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Slower than Christmas

Slower than Christmas

Waiting for promises to become realities

Advent starts early at my house, usually well before Thanksgiving. Some gray afternoon in fall, after the first icy weather blasts us unequivocally out of the bright half of the year and into the dark, I get out our pile of Christmas cds to play the first carols of the season. For my daughters, the cds initiate the heady period of joyous waiting that culminates in Christmas morning. They dictate our choices, insisting on Bing Crosby's happy tunes instead of the gloomier ones—like Amy Grant's "Breath of Heaven" and Pedro the Lion's halting "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"—already lined up in the cd player when they get home from school.

"Why do you want to listen to songs like that?" they ask me, as they eat their after-school snacks and flip through bright-colored Christmas catalogs, getting ideas.

They don't want to hear about the miseries that revisit me this time of year—events so distant in my murky past that I should have long since forgotten them. The Christmas my mother got so crazy we finally figured out she had something seriously wrong with her, which turned out to be a brain tumor. The Christmas in grad school when I was held at gunpoint and sexually assaulted. The Christmas of 2001, when, still shuddering after September 11th, the buried traumas of my past resurfaced, all at once, and turned into the yearly bout of depression I've had to deal with ever since.

Soon, I think, looking over my daughters' hunched backs, they'll be directing my attention to recipes for yule logs and stained-glass window cookies. Soon, Lulu will construct her want list, with different colors and fonts and annotations indicating what's most important and where things can be found. Soon, Charlotte will be begging me to take her clothes shopping. 

From toddlerhood, my daughters have thrown themselves bodily upon my husband and me in our bed on Christmas morning, the only day of the year when they get up before us. Even as teenagers, not far from adulthood, they're utterly unburdened by the season's stresses and unacquainted—God be thanked—with any of the disasters that revisit me at Christmastime. For them, Advent is entirely a forward-looking time, all about the wonderful joys to come—gingerbread houses, presents, new clothes, snow. It's a month of anticipation so giddy and pleasurable it can hardly be called waiting.

For me, though, the waiting is complicated by anxiety and doubt. Will joy ever come? I wonder. At some point, it generally does. Sometimes a song at church cheers me, or an act of kindness from one of my daughters. Once, it was the hilarious moment when, while decorating our tree, we discovered my previous year's present from my mother-in-law, two folded up hundred dollar bills, inside a little box-shaped ornament we hang on a prominent branch every year for that purpose. Until that moment of turning, though—indeed, throughout most of Advent—a single word prayer inhabits my consciousness: Come!

The Prayer of Waiting

Recently in my work as an English professor, I discovered that Jacques Derrida, an atheist philosopher famous in my field, secretly prayed the same prayer throughout his life: "Come!" Emphatic, hopeful, almost despairing, near to rejoicing, the word come is a prayer of many dimensions, as readily the rhetorical entreaty of the skeptic—Come, and then I'll believe—as the impatient plea of the devout. The earliest Christians, living under a death sentence for their faith, prayed in Aramaic, "Come, Lord!"—Marana tha! And John, writing of the risen Lord's repeated promise that he would come soon, closed Revelation with the same prayer:

The Spirit and the bride say,
"Come."
And let everyone who hears say,
"Come."
And let everyone who is thirsty come
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
—Revelation 22:17, 20 (NRSV)

"Come!" is the central prayer of most carols, from "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus!" to "Come All Ye Faithful!" and "Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come!" In them, the word come references both the millennia of affliction and longing that preceded the Messiah's birth and the invitation, issued to those still yearning in the millennia that followed, to but come to the baby in the feed-trough and be fulfilled.

For the believer, "Come!" is the quintessential prayer of waiting, a conscious act of faith that our current unhappiness will end: God's plan will prevail, and the angels' promise of "great joy for all the people" (Luke 2:10, NRSV) is available—despite evidence to the contrary—right now. 

To the first ones who heard this good news, Immanuel came after what must have seemed an endless agony of waiting. Imagine: a 2,000-year-old promise. Four hundred years since God had spoken at all. When I reenter the accounts of Jesus' arrival in our world, as I do every Advent, I'm struck by Mary's response to it all. Not so much by her famous willingness to "let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38, NRSV) as by the confident song she sang about what had happened.

To her much older relative Elizabeth, an upright woman married to a priest, Mary presented the news of her strange, surely problematic out-of-wedlock pregnancy as proof of God's mercy toward those who fear him and his particular love for humble ones like herself. She rejoiced in the fulfillment of the ancient promises of a redeemer who would scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, and fill the hungry with good things. "He has helped his servant Israel," she concluded, "according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever" (Luke 1:54-55, NRSV). The blessings she sang of had not yet come to pass and had been promised generations—centuries, millennia!—before her time to people she never met. Yet, her song is one of pure bliss and sounds utterly real and current and personal.

Magnifying God's Promises

Waiting is a key component of faith. Virtually every divine covenant in Scripture has time built into it, and believers must wait for God's promises to be fulfilled. Waiting effectively, continuing to anticipate future joy throughout years or even whole lifetimes or generations of often joyless struggle, might be seen as synonymous with great faith. As such, Mary's joyful, confident response to her part in God's plan has much to teach us about what Jesus said was the "work of God"—that is, "to believe in the one he has sent" (John 6:29).

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior," Mary sang, in intense anticipation of what this birth would mean for her and her people (Luke 1:46, NRSV). Later, when the child was born, Luke used the same word, magnify, to describe the joyful reaction of Mary's relatives and neighbors: The Lord, they rejoiced, had "magnified" his mercy through her. 

Mary's song is traditionally called "the Magnificat," after the first word in Jerome's Latin translation: magnify. It's a rare word in Scripture and perfectly captures the essence of Mary's faith. Rather than focus on her current situation or encroaching difficulties, she peered deeply into the past and into the equally distant future to see God's promised joy up close. Despite centuries of waiting; despite the hunger, hate, and disenfranchisement experienced by God's people; despite Mary's own fears and worries, she didn't give up in despair. Rather, she magnified God's promises—she enlarged and intensified and amplified them in her mind—and then stepped ecstatically into hope. 

Hope—the magnification of Scriptural promises into believable realities—is the instrument that connects longing with joy and makes waiting bearable. It is also, according to Hebrews 11:1, the crux of faith. Like faith, though, hope takes effort, especially when we face difficulty. We operate in the present moment and are likely to be distracted by current problems and concerns. Through hope, though, we look behind and before us, focusing our attention not only on the old promises but on the trustworthiness of the Promiser and on the evidence—so easily overlooked—that what one hopes for might actually be coming to pass.

Christmas is, for me, a yearly lesson in hope. All the jolly promises seem empty, I think, as I pack up presents to send to nieces and nephews, hammer the stocking loops onto the lintel, and sit in a pew listening to sermons and songs about this good news of great joy everyone should be experiencing. At Christmas, as at no other time, I long for God's promised presence—for joy itself—but, unlike Mary, I often invest little in the hope of actually experiencing it. 

Mary waited purposefully. She not only submitted to God's will, but examined her situation, as through a magnifying glass, in search of God's ancient promises. Faced with difficulty and confusion, she peered closer, looking for joy—and she found it.

Patty Kirk, a regular contributor to our Walk with Me blog, is an adjunct professor of English at John Brown University, and is author of Confessions of an Amateur Believer (Thomas Nelson). www.amateurbeliever.com

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