To say that I am a person who “hates” waiting would be a complete understatement. For me, waiting feels like a total waste of time, an empty void where nothing happens except impatience, frustration, and annoyance. Whether it involves waiting for a scheduled appointment with the doctor, it feels like they purposely make people wait; or waiting for an inattentive driver to respond to the traffic light that has already turned green for at least a second or more; or waiting for my wife to get ready so that we can get to church on time, it does not take much waiting time for me to become thoroughly impatient and irritable.
The experience of waiting characterizes the lives of people in prison. Over the years I’ve observed that people wait in various ways. There are people like me who wait impatiently with frustration and anger lurking beneath the shallows of self-control. Others wait out their prison sentence fearfully, expecting the worst to happen at any moment; for a spouse or a lover to jilt them and take another lover while they are locked up; for a parent to die without being able to say goodbye; for a prison bully to attack them. There are all kinds of things to be afraid of while one waits powerlessly in prison. Still others wait expectantly and hopefully – for a family visit; for a good parole hearing; or for the day when they will be released.
Advent is a time of preparation and expectation. It is also a time of hope and of waiting. Hope is not hope unless it is something that is desired and yet to come. Hope is always encapsulated in waiting as if it is contained between the brackets of what once was and what is yet to come. When I was a child I could not wait for Christmas day – even while Christmas past had faded in my memory, my hopes for Christmas yet to come was fueled by the knowledge that Christmas was a good thing. Yet it was always a time of waiting, waiting filled with promise and hope and expectation. The night before Christmas was often a sleepless night for me, a night of wondering what surprising gift would be in store for me the next morning. I knew there would be something and I was never disappointed. But not every child wakes up to goodness and generosity on Christmas morning. Many children around the world, including those children who have a parent in prison, arise only to taste disappointment and disillusionment. Once again Christmas has failed to live up to their diminishing expectations and waiting has produced nothing other than emptiness and hunger. There is nothing worse than waiting without hope.
During the time of the prophets people had waited a long time for the fulfillment of God’s promise to send them a Savior. And in the waiting from generation to generation many people became disappointed and disbelieving, some gave up waiting, and many others became cynical, and yet a few continued clinging tenaciously to hope that God who had delivered them from past oppression would surely fulfill his promise to send a Deliverer, a Savior.
I wonder how well I would have done with such a long wait, for waiting without anything tangible to sustain my hope inevitably depletes my energy and my cheer. Yet I take encouragement in my times of waiting as I read the words of Isaiah1 – “those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength … soar like eagles … run and not grow weary … walk and not be faint.” The thought of experiencing renewal in waiting seems so contradictory. However, one biblical commentator observes that the word “wait” used by Isaiah can also be translated as “hope” – “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength….” Again – waiting and hoping are connected – hope encapsulated in waiting.
Waiting in fear and frustration is diminishing and depleting. Waiting in resignation is empty and meaningless. Waiting in hope is full of expectation. In his encyclical, “On Christian Hope,” 2 Pope Benedict writes that “Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a ‘not yet.’ The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future spill over into those of the present and those of the present into the future.”3 Therein is hope.
For you and me to wait hopefully is to be infected with the future here and now; and for us the experience of waiting becomes the crucible in which hope is nurtured and sustained. It is hope fixed on the reality that Jesus Christ, the long expected one, has come; Jesus Christ is coming to us even now in all our waiting; Jesus Christ will come again in fulfillment of time and promise. This is the hope in which we wait during this advent season.
We are waiting, expectantly
for the coming of the angels,
the shepherds, the animals,
the Star, the Babe,
and the wise men, the coming
of the Christmas miracle,
the telling of the same story,
never old in the remembering
of the moment when Mary gave birth
to the one who was to come
to save His people, the one God
the only begotten son
to rescue us all from our sin,
from the divide we created
between us and God, the father, the mother
the holy mediator, arbitrator,
sacrificial lamb of God
Waiting as they did, even in the retelling
because it is a timeless story
of infinity love and good
that we need to hear,
until we all get the message
Ron W. Nikkel is the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship International (PFI). For more information, visit the PFI website.