by Lamin Sanneh
Lamin Sanneh teaches missions and world Christianity and history at Yale Divinity School. He is an editor-at-large of The Christian Century.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 13, 1989, p. 1170. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Christians wait for the feast to come with grateful hearts even though in the interim their minds are set on unresolved troubles and unreachable horizons.
The book of Isaiah juxtaposes desperate need with glorious abundance and speaks to people who know the first condition so well they find it hard even to dream about the second. Isaiah writes of the wilderness and dry land being glad, of the desert swarming with healthy blossoms, of people once wracked by "fearful hearts, weak hands and feeble knees" -- including the blind, the deaf, the lame and the dumb -- now forming the first ranks of those who shall possess the new bounty (Isa. 35:lf.) According to the prophet, the marginal and the excluded will be featured in God’s kingdom. Their voice shall be heard with resounding power on earth and in heaven and streams shall rise from the wilderness and the celestial anthem fill our ears.
The prophet speaks with such conviction that we assume he shares the plight of those he describes. It is, therefore, an act of astonishing courage scarcely short of divine command that the prophet offers a reason and purpose for waiting: God will bring the reward of superabundant blessing. How can he be so sure, we ask, and what makes him able to put his honor on the line?
Western culture is adverse to waiting. Waiting seems like a cop -- out, a refusal to face the facts. No doubt often when we "leave it all in God’s hands," God intends to leave it in ours. Such moments are ambiguous -- like the motto I saw on a West African taxi (called a "Mammy wagon") Usually overloaded with passengers, these vehicles careen down roads in dreadful disrepair, sometimes causing fatal accidents. One vehicle had the words: "Give all to God" painted on it, meaning: "I the proprietor give all praise to God for this vehicle and for the lucrative business it has given me." Considering the travel hazards, the motto might also imply that the vehicle carries blood offerings!
Despite the ambiguities of the moment, the Western attitude toward waiting is too extreme when it rejects the idea of a future that transcends finite boundaries. Material determinism is one philosophy people use to dismiss such transcendence, although there are numerous other monistic systems that compete for the honor. The fact is that the religious life involves far more than killing time, far more, for example, than sticking out one’s hand in a gesture of otherworldly defiance and running down the clock, though heaven knows we need gestures of religious defiance in today’s world. At the heart of the religious claim is the notion that "there and then" as well as "here and now" are radically relativized.
Religious people have an obligation to deabsolutize and destigmatize the tempo-ml order in order to consecrate it for service and witness. Such a process is consummated by imposing on the temporal order the idea of "waiting on God." This notion is not an excuse from engaging in service, but the bridle and rule of service. Waiting on God is "work" in the religious sense of being actively mindful of God’s presence and of our accountability.
The religious calendar helps us wait by punctuating the year with certain observances, dissolving the secular routine’s corrosive effects. Religious norms often reverse, and thereby rehabilitate, worldly standards. Periodically invoking those norms generates fresh awareness and understanding, much as hot and cold air combine to produce a shower. The religious calendar is a tool for spiritual training and also for social change, for the obedience and commitment we learn result in a qualitatively different way of assessing the world. Through its rules of observance, including those of Advent, the religious calendar inserts something fresh into a blandly secular worldview, and provides an example that secular reformers may emulate. That religious people may be in the minority, or that only a minority of such people may observe the calendar, only heightens the significance of the observance. And the small number of those participating is more than counterbalanced by the rites’ symbolic inclusiveness.
The theological element in Advent waiting is the promise that God’s word shall do God’s bidding. Some theologians see this notion as polydaemonistic or idolatrous. Do religious words, especially God’s names, contain a special power or force that is activated by the uttering of them? Such a view usually either offends our monotheistic sympathies or raises our rational hackles, so we classify it as primitive. However, theology need not submit to the nemesis of historical relativism or of a linear anthropology for its work to be valid. God has staked the divine honor on the project to redeem and sanctify, thereby giving authority to prophetic work. In that sense especially, perhaps only, is God’s word powerful; it places God at the center of our ventures, as the first and final surety. The distance between this kind of God and that implied in dynamic magic is the distance between the sublime and the ludicrous. God’s word is not a remote transmitter that poses no risk to God; rather it is field contact fraught with unconditional self-giving. The other side of that coin is self-denial, the divine abatement of a gulf that human striving cannot bridge but only widen.
Christians, therefore, wait for the feast to come with grateful hearts even though in the interim their minds are set on unresolved troubles and unreachable horizons. Advent is quality time, not because of its loquacious and crowded demands, but because it provides a time for us to receive God’s word and to collaborate in its fulfillment by being the connecting rod between vision and action.
The Letter to the Hebrews catches the season’s mood with words that should be on our minds:
Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the stigma that he bore. For here we have no permanent home, but we are seekers after the city which is to come. Through Jesus, then, let us continually offer up to God the sacrifice of praise, that is, the tribute of lips which acknowledge his name, and never forget to show kindness and to share what you have with others: for such are the sacrifices which God approves 113:13-16].