at the Centre for something to do, some task to take on; I wait to catch a glimpse of understanding about a conversation I don’t have the language skills to follow; I wait for someone to pick me up to go to a church event, not quite sure when they’ll arrive; I wait for a kombi (a shared taxi van, meant for 15 passengers, often filled with more than 15) to fill up so we can head out on our way; I wait for enough people to get to church so the service can start; I wait. As I’ve now been here for almost 4 months, I’ve mostly gotten used to how time works here. Some days I still feel very American when it comes to time, but I’ve grown accustomed to waiting and the fluidity of time and have learned how to use the time to read or chat with the people around me.
In these 4 months I’ve begun to figure out that some truly beautiful things can happen while waiting for something else to happen. Several months ago, for instance, I waited in a taxi for several hours and had a fascinating conversation with a man who asked me all kinds of wild questions about America. Last weekend, I attended a youth conference (like a regional youth gathering) in Eshowe, five hours from where I’m staying in Estcourt. A group of us were waiting in our shared room for lunch to be ready. One girl I was spending time with, Sindi, suggested we go outside and wait because then we could sing songs instead of just sitting in the room. We went out to where a line was forming, and sure enough there was enthusiastic singing and dancing; not an unlikely scene in South Africa it seems, but it struck me that day: the waiting can be the best part.
And this is what holy waiting is all about. Really, the waiting is what happens, the main event. That’s where the good stuff is. We are constantly in a state of waiting, preparing for what is to come in the future. There is no end to this, never a destination we reach where we will wait no more. But the waiting and the arrival are one in the same. As we practice holy waiting, we are building our relationships and ourselves, and preparing for the future of more building, preparing, and of course, waiting; it is the fulfillment of life before the future and it is the future itself. In this year, I will look for the beauty in the waiting, knowing that what I’m waiting for is what is already happening all around me.
As this Advent season is almost at a close, I am thinking a lot about Christmas and I feel as though in the past maybe I’ve missed what the season is all about; it is about holy waiting. The word Advent comes from the Latin word Adventus, which translates as arrival and comes from the roots: “ad” meaning “to” and “venire” meaning “come.” This period of time in the Church calendar meant for preparation and waiting for Christmas to come really is the arrival itself. We wait and we arrive, all in the same moment. Advent itself is the arrival, the coming, and the becoming that we all participate in every moment of our lives. Right now is our Advent, and it always will be.