WATCHFUL WAITING AND NOT KNOWING
Advent is a peculiar season of the year but one with profound insights about the nature of human existence.
Its themes of ‘watchful waiting’ and of ‘not knowing’ for me are particularly resonant and I hope meditating on these themes might be helpful for you too.
Advent is a season that enables us to remember what has already happened (Jesus’ birth) and to look forward to what we believe will happen (the last days, Jesus’ return). In so doing it is a season of the year which has an element of great familiarity and comfort to it, here we are again, it’s December and we’re getting ready for Christmas. That build up to Christmas couldn’t be more nostalgic and comforting. We know the Christmas rituals so well. Yet at the same time it is a season that helps us to see some of the huge gaps in our knowledge – it asks us to think about the themes of Christian judgment, end times, eternal life, heaven and hell, areas of Christian life and thought which are much harder for us to explain. We have to accept that God will act again in a way that we really know little about. We believe he will come again. How, when, what will that actually mean for us and the world .. we actually don’t know. Advent reminds us that Christianity is a faith that looks to the future as much as it looks back, a faith of the not yet, of the not quite complete, the revealed yet not completely fulfilled revelation of God.
And this broader theological point about what Advent teaches us can also help us to inhabit our own uncertainty with less fear. It can give us the permission to be people that don’t have all the answers, who can doubt and who can not yet know, but believe. It can help us resist the temptation to give easy answers, to solve other people’s problems, to come to quick and partial conclusions.
I have been particularly mindful of this as I have recently moved house and taken up a new post in a new church and area. What I don't know about this place and its people vastly outweighs what I do know. It’s an uncomfortable place to be in, one that demands that I sit on my hands and actively watch and learn. It’s a particular skill to develop and it is one that requires that we learn to truly inhabit the moment, be alert and be focused; the temptation is to over-step this stage and act, but that is likely to be disastrous.
And so Advent reveals to us that we are people who know and yet who don’t know and the appropriate response to not knowing is watchfulness. And this truth which is not just a religious truth appeared in an article I was reading in the newspaper yesterday and from an unexpected quarter. In this article a London business school professor is quoted as identifying active waiting as a necessary practice for established businesses/household names that need to find new ways of operating in a changing cultural and business world. To act without reflecting is to act in ignorance. And it’s amazing to think that the Christian year has a whole season dedicated to this truth – to the reality that to do something new, to adapt, to grow, to change, and to be transformed we must inhabit doubt, uncertainty, not knowing and we must wait in expectation.
In the tinselly familiarity of the preparation to Christmas we need to remain mindful of the fact that Jesus was almost totally unexpected. The domestication of Christmas and its truth can blind us to the reality that to recognise who Jesus really was took four centuries of discovery, argument and not a little bloodshed and of course faith. Jesus’ identity was not immediately apparent. Those who were able to recognise the new action of God in Jesus Christ were the extraordinary ones, people like St Paul.
And so we are a people who recognise and believe in who Jesus was and is, and yet we still remain people who learn, discover, argue and keep the faith into the future, into which we believe we will go not with confidence and certainty but with faith and doubt, trusting, hoping, believing that we are so practiced in the ways of God that the next unexpected action will not leave us out in the cold, but will draw us into its love.
‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.