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Advent Reflections

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

Waiting in Love
by Jason Bintz

December 23: AM Psalm 66, 67; PM Psalm 116, 117; Isaiah 11:10-16; Revelation 20:11-21:8; Luke 1:5-25

“It seems to me that the fully trusting heart is the one that, enthralled by the infinite power of Divine Love, does not allow human impossibilities to limit its hope but gives to its own trust the proportions of Love itself.” –Consummata (Marie-Antoinette de Geuser)

Faith is born when we look to the past and remember God’s great track record of love for us. When we turn our glance toward the future shored up by such faith, hope is engendered. Love, then, is what characterizes a life in the present that has been liberated by faith and hope.

Advent is a season of waiting. Waiting belongs to the present and is thus measured by love. The character of our waiting will betray either the liberation of faith and hope or the bondage of insecurity and despair.

This season of advent- Advent 2014- coincides with another season of waiting in my life. I am waiting for a job. Not just any job, of course, I am waiting for the oh-so-elusive dream job. In the midst of a life filled with many other callings and responsibilities, this little “waiting” has assumed a prominence of undue proportion. And the kind of attention it commands from me does not betray the liberation of faith and hope!

The gospel reading for today is a waiting story. The archangel Gabriel appears to Zechariah with the kind of word we all want to hear: “Zechariah, your prayer has been heard.” Even better than knowing that his prayer had been heard, his request would be given- his wife Elizabeth, he is told, will bear him a son.

Last Sunday, David Freels reminded us that each of our “little stories” needs to be situated in the “big story.” In this gospel text we see a little story and we also see the big story. The little story is the story of a parent’s wish for a child and it shows up here in a surprising way. It doesn’t seem likely that Zechariah was praying this day for a child. We learn from his subsequent questioning that he doesn’t believe this is possible since he is an “old man” and his wife is “advanced in years.” No, his prayer that day- the one that had been heard and was now being given- was more likely related to the big story, the good news that Gabriel announces:

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:13-17 ESV)

Upon hearing that “many will rejoice” and the “children of Israel will turn to the Lord their God,” Zechariah, surprisingly, becomes fixated on the little story. We sense an old wound here. Zechariah and Elizabeth were past the time of waiting for a child. This righteous couple (v.6) had moved on from that time of life when they waited in hope for a child. Their waiting- at this late stage- was more “directly” related to the great hope of Israel, the big story.

But, upon hearing that Elizabeth was to bear a son, Zechariah is thrust back into the waiting of that little story that had, no doubt, left them with a lot of pain. At the prospect of reopening old wounds, Zechariah goes on the defensive: “How can I be sure of this?” Immediately upon reentering the little story, the character of his waiting betrays the bondage of insecurity and despair. The archangel Gabriel who “stands in the presence of God” has been “sent to speak to [him] and tell [him] this good news” and Zechariah does not believe him (v.20)! He wants some kind of assurance that simply isn’t on offer and, quite frankly, shouldn’t be desired. His own wounds have prevented him from entering into the joy of hearing from the archangel what God is about to do. This man, this righteous man, who prays for the nation shows us that he has not properly situated his little story into that big story.

This text is challenging me to take a hard look at how disproportional my little story has become at this time in my life. As I wait for a word about a job, my anxiety and worry betray the bondage of insecurity and despair. I want some kind of assurance that simply isn’t on offer and as a result, I am unable to enter into the joy of waiting on the basis of faith and with hope. I am unable to wait as a lover. A lover is the one that “has a fully trusting heart, enthralled by the infinite power of Divine Love, does not allow human impossibilities to limit its hope but gives to its own trust the proportions of Love itself.”

I invite you to consider Mary’s response to Gabriel in the next section of Luke’s gospel. The difference between Zechariah’s “How can I be sure of this?” and Mary’s “How can this be?” is the difference between a waiting characterized by disillusionment and one that is filled with wonder.