Watch, Wait, and Wonder

Have you ever wondered why Christmas comes in winter? There are the normal historical reasons of course. It should be said that many scholars are doubtful that the Nativity actually happened, “In the Deep Mid-Winter” as the hauntingly beautiful carol proclaims. Most, pointing to the flocks of sheep in the field wonder if a spring date would be more historical and posit that the date was moved to eclipse a pagan winter festival of light. That may be. Still, whether by history or theology, the Holy Spirit made it so that Christmas comes to us in winter. But why winter?

My view? To keep us waiting. 

Traditionally, winter was the slow season. In an agrarian society — which was what the vast majority of the world’s population lived in until just the last 100 years or so[1] — most the production came to a stop after the harvest. The fields were bare and in the Northern sections, covered with snow. While maintaining the daily needs of the animals went on, all the larger actions of tilling, planting, etc. were done for the year and the colder weather forced people to stay largely in their homes to wait out the season.

Sound familiar?

As we are all re-learning s l o w l y but deeply is that waiting is hard. Waiting isn’t something we are naturally good at. Humans are doers. So sometimes the waiting comes despite ourselves. Humans don’t hibernate during the winter, we wait because that’s all we can do. But the upside of waiting is that it forces us to slow down, to stop, to listen, to rethink things. 

Holly Whitcomb, in her book, Seven Spiritual Gifts of Waiting says, “Loss of control; is the hallmark of waiting”[2] With all this waiting, and its implicit reminder that WE ARE NOT IN CONTROL OF ALL THINGS, comes some special surprises. We begin to notice things in the world, in others, and in ourselves that we had not noticed before because we were too engaged in doing.

On a personal note, I recall a certain moose hunt (sorry, Mortimer!). Moose hunting involves a lot of waiting and being still. Moose don’t see particularly well, but they make up for it with impeccable hearing. If you want to see moose, you learn to sit and wait. This particular afternoon I was situated at the base of a large cottonwood. After a long time, I began to hear a scratching noise on the my tree slightly above my head. Slowly, I looked up and saw a porcupine, just two feet above me, slowing climbing up the tree. We both stopped and assessed one another for a bit then, he or she, deciding I wasn’t much, continued the climb. Until then, I had never seen a porcupine outside of a zoo and to have such a face to face and safe (!) first encounter was a special privilege that I would have missed if I was thrashing about in the bush looking to “do” hunting. I don’t remember if we got a moose that trip, but I do remember that porcupine. I think that’s the real reason I loved hunting so much, it forced me to wait. It taught me to hear and it allowed me to see.

Holly Witcombe goes on to relate a story of waiting that has a much more universal connection. About fifty years ago Bill Backer was a high-ranking creative agent for a multi-national advertising firm and he was in route to London, England to meet with a client that was one of the world’s largest companies, with one of the most recognizable brands in the world. They wanted to freshen up their advertising strategy to meet the interests of a new generation and Bill was in charge of the account. Just short of London, however, the plane was diverted due to weather conditions and forced to land in Shannon, Ireland. Many plans and schedules were thrown off, not just Bill’s so you can imagine how grumpy those passengers were as they waited. The next morning, however, Bill noticed that the mood had changed and that many of the passengers, mostly strangers to one another before, were now crowded around tables in the airport café, talking, even laughing and drinking, among other things, Coca Cola. It was a special moment for Bill and he immediately began to work a fresh pitch for his now rescheduled meeting with his client. It was at that meeting, Bill Backer presented the campaign to the executives at Coca Cola that became of the famous, “Hilltop Commercial” of 1971, often considered one of the most innovative and groundbreaking advertisements of all time[3]. If you were old enough to watch TV back then, you are probably already hearing the tune, 

            “I’d like to teach the world to sing,

                        In perfect harmony…”.

If you don’t know the commercial, find it on YouTube under, “Hilltop coke commercial.”

“Loss of control; is the hallmark of waiting” and with the wait often comes a new way to see, hear, think, believe. 

Waiting can be hard. Sometimes waiting can be a matter of endurance in the direst circumstances. The readings today from Isaiah and Mark are words of waiting, but also conflict. In both cases, the people of God are under great stress and wonder how much longer they can wait. These readings we have come from a genre of literature called “apocalyptic” which we often associate with catastrophe, but really means “revealing” as the revealing of God’s plan or presence. Ancient people took comfort in these words because while they knew that while they were suffering in their harsh waiting, they also knew that the power and wisdom of God was ultimately in charge. They had lost control over their future, and they awaited God’s redemption to set things right.

The Advent hymn reminds us that much of waiting comes in the hard times, when we feel out of control, and when it is darkest:

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, 

            And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here,

            Until the Son of God appear.” 

Advent calls us to wait. To watch. To wonder.

To listen for the scratching of the Spirit and surprise encounter.

To see things in new ways with hearts diverted from common paths.

To rest in the trust that even in our blackest, coldest hours, God’s promise is still true for us.

The greatest mystery, the greatest wonder the world has ever known – the God became human —

HAD to come at winter and comes to us anew during this season of pandemic

            So we could watch and we could wait and we could wonder

                        at what is being revealed among us: 

                                    God’s Amazing Grace in our lives.

[1] Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2010 Sep 27; 365(1554): 2809–2820. 

doi: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0136

PMCID: PMC2935117

PMID: 20713386

Urbanization and its implications for food and farming

David Satterthwaite,* Gordon McGranahan, and  Cecilia Tacoli

[2] Augsburg 2005, pg. 37.


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