The old book is full of silence. Full of people waiting. Before the earth began, there was silence. Before the birth of Adam and Eve there was only the sound of the animals, of the wind and the birds in the trees. Before Moses could speak, he waited for God.
Before the Christ was born, in a desert town a long time ago, the world was waiting. Unaware. The shepherds were doing their jobs, living their lives, sleeping round a campfire and watching the flocks, without any idea that they were about to meet armies of angels and be pitched, witless, into the dazzling heart of a very big story indeed.
The people of Bethlehem were working, eating, sleeping under their broad sky, unaware of God weaving his magic among them. The wise men had started a journey across their world, unsure of what they would find at the end of it.
No-one was preparing for the birth except the parents. Joseph and Mary were waiting: he not knowing what to think about the unborn child but anxious to find a place for his young wife to lay down and gather her strength; she hoping that the angel had been no delusion, and that the life inside her was as it had promised. Much later, they called her ‘most highly favoured lady’. I don’t suppose it felt like that as she lay among the cows.
Nor was that the last of the waiting. Once born, their son had to wait and grow. Who among his friends and neighbours had any idea what the bright, slightly odd son of Joseph would become? Later, when the boy became a man he went out into the wilderness to wait for the devil, so that temptation could be overcome. And to wait for God. That’s what he said. Just as he waited in the garden for a traitor’s kiss.
After he was murdered, the Christ’s friends and followers waited, although they didn’t know what for. Huddled together, out of sight of the police, they were scared and scarred by the memories of that awful, slow death.
John, his closest friend, was young and bewildered and suddenly burdened with a final request, to look after the mother Mary. Perhaps, crowded by the grief of those around him, he went out onto the flat roof of the house where they were staying, and looked up at the stars, breathing heavily. Weeping, alone. Waiting, but for what?
There was nothing else to do.
Like Mary, like the wise men, like John, we also are waiting, unsure of what we are waiting for. This is the start of advent, a time marked out by the Church for us to prepare for Christmas. A time when we are traditionally supposed to think about death, judgement, heaven and hell. Serious stuff that sits uneasily alongside shopping for presents, office parties, and working hard to clear our desks.
It’s also the time of gathering dark in the wheel of the year, when we are waiting for the days to turn and the light to grow again.
The light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome. Not quite.
We are not waiting for Christmas. That’s just a break, an invented moment in the calendar that reminds us of some simpler life that we have lost – a memory clouded, ironically, by the trappings that now surround it.
We are waiting for a better life. For a winning lottery ticket, for a new love, for some money to spend, for our holidays. For something bigger, better, although we don’t know what it is. Someone once said this restlessness, this feeling of something missing, was like being homesick, without knowing where it was you were homesick for.
Christmas is just a sign post, a reminder of the story so far. A festival that points to a birth that points to a death and a glorious rebirth. But also to a much bigger story that is supposed to have a happy ending, when time ends, with the biggest event of them all. The coming of the kingdom. The Lord’s return. The new Jerusalem. Going to glory. Whatever you want to call it, whether you think of it as global or personal, that glorious imagined day when the burdens fall from us and we are taken home.
Is it going to happen? Like John, we doubt it. Is God going to come back? No. Why? Because God never went away. While we are waiting, trying to listen, the divine spirit is speaking. Through us. Through each other. Through friends and strangers, through the flowers of the field and the beauty of mountains. Through food and love and wine. Through films and music and words, and other things that we sometimes have so much of. Our ability to recognise the divine is dulled. We see through a glass, darkly, or in glimpses and flashes and elusive moments. It is not enough. It is never enough.
As well as being the start of advent, this is the end of World Aids Week. There is suffering enough to go round and more besides, among the gay and the straight, the loved and the lonely, the comfortable and the outcast. Behind our own lace curtains are a thousand stories, happy and tragic. If only people knew what we know about ourselves . . .
But while we wait on the roof, like John, our eyes misted with tears, the stars look down on us. That’s better than nothing. It’s a sign. It helps. It’s there even when our foolish, desperate, limiting attempts to feel the closeness of God fail us. God is present, whether we know it or not. Whispering in our ear, though we hardly hear. And after all, like Moses, and Mary, and John, and the unwitting shepherds, we are not to know what surprises are just around the corner.