advent: waiting in emptiness

[This is a slightly edited re-post from Dec. 2008. Was reading back through, and I, at least, needed this reminder.]

“Now Thou dost dismiss Thy servant, O Lord, according to Thy word in peace;

Because my eyes have seen Thy salvation,

Which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples:

A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.

(The 1582 translation of the words of Simeon the priest in Luke 2:29-32)

It is all Christmasy by now, all wreaths and bells and hot chocolate and cider and carols and warmth and cheer.  Which of course is lovely.

But this December I have been thinking of Simeon, the old priest who was just waiting for Jesus to come. Just alone, expectant, in the dark.  Clinging to one absurd hope before he dies.

And the soft feel of a baby in her arms, for Mary, was preceded by so many months of awkward pregnancy, misunderstanding, in the wrong place with nowhere to go, being led around on a donkey by a clumsy old carpenter who probably had no idea, angels notwithstanding, what do with his pregnant wife.  This isn’t how things were supposed to play out.  Isn’t how she should have had her first baby, wasn’t the way a marriage was supposed to begin.

By this time Elizabeth, at the age of a grandmother, would be nursing little John, after all those years that she was shut out in the cold. All those years of barrenness.   Hers was a long advent, too many years of waiting, of emptiness.  Another story that didn’t play itself out on the proper timeline.  Another baby birthed from the impossible.

And for us, what do these stories mean?

I do believe that we live mostly in expectation, that we are mostly barren women, old priests hoping but unable to utter yet the nunc dimittis. But our expectation, our longing, our ability to hold our arms open and empty for so long… those will fail.  We can’t hold on long enough or stay vigilant enough.  The shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night weren’t holy and ready and expectant like Simeon. Not submissive like Mary or full of desire like Elizabeth.  Just working the night shift and trying to make ends meet.  The angels came and sang to them, too.  It’s always a gift, from above, from outside ourselves.

And the baby that was born that night is really the only hope we can have, and so much of what we do is wait for him, wait for his physical presence, wait for the emptiness of our existence to be filled out and birthed with something real. Someone real.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.


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