The Guardian view on advent: what are we waiting for? | Editorial

This year we have learned to mark time once more – bringing frustration and despair, but also new pleasures

With advent, we have entered a period of codified waiting. For Christians this means liturgical offices and music, the lighting of candles and, in the Orthodox church, a 40-day fast, in expectation of both Christmas and the second coming. For unbelievers, and those for whom the festival is all about feasting and presents, it often means advent calendars (though the more expensive of these undermine the ritual of counting down to excess by commodifying the waiting). Both overlay and co-opt much older rituals, the last hurrah before the lean months of deep winter, and the countdown to the solstice – peak darkness, and the promise of light.

In these high-capitalist days we tend to treat waiting as an affliction that must be abolished, and amply reward companies that aim to annihilate it. One of the shocks of the pandemic has been that while on the one hand we are one-click ordering more than ever before, we have been forced to learn to wait. Some of these waits (for shops to reopen, to be allowed to swim), while aggravating, are eminently manageable, partly because it turns out that they are not for necessities, and in part because they have a clear end. Other waits – for illumination about what exactly this virus does, for the chance to see loved ones, for an end to long Covid, have been far harder to manage, for the scale of their ramifications, and because there is no obvious terminus.

Waiting is difficult. Sometimes, it can seem to negate what is happening at the moment: it is all too easy to dress it up as virtue (“good things come to those who wait”), or the looked-for endpoint to hollow out the present. It can be a tragedy – Edith Wharton once compared the well-bred woman’s life to “a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes … the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits … and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.” For someone like Samuel Beckett, waiting was all there was; it was the whole point, a proof of and at the same time a distraction from total pointlessness.

It can also be an opportunity. For perhaps that’s one of the things we’ve learned – that, for all its deep stresses and griefs, a forced indeterminacy can focus the mind on the present, and the quality of that present. That it is necessary to celebrate now (go for a walk, watch the flowers grow, call a friend) rather than waiting for an uncertain future, and the chimera of normality. So, yes, good things come to those who wait – but only if we treat the cliche as a promise about process rather than outcome, and remind ourselves, as Emily Dickinson once put it, of “how we sang / To keep the dark away.”

Contributor

Editorial

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Guardian view on 'post-Christian' Britain: a spiritual enigma | Editorial
Editorial: The majority of us do not belong to any religion. But for most, atheism is not an option either

Editorial

28, Mar, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on mental health: this emergency requires a response | Editorial
Editorial: As Britain unlocks, we ignore psychiatrists’ warnings about the psychological impact of Covid at our peril

Editorial

12, Apr, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on liberal Christians: is this their moment? | Editorial
Editorial: The election of practising Catholic Joe Biden is just one reason for religious progressives to be hopeful

Editorial

01, Jan, 2021 @4:22 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on closed churches: a necessary sacrifice
Editorial: This is an Easter like no other for regular and occasional churchgoers. But Britain’s faith communities will be vital in helping Britain through the coronavirus ordeal

Editorial

10, Apr, 2020 @5:31 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on populism: belonging not believing | Editorial
Editorial: When religious and nationalist longings combine, progressives need a powerful counter-narrative

Editorial

15, Oct, 2018 @4:58 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on: poetry in a pandemic | Editorial
Editorial: To express the grief and dislocation of our times, only poems will do

Editorial

29, Jan, 2021 @6:25 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on poetry in schools: don't let it go | Editorial
Editorial: Finding meaning in verse can be a challenge for teenagers. But it is also a joy, and letting them drop it is the wrong move

Editorial

07, Aug, 2020 @4:38 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on academic freedom: the right to be very wrong | Editorial
Editorial: Sometimes it takes a true believer to make clear the absurdities of a faith. An Oxford professor’s view on sexuality discredit his church’s doctrine

Editorial

14, Jan, 2019 @6:37 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on atheism: good without God | Editorial
Editorial: If organised mainstream Christianity is on the way out, what will replace it?

Editorial

15, Jul, 2019 @5:37 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Easter week: time to be creative
Days have never felt so indistinguishable. We should think outside the box as we approach the bank holiday


Editorial

05, Apr, 2020 @5:25 PM