Slower than Christmas
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,
And let everyone who hears say,
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.