“Hope,” Anne Lamott writes, “like grief, takes time.”
I haven’t always paid much attention to the liturgical calendar. It’s a tradition I didn’t grow up with, and didn’t always fully understand. But I know myself better these days. I know how much I thrive on routine and habitual happenings, and so there is something really quite soothing about the flow of a calendar that unfolds in time with church holidays.
I started reading Advent books several years ago, as a way to prepare for the one of the most holy days amid one of the most busy seasons. It grounded me. It planted a seed of stillness in what sometimes feels like a swirling and chaotic mental state. And it made me realize Anne was right. If we are to rightly prepare for the hope of Christmas, it will take time.
Two years ago we constructed a boxed in area in our backyard for a garden. We went to Pike’s Nursery and scoped out the herbs and vegetables we wanted to take residence in our tiny square of earth. We picked up peppers and mint, basil and lavender. And of course, tomatoes. I have fond memories of growing my own tomato plant as a kid and remember the unmistakable pride that comes from watching something come from nothing, due in part to the work of your hands. There were two options for the tomato plant that would come home with us. One already had a few burgeoning buds on it. Still green, but undeniably in process of becoming fully ripe tomatoes. The other was still just stems and leaves, nothing to distinguish it from any other leafy plant. That’s the one we chose.
We checked the growth and progress. Most days it appeared no different. Some days we feared for its survival. But every day, we looked. And when the first signs of fruit showed up, we celebrated like we had won the lottery.
Because the best kind of hope takes awhile.
Advent is a practice in hope. And it begins far earlier than the few days we take off of work leading up to Christmas, far sooner than when the crowds begin to grow frantic in the malls and the grocery stores. Advent is a resolute hope that starts long before we realize it.
If we want to imagine, what the first Christmas may have been like, we need to start practicing our hope now, when the waiting still feels fruitless.
We need to hold unswervingly to the idea of a God who comes in the dark, ushering in a breathtaking light…but begin believing in that God when the dark still feels tangible and suffocating.
We need to have confidence in a God who initiates the very act of redemption simply by showing up…but begin that confidence when His absence still feels palpable and certain.
We need to have faith in a God who goes to the farthest lengths possible to make sure we know He is for us…but have that faith, long before it becomes sight.
Advent is a waiting game. For many of us, the waiting isn’t just for Christmas. It’s for peace in a relationship that is consistently taking and giving an emotional beating. It’s for the health diagnosis and recovery that seems long in coming. It is for the children who can’t quite get their act together long enough to realize this time of year is supposed to magical, for crying out loud. It’s for the job, the change, the answer, all a long time coming, and still, somehow, just out of reach.
The waiting—as if we didn’t already know—is hard. It can be maddening, like waiting for a tomato to ripen on a leafy green plant that shows no evidence of change. But when the fruits of your labor begin to bud, when the first lighting of the horizon breaks the monotony of night, when the choir of angels announces God’s goodwill towards man, you suddenly understand why hope takes as much time as it does.
Because hope is only as good as the time it takes waiting for its fruition. The best kind of hope is a mature one. That flourishes in the dark, in the unknowing, in the wondering. This kind of hope needs a long runway. But when it takes flight? What a thing to see. The hope Advent offers, is this kind exactly.
“Hope, like grief, takes time.”
I wonder if hope and grief are more alike than we ever thought. If it is only the hope with a little bit of grief mixed in, a little bit of uncertainty and wondering, a little bit of desperation and pain, a little bit of restlessness and frustration, that ultimately makes the hope fulfilled worth it.
I do know this is the best kind of hope. And it’s the hope we find amid a season of waiting and watching, of longing and wondering that ultimately leads us to a manger, to the mustiness of a crowded barn, to the awkwardness of a young couple, to the feet of a baby boy. There, hope is realized. At last.
Yes, hope takes time. But in the end, when our hope is satisfied, I wonder if we might do it all over again, because the wait was a worthy one. And because the baby we encounter at the end grows up to be far more than we could have ever imagined.