Advent, the long annual wait for Christmas, has begun. Thursday we received our first Christmas card. A few days before that the tree went up, bare now except for strings of small white lights. In our neighborhood, a few other Christmas trees have appeared, some fully decorated. We know how to wait for Christmas here. We’ve been rehearsing it for generations.
The people of Qumran knew how to wait. The people of that ancient community had withdrawn from the broken life they had known, and they organized a new life for themselves on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, about fifteen miles from Jerusalem. There they waited intentionally and intently for the one who would fulfill the promises of God and restore creation to its original perfection.
Qumran was a well-organized and highly focused community. They organized their affairs around a strict rule of life – like the Methodist Book of Discipline, or the Presbyterian Book of Order, or a Lutheran constitution and by-laws. They were committed to following the guidance of the scriptures and prayed regularly several times each day. Everything they did was done to prepare for the coming of the messiah. No one knew how to be better prepared for the coming messiah than the people of Qumran. When the day came, they would be ready.
And one night, a short distance away, so close they might have seen the little fires in the caves where the people of Qumran lived and heard the chants and prayers wafting down on the night breeze, a little caravan of seekers from the East journeyed past Qumran toward Bethlehem.
The people of Qumran started waiting for the messiah about 140 years before Jesus was born. The community was destroyed in the year 68 ce, during the Jewish War. Nothing exists of Qumran today except the caves where they lived and some of their library, the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. That, and the memory of a people who waited as faithfully as they knew how for the fulfillment of their hope.
Today we still wait, having been warned that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (2 Pet. 3:10), suddenly, when we least expect it. We’ve been admonished about “leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (v.11) and how we are to “strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish” (v. 14).
Is our waiting misdirected, our hope misplaced? Not long before Qumran was destroyed, the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote, “The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today” (On the Shortness of Life). To the extent we live in hope for tomorrow, we lose the gift of today, the fullness of this moment.
But today, this moment, is all we have. “Look to this day,” the ancient poet Kalidasa wrote, “for it is life, the very life of life. In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence. The bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty, these are all experiences of this day. For yesterday is already a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision. But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”
St. Peter wrote that “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Pet. 3:13). But the heart of Jesus’ proclamation is that the time of waiting is over, the promise of God fulfilled (Mark 1:14-15). And about that new heavens and new earth, St. Paul wrote, “if anyone is in Christ, there [there!] is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17)! We’re not waiting for something new and different to arrive but for something present and true to be revealed.
In a letter to a friend on Christmas Eve 1513, Fra Giovanni Giocondo wrote, “. . . No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant.
“Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see. And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!
“Life is so generous a giver. But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you.
“Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there. The gift is there and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Your joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts.
“Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its covering, that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it; that is all! But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country home.”
So wait with me this season, not looking to the heavens or to the future, but looking within your hearts, within your ordinary lives – full of gains and losses, promises and disappointments, laughter and tears. There, God’s new incarnation is waiting to be revealed.