The 3rd week of Advent is here and for most North Americans, this is a time of stressful shopping and hurrying around town trying to get the last good deal of the pre-holiday season. Even I, who eschew most of the holiday hubbub find myself more impatient as I drive around town, especially in slippery conditions because I am always stuck behind someone who is driving at roughly half the speed he should be driving. And yes, I do speak to these drivers from my car, although they will never actually hear what I think of their lack of driving skills.
The book of James says, “Be patient…” but I’m not sure what that means. For how long should I be patient—until I arrive at my destination? Until I finally get up to the checkout counter at the mall? Until I get that last minute gift for the neighbor woman who always buys me something but for whom I wait until the last minute? Until the last idiot gets off the road so I can resume my journey unhindered? James makes it sound like this patience thing is supposed to be a permanent trait, and I’m not crazy about the idea.
I am not a patient person, as anyone who knows me can tell you. I hated waiting to open presents on Christmas Eve, with the pile of gifts waiting under the tree for the entire day. Hours turned into days and I became irritated and anxious. Sometimes my parents had to leave the house to get groceries or some last minute item and I would carefully slit the tape on the ends of the packages and discover what gifts I had…except, of course, for the boxes that were clearly some kind of clothing. Who cares about those??
I should have been more attentive, because clearly this was an indicator of what my entire life was going to be like: an impatient outlook on life that drives everyone around me crazy. I don’t like long, boring conversations with people who whine about their petty problems, I hate automated answering machines when I call for computer or cell phone problems, I hate superficial, short answers that some students write in response to my carefully crafted essay questions. I hate waiting in lines for anything, despise being trapped at railroad crossings, and I am always “on a mission” once I get behind the wheel, but invariably I get behind people who apparently have no schedules or cares in the world.
There. That’s my Advent confession. I’m impatient and driven and I don’t know how to be anything else. But, I suspect many of you are just like me. Slow computers, traffic lights, waiting for spring, waiting for someone to call…all these things drive us crazy. But Advent is supposed to be a season of patient waiting in the Silence. As one poet writes,
Waiting is the hardest part.
We want to get going.
We want it to happen.
We want to get there.
We want to see how it turns out.
Waiting wasn’t what we had in mind.
We spend our lives waiting:
- Waiting for the train to come on time,
- Waiting for calendar days to fall to the floor,
- Waiting to grow up,
- Waiting to arrive,
- Waiting to get away,
- Waiting for somebody else
- Who is never on time,
- Or who is waiting, also for others.
- Waiting for the crisis to come,
- Waiting for the crisis to pass,
- Waiting for God,
- Told patiently to stay in line–
- And so we wait patiently there, not sure why-
- Waiting for the last month,
- Waiting for something to celebrate.
- Waiting for the baby to be born.
The writer of James, and St. Paul himself tells us about the importance of patience, but what’s so great about it? Why does St. Paul say that patience is a remarkable virtue that can only be produced with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit? Aren’t some of the greatest problems in our world caused by a lack of swift action? Every two minutes another person dies of AIDS, another African child starves to death, another woman is beaten or raped by someone she knows. What are we to tell these people? “Relax and be patient?”
Maybe patience is not passively standing by with our hands in our pockets, doing nothing. If we look at the etymology of the word patience, it derives from two Greek words, makros and thumos. The first term, makros means “long” or “far”; thumos means “anger” or “wrath”. When we put it together, it means “long anger”, which is the opposite of being short-tempered. Patience, then, could be seen as “restrained anger” toward people and circumstances.
A patient person is one who could choose to take revenge if he wanted, but chooses not to. James calls us to be patient and to wait on God. “Endure under fire.” God is coming soon, and not only that, God gets it! He sees what we see! He shares our righteous indignation and anger at institutions and processes that allow for exploitation of other human beings. Patience, then, is not a limp, passive resignation to what is: it is quiet confidence that sees God caring and acting in the present moment. We see, with Isaiah, the desert bursting into bloom. We see, with Jesus, the divine life within ourselves calling us to patient action to cocreate with God the Kingdom in which there is nothing that can hurt or destroy. And because this is true, we might even find a moment to rejoice in our personal struggles and suffering because we know that through it all we are becoming stronger, wiser and better able to help others when these same tough times come upon them.
Christmas looms on the horizon and there is a lot that can make us impatient. On this 3rd Sunday of Advent, maybe we can respond a bit to the call to patience by responding to two questions. First, what’s happening in my fife right now that’s trying my patience? Can any of these forces be reevaluated and become seen as an opportunity to deepen my faith and trust in God? Rather than get angry at that person, at that illness, at that tragedy, maybe we can become more consciously aware that we are Christ in the world right now. We can’t change things, but we can change ourselves.
The second question relates to the question that John the Baptist asked of Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” If we believe that Christ has no body on earth but ours, how do we manifest the divine presence in our daily lives? There are, to be sure, things to be impatient and angry about, but beyond those emotions, we also need to act to change institutions and systems that oppress. Right now your sisters and brothers—the ones exploited by corporate America and globalization, the ones dying of AIDS the world over, the ones being abused and beaten– are focused on you, asking the same question that John asked. The only way to satisfy their longing for simple justice is to embrace patience the way God sees it and make choices about how we live, how we vote, how we consume. These people are counting on you and me: “Are you the one, or do we still have to wait for another?”