Imagine entering a room and finding a beautifully wrapped present on a table. Attached to the present is a label that reads: “This present is for you but don’t open it now . . . wait.”
An instruction like this might evoke a wide range of emotions, but probably the two most common would be a sense of indignation or frustration and/or a tingle of anticipation. Depending on who we are, we might feel just one emotion—entirely irritated or completely intrigued—but I, at least, would have a complex combination of the two: irritation tinged with anticipation or eagerness laced with frustration.
In reality, I wonder how many of us would obey the command to wait. Waiting is not something most of us do easily. Our frustrations at waiting begin at an early age and are hard to outgrow. When I tell my own children to wait, and see on their faces that familiar expression that borders on emotional agony, I recognize it, not so much because I remember feeling that way when I was their age—although I do—but because I still feel that way now and am less able to express it quite so openly.
Antipathy to waiting is exacerbated, if not encouraged, by the world in which we live. All around us we encounter, day after day, the encouragement not to wait but to have what we want now. Our credit-driven society urges us to abandon all thought of waiting and to buy now; so many advertisements have as their underlying message “why wait?” Improvements in communication only erode the notion of waiting further. We are told that people feel aggrieved if they have to wait for more than twenty-four hours to receive a reply from an e-mail, and mobile phones help us to be available even when we are away from home. Waiting is increasingly a strange notion. We have become accustomed to immediacy and swift action.
Given all of this, it seems almost ludicrous that the church should have Advent, four weeks dedicated to waiting. Is this not the church, yet again, looking backward to bygone days, to ideas irrelevant to our society, out of touch and out of date? Would it not be a better idea to abandon Advent altogether? There are some who would argue that in effect we have already done so. Barely a year goes by without people telling stories of the time when Advent really was Advent: when Christmas trees were set up on Christmas Eve and not before; when Christmas carols were, likewise, sung on Christmas Eve and for the following days of Christmas—and not in November. When this happened, we are told, Advent could be properly Advent and Christmas, Christmas; and we weren’t all fed up with Christmas by the twenty-fifth of December.
What seems to have happened is that the tingle of anticipation, that looking forward to Christmas brings, has encouraged us to “anticipate” Christmas in another sense, not in the sense of “look forward to” but in the sense of “bringing it forward and beginning celebrations early.” This is certainly true in shops where, as people often observe, Christmas decorations seem to appear earlier and earlier every year so that we have barely returned from our summer holidays when we are entangled in yards of tinsel. Preparation for Christmas means, for many people, beginning Christmas early. I was amazed last year to find a box of mince pies in a supermarket in September, with a consume-by date of the end of October. Not only were we to buy our mince pies early, we were to eat them early too.
Coming soon for Lent: