John C. Cavadini, Faculty Contributor
I don’t like to wait. My image of Hell is of one vast, mapless airport where one is transferred arbitrarily from line to line, the security line to the passport line to the boarding line, to the take-off line on the runway, to the line for re-booking your flight after it is cancelled yet another time. Perhaps that is not the whole of Hell, but only the circle reserved for the criminally impatient.
Observing my own dislike for waiting, I see that it’s not very complicated. I dislike waiting because it’s an indication of how unimportant I am. Only unimportant people have to wait. More important people can go through the aisle at the airport with the red carpet, or, if they are even more important, are escorted onto the plane. Even if they do have to wait, they are never seen to have to wait. There are special lounges to preserve them from that particular indignity, and there are hierarchies of such lounges. In the lower-level lounge, there is the bare protection of no one seeing you wait who is less important than you – call that the business class lounge. In the higher level, well, I don’t really know what goes on in there – call that the first class lounge. Alas there is always someone more important, for example, those who do not even need to use any public waiting area at all, but enter the airport at the point reserved for private planes.
Waiting is the special provenance of the poor. The poor do not even make it to the airport. They bring other people to the airport. The poor have waiting to do that most of us never face. Waiting in line for a work permit, waiting daily to pass a checkpoint just to get to work, waiting in line so the person you work for does not have to wait, waiting in line for food if you do not have work, waiting without knowing there is anything for which to wait in the end. The poor are used to waiting. They are also used to being on time, because they cannot afford to make someone else wait for them. “The poor have the time in their bones. Without dial or bell they know what hour has struck, for the poor are always afraid of being late” (Franz Werfel, The Song of Bernadette). The poor know the worth of things because they have had to wait for everything. At the same time, they learn what they themselves are worth. Nothing. At least, nothing that is not easily replaceable without any delay at all.
Advent is a prescribed period of waiting. No one is excused. There are no Advent lounges where one can take refuge from those who might take pleasure in seeing you wait. Advent reduces us all to waiting for something we want that we cannot possibly give ourselves. For those of us who can hide our neediness better, who can wait in comfort as opposed to on the street, Advent should be a time of solidarity with the poor, with those who must wait always. Waiting in solidarity with the elderly poor who cannot wait on themselves, with the homeless family who must wait for every amenity including shelter, with the indigent sick who must wait, hoping against hope, for medicine. Advent is a discipline of waiting which is at the same time a discipline of caring.
Yet therein lies another trap, namely, that we congratulate ourselves on having mastered the discipline of waiting, of getting good at waiting, of awaiting what we cannot possibly deserve as though it were a reward for good waiting. That is the outward form of waiting, perhaps, but not the poverty of spirit that the Gospel calls “blessed,” that knows that not even an infinity of perfectly behaved waiting can earn us what we are waiting for. Many times we wait, believing that our waiting entitles us to a reward, even if it is a spiritual reward, or experience, or consolation. We wait, all the while telling God exactly what we are waiting for, dictating the terms of our patience, bored because God has something else in mind and our waiting really amounts to just so much resisting. If we have to wait, we want to be in charge of the waiting. The poor, at any rate, cannot afford to romanticize waiting, for they know all too well that no matter how long they wait, they have no control over whether it will bear any fruit or not. Likely as not, they will be given the runaround and told to get lost. True waiting is not a discipline to master, but poverty of spirit.
What are we waiting for in Advent, then? The opportunity to congratulate ourselves for an excellent four weeks of waiting? A seal of approval on our waiting? Considered more deeply we are waiting for the coming of someone who has already come! We are waiting for something that, paradoxically, we can remember. Our waiting is at once a remembering. We are waiting for someone whom, we know, need never wait for anything or anyone, who can dictate the terms of all waiting, for He is the King of the Universe, as we celebrate on the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Kings do not have to wait. They are waited upon. But we remember that this King said that he had come, not to be waited upon, but to wait, not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life “as a ransom for many.” This is someone who did not suddenly appear in glory, but who waited in the womb nine months, who waited with His Mother, and who waited to grow up as all children do, and then waited until His “hour” had come to reign. He, who need never wait, became with us someone who had to wait, sometimes fruitlessly. And in the end, in a gruesome parody that the poorest of the poor know all too well, He was served not wine but vinegar by someone whose waiting on Him was an obeisance of mockery, as He himself waited to die. So much for being waited on.
We wait now as an act of remembering His waiting. Our waiting is in the first place not awaiting but remembering, a contemplation of the ineffably precious waiting of the Son of Man, who decided to spend His ineffably precious time waiting for us, waiting with us, waiting on us. We contemplate the triumph of this waiting in the Resurrection, which enables us to see it as none other than the unconquerable “long-suffering” love of God who is faithful to His promises and remembers His mercy. Contemplating this waiting, we can never seize it for our own, as a personal accomplishment, but only allow ourselves to be attracted to it and formed by it. Contemplating this waiting, we can allow ourselves really to wait, not for a fulfillment that is just the flip side of the mastery of a spiritual “skill,” but for a fruit of true love, hitherto unimagined, that He will allow to grow in our hearts now, if we can bear to wait. This growth He will bring to full fruition in that banquet to come, where there will be no waiting or waiting on, but where waiting itself will have been transfigured into the substance of eternal life.
John C. Cavadini teaches theology at Notre Dame and is a member of the Rover’s council of advisors. When he is not teaching, he can more often than not be found impatiently waiting in line at Starbuck’s.