“Be patient.” 

That’s an unusual to hear from scripture on this third Sunday of Advent, two short weeks before Christmas.

When I think of qualities I need to have right now, patience is not the first thing that comes to mind.

In fact, in the world around us this is the season of impatience. For those of us who are young there is the excitement of the season — counting down the days until school is out, and then until Christmas morning, the most exciting morning of the year.

For those of us who are a bit older it’s impatience of a different sort. I’m sure I’m not the only one walking around with a to-do list playing in my mind, along with a calendar telling me how little time there is left to accomplish it all. 

Who has time to be patient?

And yet the church and scripture tell us something different about this season — that it is a time to exercise patience, a time filled with the paradox of urgency and waiting.

Something amazing is about to happen, we’re told. But you’re going to have to wait.

Waiting is not something we do well or easily. Maybe human nature has always been that way, but our age has escalated that natural tendency to impatience.

Several years ago I saved an article from The New Yorker by Noelle Oxenhandler that discusses that escalation.

“Fall from Grace — How modern life has made waiting a desperate act,” is its title. 

Human beings long to live in God’s time, she says, a time when thinking, speaking, and doing are one.

“Let there be light,” God said, and there was light.

God says it. It’s done.

“This is the ancient wish of the human being,” Oxenhandler says, “to reside in the place where one need only open one’s mouth to make a world happen.”

And so we develop technology that moves us in that direction, that makes waiting obsolete.

We no longer have to go to banks. We can do everything from our computer or phone, or if we have to have cash the ATM is open 24/7.

We don’t have to wait for snail mail. We email, phone, text, pay our bills online.

We don’t have to wait to develop photographs. We can see them as soon as they’re taken.

We don’t have to go to the office. We can take the office with us wherever we go, so that every moment can be maximally productive. 

I love all these conveniences. But paradoxically, they don’t really seem to save us time. In fact, in the age of technology, as waiting becomes obsolete, there is a kind of time that is vanishing — a time to daydream, time that is completely free of usefulness, suspended between wakefulness and sleep.

“This is the time of wonder,” Oxenhandler writes, “when we fall out of the habitual, the taken-for-granted, and are startled by what is.

“For the sake of speed, in the interest of not wasting time, we sacrifice the sensuous richness of the not-yet.”

Sometimes circumstances force us into the kind of time that Oxenhandler mourns.

The three years I spent in Thailand gave me an appreciation of the not-yet’s richness.

It was long before the days of the internet, computers, or cell phones. 

We had no running water, no refrigerator, no car, no tv. And most importantly, no telephone — the nearest one was an hour’s bus ride away.

If you wanted to talk to someone in the village you got on your bike and went to see them.

If you wanted to communicate with someone out of town you wrote a letter, or if it was urgent, sent a telegram.

And then you waited for a response. If the person you were writing to in Thailand responded immediately you might hear back in a week. If the person was in the United States you might hear back in a month, if they responded the same day they received your letter.

I’m not advocating a return to that. It doesn’t even exist there any more in Thailand. My rural village is fully equipped with cellphones and internet — as it should be.

But I learned then that there is a certain luxury, a certain richness of time, a certain pleasure in anticipation, a time to put things in perspective, to discern what is truly urgent and what is not.

I think that is what James is telling us in today’s reading.

“Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient.”

Advent is that time of waiting, of being patient. Mary waits for the birth of her child. We wait for the coming of the Lord.

Waiting does not have to be passive. Patience doesn’t mean sitting around twiddling your thumbs.

As anyone who has awaited the arrival of a child knows there is preparation to be done. It is a time of active waiting.

But active waiting means to be fully present to the moment, not living only in the future, but knowing that something is happening where you are now.

Being patient means knowing that God is present in the now, even as we anticipate the future.

Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to be happening somewhere and sometime else. The present moment and place are empty.

Patient people dare to stay where they are, to be fully alive to the present time and place.

This Advent we prepare for the future, certainly. There are to-do lists to carry out, and days to cross off the calendar.

But may we also be present to the current moment, open to the possibilities that Christ may be present in our lives now, if only we have the patience to see it.


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