In the words of Han Solo, “I hate long waits.” My past 4.5 months, in some ways, felt like a long wait. I knew that I was graduating college in December, and there were countless moments throughout the Fall semester when I felt ready to be done. It’s not because I was bored of or fed up with the work I was doing. I love school. I wrote poetry for homework and got paid for helping peers improve their writing, both of which bring me deep satisfaction. Need I say more?
Actually, loving school is the main reason the past four months sometimes felt like a frustrating or tedious wait. I felt like I was getting gypped: starting a new school year like I had done for the previous three years, and only getting four months—only half a school year. I ended the summer feeling too close to post-grad life for comfort, but my final semester partly meant that instead of being ripped off—a sharp but quick sting—the band-aid of studenthood would be torn away slowly, a drawn-out reopening of a wound that hadn’t yet fully healed. I wasn’t being given either one final school year to enjoy or one swift plunge into post-grad life—I had to walk through half of one before slowly dipping into the other. In that sense, the whole semester was a four-month-long wait.
Not that I actually felt or gave off this much emotional neediness throughout the semester—like I said, it was a blast. These thoughts of anticipation, of frustration with the present deferment, mercifully only came in spurts. And they’re not the main thing I want to focus on in this post. I want to focus on one thing they helped me with spiritually and what that thing means for Christians.
That thing is what I’ll call Christian Hope, what I would like to assert is the appropriate response to Advent and the virtue demanded by (or, perhaps a better phrase for it, most consistent with) Christmas. I think there are two main sides of Christian Hope, and Christmas emphatically calls for both. The first is the celebration appropriate to victory. The second is the restless anticipation appropriate to siege. A lyric from an original Christmas carol by my church’s worship pastor helpfully, succinctly captures the first and, for me, strongly provokes the second. Here is the line: “The long dark night of waiting is over at last.”
This lyric is more or less directly adapted from Isaiah 9:2-7, zoning in on verse two, which reads, “The people who walked in darkness / have seen a great light; / those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness / on them has light shone.” You know, the prophetic passage other than “The virgin shall be with child…” most quoted at Christmas? The one Handel wrote that amazingly beautiful song to in his Messiah? The “For unto us a child is born” passage. The song which my worship pastor wrote is appropriately titled, “So Much Joy.” This is appropriate because the entirety of Isaiah 9:2-7 is essentially a bold, triumphal battle song:
…you have increased [the nation’s] joy; they rejoice before you… as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
Yes, I’m a sucker for block quotes. But I want to draw attention to the content and form of this prophecy. It is poetic in form—a song. It is triumphant—even militarily so—in content. The coming of Messiah is a victory to be celebrated as much as the spoils of war, as much as liberty from oppressive regimes. The coming of Messiah ought to be celebrated because his coming ushers in a good, peaceful, powerful, wise, fatherly government—the kingdom of a good king. And not one who can be corrupted into a tyrant or one who will eventually die and take his goodness away with him—rather, an eternal kingdom. (Sound anything like “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” [1 Pet. 1:4] or “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” [Heb. 11:16]?)
In light of Isaiah 9:2-7, it is appropriate and true to excitedly proclaim that “The long dark night of waiting is over at last!” Jesus did come, and in so coming enfleshed the necessary conditions for human reconciliation with God. The long wait was over—a child was born, a son was given, Messiah arrived. According to Luke, there was at least one person (besides the angels and Mary) who rejoiced at Messiah’s arrival (another block quote—#sorrynotsorry). The few verses Luke gives him—much like the lyric my worship pastor wrote—straddle the line between the first and second sides of Christian Hope:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. . . . he took [baby Jesus] up in his arms and blessed God and said,
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation…” (Luke 2:25-26, 28-30)
I think the phrase “the consolation of Israel” pretty much perfectly articulates the reality of the Incarnation: it connotes relief after a long period of waiting, but can also be taken as not completely final, as penultimate, as relief for the purpose of enabling you to carry on. In Greek the word “consolation” is paraklêsin, which I’m 95% sure is where we get the word Paraclete, used of the Holy Spirit alongside descriptors like Comforter and Helper. The “comfort” of Israel. Simeon had lived the vast majority of his life in the absence of this consolation, but he was waiting for it—not blindly, but with the certainty given to him by God’s word that he would see it with his own eyes. He lived confident of his hope coming to fruition.
