The Spanish words meaning “to wait” (esperar) and “hope” (esperanza) suggest that there’s a ready connection between the two. We wait for something that we expect to happen. We don’t wait for things that we don’t anticipate will actually occur.
There are places designed for waiting (train stations, hospital waiting rooms, airports, the checkout line) and there are places where we unexpectedly end up waiting, where it’s less comfortable or hasn’t been prepared for the necessities of waiting (traffic tie ups, outside buildings). The places of unprepared waiting tend to create more agitation and desperation. After living in New York City for a few years, I’ve learned to prepare for unexpected waiting by carrying a book. Nowadays, with my iPhone, I’m always ready to work (or at least surf the web) while waiting.
Waiting with hope means that we expect something to happen. In Advent, we wait in anticipation of the arrival of Immanuel, God with us. I’d say that I anticipate God’s arrival most days, hope for it, spend a lot of my waking hours anticipating the Spirit’s arrival and incarnation in time and space. Sometimes I’m able to notice steps toward the fulfillment of God’s intention; other times I’m surprised by the sudden inbreaking and transformation. With the story of the birth of Christ, we have generations of preparation and months of incubation, but on one surprisingly normal and joyous night, “the anointed one” comes into flesh, bone, blood.
While I know that God is with us in all time, in all space, and in all spaces, there is something special that we wait for in Advent, some holy moment that we expect to see, feel, taste, maybe even touch. While Jesus warned us not to chase those moments, the sheep-tenders and the learned ones were provoked to come and bear witness to the Incarnation, to drop their work for a moment or to focus their skills for awhile toward the manger in Bethlehem, to witness, to be present, to offer gifts in worship.
I find waiting to be pretty annoying. But hoping can seem even more ridiculous. Believing that God is going to do something, to enter and transform what seems ordinary can be both difficult and at times unwelcome.
What we know about resiliency, however, is that to lose hope is to lose purpose. I’m not “a glass half empty” kind of guy, but I notice too often places where Christ’s presence is not quite yet: in the gaps between the privileged and the poor; in the spaces between loneliness and community; in the struggles for healing and wholeness; in the overwhelming sense of busyness that permeates privilege; in the spectrum from tradition to transformation. I see glimpses and sometimes full incarnations of the path of Immanuel too: in working across culture, language, and human boundaries to share resources with Mennonite partners in Allentown, Philadelphia and Norristown; in work with veterans; in seasonal congregational initiatives to share and worship with neighbors; in our learning to love all of the places and people that God loves.
Early Mennonite settlers in southeastern Pennsylvania often used the catch-phrase “work and hope” as they faced the struggles of persecution, migrating into the unknown, and finding their home in a new world. In our working (doing), I believe we’re waiting, too. In our working, we’re hoping and believing (some days more than others) that Christ came two millennia ago into crushing politics, often misguided religiosity, and hard economics, and that the Spirit of Christ might come again, through us, in us, to us, for us as much as for the whole world. With anticipation, we wait, we work, we hope.