As 2020 has lingered on, I have watched as marker after marker of a year’s progression have been overtaken by an endless sea of sameness: one weekend blurs into the next, one Zoom call into the next. The rhythms of a child’s first year at school, of sports seasons, of semester familiarities, family vacations, regular gatherings with friends: all of these uprooted, and in their place, the endless, placid waters which covered them. Their reach, once shallow and fierce, has become simply expansive, covering the face of the earth, and with their expansiveness, a new and quiet timelessness.
In this timeless season, how does Advent proceed? When all markers of the passage from one epoch to the next are washed out, what does expectant waiting mean? In the Gospel story, the progression of the nativity—from annunciation to expanding womb to birth—stretches out like Mary’s figure. And as the Word takes flesh and dwells among us, expanding in form, appropriate to one in whom all creation hangs together, the story itself expands, drawing in first a family, then a city, and then the world.
To await this birth is to attend to the ways in which everything around the unseen child begins to alter: the shifting of furniture, new plans entering into conversations. The child unseen begins to shift the world, as we wait for that which we have not yet seen. In Mary, the one who has created all things—the one unseen—remains unseen to the eyes while altering relationships, rooms, politics.
But for us, the Advent markers are muted, and our celebrations have been upended. We wait not as those watching the expanding of the world, but as those swallowed up by sameness. We do look forward to a world where waiting make sense, a world which we mark not in sameness, but in change, however incremental. But while we wait for a world in which we can once again have rhythms, rituals, and change, time simply passes, unmarked, without expectation.
In this, our timeless season, we look forward to a world which will emerge after Christmas, for it is there that a vaccine lies. We wait for a world beyond winter, for it is there that birthdays, the return of friends to backyards, of a world where strangers are not immediate threats and where time passes marked by things changing. And so, in irony, our waiting urges us to rush past the greatest time of waiting—Advent—to get to an unknown but routine future.
It is in this year, then, that we must more clearly recall the nature of Mary’s waiting, in whom the One who gave shape to the formless and void took on a shape which we could not yet see. For God was not absent there, but gathered up the creation in joy and worship in ever-expanding circles, from family to strangers to the angels.
So many of our markers of time have been stripped away this year, and yet, the Spirit is at work, taming the deep and calling forth meaning. What has been taken from us in the processions and festivals has been given back to us as silence, of watching and waiting for the imperceptible changes which soon break forth as a face, the face of Christ crying out, reshaping our time, commitments, our loves.
The sameness of our days is, in the face of Advent, not an endless sea without a shore. We are not adrift, but held by the grace of God, the Spirit the current accompanying us in this pandemic journey. We are not to wish away this season, but wait through it. To reach the other side of these pandemic waters, we must pass through Advent, not as a hurdle to get over, but as the way in which we wait: expecting that the world is not vacant of God, but being renewed by the One who brings form and rhythm to the vacant and void. God is with us, unseen but known, taking up room and calling a body into existence. That body is frail and fractured, wounded by both the seen and unseen, but it is the sign that Christ is in the world, bringing life to creation. Now as ever, we wait trusting that the unseen God is at work, yearning for the One who heals the world.
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