Then he saw that fruition with his own eyes and cradled it with his own hands. The result? Perfect contentment, the foundation of joyous celebration. Simeon was happy. You know how your friend will see his favorite band in concert live, then meet them afterwards, and, once he’s done fanboying, walk away from the House of Blues exclaiming that his life is complete? He is likely exaggerating. Simeon wasn’t exaggerating though: he literally knew from a divine vision that once he saw the Messiah, his life was complete. Simeon was so happy that could die in perfect peace. For him, the long dark night of waiting was over at last.
But for the majority of his life, this was not the case: for years and years, Simeon lived in the long dark night of waiting. He waited through it. He trusted the word of God confirmed to him by the Holy Spirit and kept waiting. I bet it took patience. I bet he was tempted to doubt the promise of the word when year after year passed by without Messiah’s appearing. We Christians are in almost the same exact position. The Christ has come, ushering in consolation by grace through faith. But he has come and gone: he’s not here anymore, not teaching, not healing, not—in any immediate, physical sense—ruling. I look back on the past year in national and global news alone, and in a very real sense I cannot bring myself to sing “the long dark night of waiting is over at last” because I feel like I’m awake in the middle of the night.
This is where the second side of Christian Hope comes in: patient, brave, persistent, hopeful, eager waiting. I’m going to commit a venial crime and quote someone completely out of context (or maybe it’s not venial because it’s Marilynne Robinson, but I’m doing it anyway). She potently puts words to a central pressure of waiting:
I hated waiting. If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation. I expected—an arrival, an explanation, an apology. There had never been one, a fact I could have accepted, were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows. . . . the ordinary demanded unblinking attention. Any tedious hour might be the last of its kind. (Housekeeping)
There’s both an infuriation and a thrill to waiting. Most of us have probably experienced it: the reply to a certain text message, the reception of a job application, the answer to a vulnerable question. It could come at any moment, and it may not come for days (or weeks or months or at all). As Christians, we know the second arrival of Messiah approaches, or—as it is put in Scripture often—is “at hand.” It is promised, but we know nothing of when it will be accomplished. We can only live as if he will come—as if he is coming—if we believe his promise, if we “walk by faith, not by sight.”
What has invigorated me with hope and motivated me in my current period of waiting (to hear back on job applications) is self-reminders. When prospective employers don’t reply to me immediately, I’ll remind myself of truths pertaining to jobs—that applications take time to review, that there could be innumerable factors for delay. And I’ll remind myself that if this job doesn’t pan out, there are others I can push towards. Waiting for the Second Advent can, I think, be motivated in similar ways. Because the things that are eternal—things like the inauguration of the long-expected Messiah’s kingdom, the banishing of the long dark night of waiting with glorious dawn—are unseen, my rehearsing them in words has helped me make them tangible. Because what I tangibly see all around me every day—what feels most immediate and real—are a bunch of transient things, it’s spiritually helpful to remind myself of the eternal things. As my friend and I concluded in a conversation the other day, we ought to talk to ourselves like David did in the Psalms and to keep reminding ourselves of eternal, true things. Verbally articulating the true promises of God in his Word, even if only to myself—and certainly to other people—makes them tangible. And living as if they were to be fulfilled tonight makes them feel as real as my looming student loans.
Seeing the unseen now from afar, feeling the eternal as immediate—I think that’s what Christian Hope is all about. There’s a good hymn (a Christmas carol actually) that accomplishes this far better than I can. That’s where I’d like to end:
Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.
Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a king,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal Spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.