Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Season of Waiting

I have been dreading Christmas this year.  My eight-year-old self would be horrified at such blasphemy; my twenty-eight-year-old self is certainly not pleased to admit how grimly I have watched December's approach.  Ever since I can remember, I have exulted in the approach of the Christmas season. Beginning in kindergarten, I began recording Christmas "radio" shows, complete with carols, special guests, and thrilling dramas about motorcycle gangs (yes: motorcycle gangs. Don't ask me why.).

Living on an academic calendar my entire life only enhanced the inherent joys of Christmas. Before I started school, Christmas marked the season when my parents' lives calmed down for several weeks, and once I entered school, the holiday break provided long and blissful days for listening to Orson Wells narrate A Christmas Carol or hosting Christmas tea parties.

Even grad school, so often an enemy to comfort and joy, has never before jeopardized Christmas. I have endured many sleepless nights finishing seminar papers or grading exams, but by the time Christmas itself comes, I have always been able to leave my work alone for a week or two, at least. Christmas has represented a clean break between semesters.

Why, then, has this year's holiday filled with me such reluctance, even dread? Because for once, I cannot pretend that Christmas is my reward for a semester of superhuman activity. Certainly, I have been working hard--painfully hard, unceasingly hard--on teaching, my dissertation, and job applications. My dissertation is coming along well, but job applications have unsettled me far more than I expected.  Whenever anyone asks me how the process is going, I hear a sanguine voice say something about "exciting prospects" and "trusting God," but somehow I don't sound so chipper when talking to myself. I have sent out more than twenty applications, and now I must wait. Many preliminary interviews for academic positions occur at national Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention at the beginning of January, and not knowing whether or not I will have an interview has been overshadowing my eagerness for Christmas.

Waiting for news about interviews reminds me how many other things I am tired of waiting for: I am tired of waiting for a job that does not require every waking moment, for some sense of where I will be at this time next year, for reconciliation with a friend. 
Always waiting
 Only this week have I recognized the root of my discontent: I refuse to welcome Christmas--the feast of the Incarnation--because I am sick of waiting.  I do not want Christmas to come because I am not ready: I have not worked hard enough, it seems, to earn a fruitful and peaceful Christmas vacation.

Despite my reluctance, I began my traditional holiday reading on Sunday--selections from Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. The voices the editors of this book gather--from Bonhoeffer, Donne, Hopkins, L'Engle, Romero, and many more--have been my guides toward Christmas for years. Last night, the reading was from Henri Nouwen, and his words made me ashamed of my selfish impatience. After observing that waiting is a very unpopular attitude in our culture, Nouwen writes
...waiting is even more difficult because we are so fearful. One of the most pervasive emotions in the atmosphere around us is fear. [...] Fearful people have a hard time waiting, because when we are afraid we want to get away from where we are. [...] It impresses me, therefore, that all the figures who appear on the first pages of Luke's Gospel are wiating. Zechariah and Elizabeth are waiting. Mary is waiting. Simeon and Anna, who were there at the temple when Jesus was brought in, are waiting. The whole opening scene of the good news is filled with waiting people. And right at the beginning all those people in some way or another hear the words, "Do not be afraid. I have something good to say to you." These words set the tone and the context. Now Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon and Anna are waiting for something new and good to happen to them. (27-29)

This time before Christmas, Advent, calls God's people to wait. Simeon and Anna did not look forward to the coming of the Messiah as something they could accomplish, but as something they waited for God to do. Their role was to wait faithfully and watch carefully, doing the work before them.

I am faithless if I let my own impatience and anxiety deprive me of the joy that comes with Christmas. So I am waiting. So my future is uncertain. So I may not have done "enough." The Word of the Lord has come to dwell among us, and that Word says, "Do not be afraid. Good is coming." Maybe in my life that good will take the form of news about a job interview. Maybe not. Regardless, Nouwen and other messengers-of-the-most-High challenge me to wait in hope, and when Christmas comes, I will remember that this hope is about much, much more than my job prospects or a vacation from school. Freedom from selfishness, salvation from fear, the redemption of all creation--these are hopes much better than anything the MLA could offer.


  1. Last year Dan and I went through a similar process as we faced our last Christmas at home and slogged together through all of his PhD program applications. But somehow for us, all that whirlwind made Christmas and the inherent anticipation of it more meaningful. To me, looking toward Christmas was a way to find stability in a shifting world--moments of peace amidst a great deal of chaos and uncertainty, even when the waiting felt nigh unbearable.

  2. Oh Bethany, I wish I could share with you the peace God gave me the year we were in the same position. Having read your job application and CV, I truly think the problem you are going to find yourself facing is more job offers than you know what to do with. I will pray that God grants you his peace, and wisdom in your decision making process. I also pray that you will regain joy in anticipation of the nativity this year.

  3. Bethany, your words joy me because I understand you "come from a thought-full well of thoroughness." I admire this preparedness. Overnight, the waiting ceases. Preparedness is that, you prepare, prepare, prepare, and without hesitation, suddenly IT is here. God is with! Laurieanne Tuttle