The music was blasting the other day in my car, as I listened to Tom Petty’s tenor nasally voice tinged with a Southern drawl…
The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
As we celebrate Advent, what we often forget is the time period in-between the Hebrew Scriptures and the coming of Messiah was 400 years. This is called the intertestamental period (“in-between the testaments”) where prophetic words from God ceased, leading some to call it, “the silent years”. It has as its beginning Israel in bondage to Persia leading to release, occupation of the land by the Greeks and then the Romans. Four hundred years of waiting in silence from Yahweh.
One of the more interesting facts about this period is this is when the Pharisees added oral tradition to their written Scriptures (called the Talmud). This should serve to remind us that silence has the ability to create a deep religious insecurity where one leans on the rules (or makes up rules) to bring clarity to one’s religious devotion. So what does it mean to love God and neighbor? If God won’t spell it out, we will.
When we observe Advent it’s important that we shed the niceties and overly romantic notions of Christmas. We put ourselves in the shoes of those Jews who were waiting for Messiah to come even when God had been silent. God’s speaking then into human history with the advent of the living Word was abrupt. It was sudden and unexpected yet gently sublime.
With Christ’s first advent (“arrival” or “coming”), we declare like Simeon in the Jerusalem temple:
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
The idea of Advent prior to Christmas is to prepare our hearts in waiting… waiting for Messiah to come. While we all know how the story turns out in Bethlehem we don’t want to get to the birth too fast! We want to share in what Simeon must have felt to see God’s salvation after years of silence! Likewise, we enter into the silence of the story again and again, saying in our hearts, ‘Lord, will you rescue your people?” While waiting for anything feels like torture, its full effects are intended to confront our safety, self-sufficiency, and our false expectations about God and life.
In 1966, Japanese author, Shusako Endo wrote Silence, probably his personal best bringing to life the evangelization of feudal Japan by Portuguese Catholics. One theme of the book is the silence of God contrasted with the brutal persecution of small hidden cloisters of Christians as the country unified under one national leader rather than hundreds of competing feudal lords. Mako Fujimura writes,
[Endo’s] books unveil a vital link between trauma, hiddenness, and beauty of faith in the ambiguity and relativism – two features of postmodernism and Japanese culture. 1
In the end, when is it that God speaks loudly in His majesty and glory? It is in the silence of Advent as we await our Savior who arrived in a way that no one really noticed or went looking for. He didn’t come in grandeur and power. Nor did He come in divine wrath. He came in relative obscurity, a “silent” night, marked by the beauty, grace and simplicity of a Savior born for us. He shouts to us in the silence we experience because He was born to suffer and die so that in what seems like silence we would always know He is with us, Immanuel.
The Advent season is a season of waiting, but our whole life is an Advent season, that is, a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is In The Manger).
1 Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty, p.78-79.