”A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment.”1 — Henri Nouwen
The Annunciation is a liminal moment, a threshold moment. In many of the paintings of the 14th century, we see the angel of God approaching the girl Mary in a sunlit, airy space that looks like it could have been designed by a group of Swedish architects. The angel pauses on the threshold at a reserved distance from Mary, who waits with an air of shy expectation.
It is a pause between times, the last of “Before the Common Era” and what will become known in most of the world as the Old Testament, and the Common Era’s New Testament—all of that in the future—but for us, looking back, the defining hinge of history, after which millions of people will set their moral compass to the true north of Jesus Christ.
The announcement itself, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, not only breaks the news that a certain thing will happen, but also why it will be so: “You shall conceive and bear a son,” because “He will be great . . . And he will be king over Israel for ever.”
This is a mixed message for Mary. She is to bear the Holy One of Israel, the Messiah who will fulfill the hopes of the nation. But she has no husband. Actually, she is betrothed to be married, but social norms and a conscience in good working order makes the how of conception beyond the possible. She is not thinking outside the physical means of intercourse; why should she? There were myths, stories of girls possessed by the gods, but these were pagan deities, capricious and rapacious, not at all the way of the God she had been taught to worship. She is “deeply troubled.”
The angel speaks of “overshadowing”. “The power of the Most High,” he says, by way of explanation. The girl has perhaps some inkling of what this might mean, but she hears the last part most clearly—the child will be the Son of God.
But there is more: her kinswoman, Elizabeth, cursed as barren for these many years, is pregnant, six months on. Nothing is impossible for God, says the angel. The girl looks through the air between them, seeing a child, a teenager, a man. The edges of her vision contract to a brightly-lit tunnel, rimmed with refracted light in colors that glow. She hears the sound of the angel’s voice far away. She blinks, but she is still inside the tunnel and inside the room, and her body is curved into the light and she is inside her body.
The angel’s words have weight and surface. She holds them in her hands and feels them burning cold. The motion of the world slows and stops; she can feel it inside her like a pendulum coming to rest. She senses that her words will trip the cog and restart the world. But first she must breathe. “I am,” she inhales silently—and holds it a moment—then exhales with “Here I am. I am the Lord’s servant . . .” The angel nods; the world shudders into motion once again.
Now she will learn the inner nature of what it means to wait.
Henri Nouwen, Dutch Catholic priest, counselor, and spiritual writer, describes a spirituality of waiting. Those who wait, he says, do so because of a promise. It is a waiting with a point, a telos, to it. The promise grows in them like a seed. “It is always a movement from something to something more,” says Nouwen.2
Their waiting is anything but passive. “The secret of waiting is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun.”3 It is to be fully present in the moment, to be ready when the moment is ripe for fulfillment. It is to do in each moment that which we can, to prepare our lives to receive this blessing—repentance, forgiving others, prayer, opening ourselves to perceive the holy in the mundane.
But the waiting is also patient. A present-centered, actively waiting person is willing to stay in the moment, because that is where the deliverance will occur, no matter when it arrives. Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary—each of them attentive to the moment and willing to listen. Elizabeth and Mary nurture their present, says Nouwen, and that is why they can hear the angel.
And the waiting is open-ended. There is no constraint placed on it. This is the test of one’s patience, to wait in trust without trying to manipulate the future. This is never easy, but Nouwen says it is especially difficult to remain open-ended; we have many wishes pulling us this way and that. We wish, and when our wishes are not fulfilled, we are disappointed and try to move the pieces around to make them happen. Can we stay in that ever-present moment in time as it travels into an open-ended future?
Our wishes, tested over time and infused with patience, may grow into hopes that can outlive us. Hope that is larger than any of us is that which is surrendered to God. This is what we mean when we say we “live in hope.”
Part of what we must do when we read Scripture is to wield our imagination in service to our faith. Across thousands of years, melding through culture, religion, and story, we share our humanity at the points of grief, loss, despair, hope, joy.
We are trying to touch the hardness of the ground they walked on, the soft fold to the weave of her shawl as it drapes across her shoulders, the upward glance of the man tightening the saddle strap on the donkey, the ghosting of the donkey’s breath in the bite of cold in the night darkness.
Could we put ourselves in the place of Mary, Joseph, and their infant as they flee into the night before Herod’s murderous rampage? Can we feel the anxiety mixed with hope as they make their way across the desert to the relative safety of Egypt? What if they reached the border, only to be separated from each other and from their child? What if they had no idea where their child was or when he would be returned to them? Could we “be touched by the feeling of their infirmity,” or their “terror by night . . . Or the pestilence that stalks in darkness”?4
Here is the baby crying, red-faced and contorted. You know how the cry begins: the long, silent, intake of breath before the ear-splitting wail that goes on and on, the eyes clamped shut, the little fists balled up, the tension radiating from every pore. We can coo and sing and tiptoe around the manger, with the cattle lowing in the background, but sooner or later the Son of God will explode in anger without words.
There will be no point in bringing up the ordination of women or the inequity of wealth distribution or any of the myriad of injustices that flare up our moral energy. This is an infant and at this moment we can only try, with patience, to learn what he needs.
And in that wordless cry they begin to realize how much there is to learn and how they must wait for the child to develop in his time. There will be moments, flashes through the ordinary of something extraordinary; the quickness of understanding, the seeing through another’s fear to the innocence beneath. Mary will treasure these things in her heart as she waits.
In years to come, Mary will ask of him a favor to save face for her friends at the wedding of their daughter. “They are out of wine,” she will say, and he will respond, “What is that to me? My time is not yet come.”
He will not be hurried in his realization of who he is, but then he does awaken to it. What at first seems a request for magic he now sees as a simple desire for harmony and celebration. “Do as he tells you,” says his mother to the servants. “Fill the jars,” he says. And the best wine flourishes under his command. “This was the first of the signs,” says John in his gospel, “by which Jesus revealed his glory and led his disciples to believe in him.” In the timeless rituals of family and community, Jesus’ glory is revealed in time.
In the Advent season we learn to wait with patience for the coming of the Lord. In the darkest time of the year, in a time when many scoff at the light and flaunt their own darkness, we will find our light springing up from the humblest of births.
“Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”5