URC :: Spirituality

broadening and deepening prayer

Fleur Houston: Waiting and knowing when the wait is over

Praying with those who wait Fleur Houston: Waiting and knowing when the wait is over

Before we begin this session, I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Fleur Houston and I am speaking to you this evening from Macclesfield where I inhabit a silk weaver’s garret with my husband, Walter. Retirement from pastoral ministry means that in some respects my time is flexible, though punctuated by regular invitations to take services for churches. I enjoy writing articles and books and I am particularly glad to let you know that my present book on the life and work of the theologian John Wood Oman is nearing completion. With only two more chapters to write, the end is in sight.

For this session, we will pick up some of the things David Cornick was talking about this morning as we reflect together on the theme “waiting and knowing when the wait is over.” Then after a minute or so of silent reflection, we move into discussion together about some of the issues raised. That will once more be followed by silence shading into a period of musical reflection and concluding with a short prayer.

David reminded us how we live our lives as our ancestors did, by rhythms of time and how for most of us today those rhythms are Christ-shaped.

We were reminded too how ambiguities arose over the 4th and 5th centuries, as the Christian experience of time was fixed, and how some of these have been preserved in our observation of Advent. We wait for the second coming and for the first. We wait once more for the coming of the Christ-child at Bethlehem, to welcome him into our hearts. But we wait also for an end to the greed and folly of humanity and we long for the day when Christ will come again and his rule will be all in all. So it is that in the Advent weeks of waiting, in the best of all possible worlds, we hold the totality of the Christ-event together – from the beginning of our salvation to the redemption of the world.

Now it’s time to tease that out a little further. What does this apparent ambiguity mean for our experience of Advent waiting? How do we hold these two strands of our tradition together? And how do we know when the wait is over?

Now I’d like to be frank with you – the first thing to say is that these issues are far from straightforward and I’ve got no easy answers. I can say, though, that visions of the first and second coming are not readily reconciled and when we don’t maintain the resulting tension, our waiting gets out of balance. We lose sight of God’s purposes for the world.

We either over emphasise the nativity and fall into pious sentimentality, rehearsed and predictable, or we place too much emphasis on the wickedness of the world with a poorly focussed vision of the second coming. And I would like to suggest to you that when either of these happens, our waiting becomes meaningless.

One of the best illustrations that I know of meaningless waiting is a play by the distinguished 20th century Irish playwright Samuel Beckett entitled Waiting for Godot. You may know it. Beckett wrote in French and English and was a winner of the Nobel prize for literature; he dealt with tragi-comic experiences of life that often raise profound philosophical questions. Waiting for Godot was written originally in France in the years after the second World War, and has been hailed as his most outstanding work. It brings out very well the absurdity of putting life on hold while we wait. It goes something like this. In a country road, near a leafless tree, two men are waiting. They don’t know what they are there for and vaguely assume they must be waiting for someone. Although there is no evidence of this, they wait, patiently and passively. They give the man a name, Godot. But Godot never comes. “And if he comes?” one asks the other – “we’ll be saved” is the response – but what that means is never spelt out. The words are evanescent, they fade away into nothingness. At the end of each day, a boy comes to tell them that Godot will not come today but will come tomorrow. We never meet Godot and his whole purpose appears to be that who is waited for.

The two men pass the time talking, playing games and arguing. Boredom sets in with the interminable waiting. They get very forgetful and need to be reminded who they are waiting for. All they can do is idle away the time with meaningless repetitive actions. Time for them is cyclical. There is no end in sight.

Now we see from that summary that the waiting of Vladimir and Estragon, as the two men are called, is qualitatively different from the waiting we are exploring here. Waiting for us in a time of Advent has to be more than simply a test of our ability to endure; it has to have purpose, a meaning and an end.

But what purpose, meaning and end can we find in our waiting for the first and second comings? We give expression to the second coming in the most significant liturgies in our calendar. As we celebrate the eucharist, we affirm that Christ will come again. We state it in the great creeds of the Church. It is a feature of the earliest Christian writings. However, the question as to when that would be realised has always been of secondary importance in mainstream church tradition. Paul’s hope was grounded in the saving work of Christ– nowhere does he claim to know the time when Christ would come again to judge the living and the dead. This made no difference to Paul’s faith or his hope. The delay was no problem for Paul –when Christians at Thessalonica pressed him to tell them when the end would come he insisted that that he had no information– the Day of the Lord would come unexpectedly “like a thief in the night” and that was all they needed to know. The world would be judged, the world would be saved, but the exact timing of this was of lesser importance. In fact it doesn’t seem to matter.

So for Paul, the meaning of the waiting mattered, and mattered very much but the precise day and time when it would come to an end was of lesser significance.

Now let’s turn to the other skein of the Advent tradition. For interwoven with our waiting for the second coming is our anticipation of the first coming – the birth of the Christ-child, the saviour who is Christ the Lord. And in the Gospel of Luke the meaning of our waiting and its end are fleshed out. We are told twice that time is fulfilled; first, we have a natural human phase of life, a baby come full term, a baby born and according to our human experience of time, this is the end of waiting. But the fulfilment of time is also seen as the accomplishment of prophetic revelation, it is a sign of God’s steadfast love. And that is everlasting. Time and eternity are one. Night is juxtaposed with light as the glory of God shines forth in the here and now with unearthly life, free from any of our human programmes or religious seasons, independent of all our human understandings of time, transcending our most devout Advent waiting. The birth of Jesus is an everlasting sign of God’s purposes for his people. And so we come to understand that the judgement proclaimed in the second coming is not to be feared but hoped for in faith and love.

Generations of our ancestors in the faith affirmed from childhood onwards this resounding truth (and pardon the non-inclusive language): “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” We are to enjoy not just with our intellect but also with our heart, drawing on deep wells of kindness, generosity and unselfishness.

We come to see that the meaning of our waiting is in the joyful awareness expressed so simply in the carol written by Christina Rosetti: “Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine, love was born at Christmas, star and angels gave the sign. Worship we the godhead, love incarnate, love divine, worship we our Jesus, but wherewith for sacred sign? Love shall be our token, love be yours and love be mine, love to God and all men, love for plea and gift and sign.” Such love will never come to an end.

Let’s keep silent for a moment or two.



Silence shading off into musical reflection

“Wait for the Lord” (Taize)

Closing prayer: Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon) from BCW

Save us, O Lord, while waking,
And guard us while sleeping
That awake we may walk with Christ
And asleep may rest in peace.

Now Lord you let your servant go in peace
Your word has been fulfilled.

My own eyes have seen the salvation
Which you have prepared in the sight of every people;

A light to reveal you to the nations
And the glory of your people Israel.

Glory to the Father and to the Son,
And to the Holy Spirit;
As it was in the beginning is now and shall be for ever.

Save us, O Lord, while waking,
And guard us while sleeping,
That awake we may watch with Christ
And asleep may rest in peace.