It’s hard to learn to wait. It’s getting harder.
We have the jittery minds and jaded spirits to show for it. For a people called repeatedly to “wait on the Lord,” this condition weighs on us like an affliction.
Waiting has, of course, always taken the form of affliction. Indeed, it seems to be a form of suffering bound up in being human itself. More to the point, waiting often requires a form of suffering by which we can become more fully human. As much as it jars the mind and grates the nerves to confess it, we have always needed suffering. And waiting has always played its part in making sure suffering happens.
Who will I marry? Will I get the job? Will he get well? Will she come home? Will justice win? Will the grief end?
Simply posing such questions leaves us searching for quick relief from the sudden arrival of anxiety, fear, pain. We, simply put, do not wish to live in a world that requires us to learn to suffer and to learn to wait. Yet learn we must.
Help, though, comes from an unanticipated source. In a season of lavish giving, Christmas itself gives a gift—the gift of requiring us to wait. All of the goods you receive at Christmas you could, conceivably, get at any time of the year. But you can’t get those goods at Christmastime any time of the year. And so from childhood on we learn to anticipate, to lean toward this one magical day. Christmas!
Christ places such a high premium on waiting that it’s entirely fitting that the celebration of his birth has become a means by which we learn to wait. Reading the gospels, we can’t help but see that there’s a lot of waiting going on; indeed, waiting seems required of any who wander into the orbit of Christ. Mary and Joseph endure trials of waiting, suffering anguish for an end they cannot foresee. We feel with great pathos the ordeal of Simeon and Anna in the temple, as the baby is delivered, finally, into their arms. Jesus’ closest companions wait for so much: rescue, redemption, revolution. And Jesus himself has to wait for the times to take the turn only the Father knows. To follow Christ is to undertake the discipline of waiting, a discipline that the anguish of waiting makes all the more necessary. The celebration of Christmas, and the honoring of the Christian calendar more generally, can help get us there.
But it can only get us so far. For all its tutelary power, such celebration is, after all, merely cyclical—as predictable as spring, as easy as a birthday. As hard as it can be for that ten-year-old that’s still alive in me (somewhere) to wait for Christmas, the fifty-year old that actually sits right here has a pretty easy time with it; in fact, it gets easier every year. This has nothing to do with discipline. It simply has to do with expiration.
Christian faith requires a more demanding kind of waiting, fostered by a new conception of time. Every page of the gospels bristles with an eschatological awareness that stands as the exact counterpoint to our usual perception of history. Into the ordinary passage of our lives Christ introduces a clock that decimates our cyclical sensibilities and, if anything, only intensifies the anguish of waiting. Christ teaches us, in short, that we must learn to wait for the consummation of history itself.
While we don’t naturally hear the ticking of this clock, we may train our senses to it if we immerse ourselves in the biblical story, absorbing rhythms drummed from eternity into time. In this story we see Christ in motion, moving to a beat and toward an end no one understood. We see that Bethlehem was a moment followed relentlessly by other moments, culminating in events that would knock us, like it or not, out of our seasonal slumbers and into the rushing force of time itself.
In his luminous book, The Everlasting Man, Chesterton claims that Christ “broke the backbone of history.” Human history, in Chesterton’s telling, was by Christ’s birth already exhausted, having sought through myth and philosophy to arrive at an apprehension of the world that would satisfy both the heart and mind, that could awaken wonder and liberate logic. The imperial Rome of Christ’s day was defined by these flagging hopes, and for all its might and splendor it turned out to be merely another notable, if colossal, failure, unable to sustain its ideals, unrequited by its gods. Such failure was, by then, an old story, older than Cain, older than the rubble Rome itself was built upon and was already turning into.
But Christ broke the backbone of history. He delivered us from the tired trail of suffering that leads only into darkness. And he did it by attuning us, through his very words, through his very eyes, to the direction time itself was moving: out of darkness, into light. Finally, through Christ we could see. Chesterton calls the life of Christ a “fixed flash,” bathing history in a light so magnificent that only by God’s grace can we by it gain sight rather than go blind. After Calvary, human history would turn on these alternatives: blindness and sight. We, who so struggle to see, who so resist seeing, now had no excuse.
Often Christ reminded his light-filled followers of the temporal obligations the light required. They had to learn to be ready; they had to learn to wait. You must not bury your talents, he warned. You must count the cost, he instructed. You must see that night is coming, he exhorted. You must know the signs, he urged. The time we spend here, put simply, must not be like our annual wait for Christmas. It must rather be like Simeon’s, like Anna’s wait for Christmas, for that first Christmas, never to be repeated, left behind in history by the man, face set like a flint, who was moving from the manger toward the cross. This is how we wait: by being in motion, moving in faith toward our final and true end, even amidst our anguish, our pain, our longing.
And so, for now, we wait, and we work. In fact, according to myriad surveys that show rising hours on the job, we work a lot. For many of us this is all right, or at least tolerable. We enjoy work, after all. We’re grateful to have it. Somehow it helps makes waiting bearable. Sometimes it even diminishes our suffering.
But however good our work may be, we also shudder at the thought of devoting our lives simply to being tiny parts in the vast machine aimed at achieving yet another victorious Black Friday. Our lives must mean more than that because time means more than that. And so each year we rejoice at the epiphany that first Christmas brought, and brings: that there’s a new clock in town. Hark! the herald angels sing, right on time.
We study this celestial clock at Christmas and recall, once more, that we’re in the position of waiting. But we also remember that while we wait we are to work in a very particular fashion—to be about the Father’s business, as Christ put it. To work because we were created for good works, as Paul reminds. Above all, to work because evil is loose in the world, deceiving and destroying humanity with great cyclical force, turning our hearts toward our appetites rather than our hope. Our age has in fact sought to make nonsense of any notion of a transcendent end and hope. This diabolical deception we must expose—must work to expose.
This is good work. And it’s the hardest work of all. The forces opposing us, the principalities and powers Paul starkly describes, are inconceivably stronger than we. We succumb to them, to their force and vanity, as if we were born to, as if their catastrophic darkness holds the secrets of the universe itself. But the calling of Christ takes us in the opposite direction—toward light. As we heed it, we transcend the ideals, standards, and practices of a workaholic age.
The philosopher Cornel West warns of the consequences we will witness if, on the other hand, we as a people fail to enact an alternate vision of time. Our “precious ethical and religious ideals,” he notes, only survive by means of the kind of “vital community” that teaches another way of working and waiting. “Without a vibrant tradition of resistance passed on to new generations,” he writes, “there can be no nurturing of a collective and critical consciousness—only professional conscientiousness survives.”
To be sure, “Professional conscientiousness” may be a necessary ideal. But it is not a sufficient ideal for those immersed in biblical time. We are here to work. But we must embed our work in the church’s “vibrant tradition of resistance,” which teaches us what, and who, to work for. It’s a tradition layered deep in the narrative of God’s great salvation from our darkness and pain, a salvation that began with the one who came to lead us away from the cycle of diminishing returns and into the ascent of grace.
As we celebrate the first coming of Christ and look toward the second, we have a mind to deepen and a soul to stir. May our eyes be trained at once on Bethlehem and Calvary and the New Jerusalem. And may our ears be filled with the ticking of an urgent, unrelenting clock
Eric Miller is professor of history and the humanities at Geneva College, in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, where he directs the honors program. He is the author of Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch (2010) and Glimpses of Another Land: Political Hopes, Spiritual Longing (2012); he also co-edited Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian's Vocation (2010).
The views, opinions, authors, and contributors represented in The Table do not necessarily represent the beliefs of Biola University or the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.