As we begin the Christian season of Advent in the West, which coincides with the even longer Nativity Fast in the East, Christians around the world traditionally reflect on what it means to wait -- in specific for incarnation, the coming of God to be present with us in human form as Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians celebrate as the Christ. Waiting has been a powerful spiritual theme in my life, especially with regard to decades of delay in being able to live as a fully adult man, delayed for decades as a transgender person stalled by both doctors and religious mentors in a wilderness experience of confusion and falsehood through hormonal and psychiatric intervention, struggling to conform to life as a woman in spite of my inability to do so, resulting in frequent relapses into addiction and suicidal depression. I have struggled to understand why God would allow such a prolonged sense of being stuck and lost. I frequently think of the desert wandering of the ancient Israelites between fleeing slavery and reaching the promised land over a nearly identical time span of forty years. Studying their own wilderness experiences has helped me to take spiritual responsibility for my own fear-driven choices to stay closeted as a Christian rather than continuing to blame God for my wilderness wandering. Yet the Torah shows me that God gives the people of Israel an explanation for God's role in wilderness years: God explains to Moses that this experience humbles and tests "you so that in the end it might go well with you." God tells us that decades of feeling lost and insecure (surviving only on minimal sustenance day to day) help us to deeper and more enduring spiritual self-knowledge, especially recognition of our dependence on God for spiritual and emotional as well as material sustenance, "to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deuteronomy 8:2-16).
But what are the promises of God in which we are called to trust? What is it that we are waiting for? For Christians during the nativity season of Advent fasting and preparation, we think specifically of waiting for the incarnation of God in the infant Jesus of Nazareth. Yet preparing for the incarnation or waiting for the Messiah is just one form of a spiritual way of life trusting in God's promise: God explains this kind of lived faith to Moses as daily making the choice between "life and prosperity, death and destruction" that God has set before us. When we choose to live fully, trusting God's promises, God assures us, "you will lack nothing -- the LORD your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands" (Deuteronomy 8:7-14). However, a life of trustful waiting for fulfillment of God's promises requires us not to give up -- not to settle for the lesser and very mixed comforts of life in oppressive bondage (slavery in Egypt) or the minimal security that we can see but that doesn't really help life flourish (the golden calf idol or the Kadesh oasis where the wandering Israelites lingered thirty-five years). God continually reminds Moses before the people enter the Promised Land that the fullness of life that God promises is not primarily material: Rather, the gift we find in waiting for fulfillment of God's promises is to be able to love God with our whole heart and soul and fully, truly to live. Furthermore, God encourages us in these seemingly impossible to endure waiting and this seemingly impossibly perfect love: God assures Moses that such love of God with our whole selves "is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it" (Deuteronomy 30:6-16).
Although waiting can seem so very difficult and so demoralizing when it takes such a long, long time, God's assurance to Moses that fullness of love is both its own promise and its own fulfillment comforts me. The long, ongoing waiting itself helps to address the danger God warns about after the promise of God is one day fulfilled: "When you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Do not say to yourself, 'The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.' No. Understand that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people" (Deuteronomy 8:11-9:6). Such a warning is especially relevant for those Christians who use the season of Advent for hoarding and acquisition in the guise of gift-giving rather than fasting in the older, global traditional observance of this time of preparation.
So the waiting is a spiritual gift: The long grind of forty years of being lost helps to counter our tendency to take credit for the fullness of our own lives when things are going well. The experience of surviving on the material, relational or spiritual equivalent of manna ("honeydew" made of flaked, dried bug saliva on plants) day after day must humble us. Thus, if one day I finally get over the Jordan into a promised land of full adult manhood and the fullness of loving, covenantal adult partnership, I pray that remembering my desert wandering will keep me grateful to God, so that I remember to cherish both my partner and even my own ability to be a partner not as anything I can earn, but always as gifts of God. I have to remember that I am the kind of person who has repeatedly settled for ways of living and relating to other people that are no more than the equivalent of worshiping a golden calf or staying stuck in a desert oasis for years.
As I meditate on the meaning of God's promises in relation to this journey into spiritual maturity and the ability to love God, others and ourselves with all our mind, strength, heart, and soul, I think of the words of Jesus, who warned against grasping at what actually hurts us instead of letting God give us what God made to nourish us: "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs....Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:6, 9-11) In a later gospel, Jesus adds the example, "Or if he asks for an egg, [who] will give him a scorpion?" (Luke 11:12) Instead of tossing to swine what God sees as precious (our real wondrously-made selves), instead of clutching at snakes and scorpions or breaking our teeth trying to eat stones, Jesus teaches us here to pray for and trust God to give us daily bread, just like Moses and Aaron taught their people in the wilderness. While both Jesus and Moses talk about God's words as being a kind of bread that gives even greater life than material food, the meaning here extends into our human relationships as well, to the very nature of human "companionship" itself, which literally refers to the "one with whom we share bread."
Though I myself am still wandering and have not yet crossed into the promised land of the milk and honey of full adult manhood and partnership, I pray to remember in the meantime to live faithfully, trusting God's promise that we are all -- even me -- meant for what is nourishing rather than poisonous or damaging. God promises to keep offering us that which prospers our love for God, heart and soul, rather than breaking our teeth. The ancient Hebrew blessing "Shehechiyanu" traditionally ends the candle-lighting blessing on the first night of Chanukah which nearly coincides with Christian Advent: It too prayerfully expressing both the experiences of ongoing arduous journey and trust in the fulfillment of God's promise: "Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment." No matter how long we have been in a season of waiting or continue to wait and prepare for the fulfillment of God's promises, we can pray this prayer with gratitude, knowing God is with us and sustains us.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.