Advent: How long, oh Lord, must we wait?

Prayer l and tagged l


Revd Alexandra Lilley is Assistant Curate at St Paul’s, Shadwell – close by to our office in east London. Here she offers us a reflection on the waiting and anticipation at the heart of Advent…

Advent is a season in the church’s life when we deliberately turn our thoughts and attention to what it means to be a people-in-waiting. A waiting community.

We may imagine ourselves as the people of Israel, waiting for a Messiah to fulfill long-held promises; waiting for a Saviour to free them from the captivity of the Empire. But of course, it’s hard to hold that tension for long in our imagination, as we know the end of that story so well. There’s a stable and a manger waiting to be occupied with baby doll Jesus, in just a handful more of carefully counted down days.

But at Advent we also dwell on our wait for Jesus’ return and the renewal of all things. Waiting for desperate situations to change – for the Prince of Peace to come and reign.

Waiting is usually difficult and often painful. “How long, O Lord?” asks David in the Psalms. How long can I be in this situation? I have waited long enough for you to transform this situation. There will be thousands, millions of people around the world today making that kind of prayer, in varying degrees of desperation.


Aged four, at the height of appreciation of Christmas magic, when I received my Advent calendar, I desperately opened all the doors at once in an attempt to accelerate the arrival of Christmas Day. There, tearfully, followed the simple lesson that I could do nothing to make Christmas come closer.

If I’m waiting for something, then that something is outside of my control.

I can’t force the appointment to come sooner.

I can’t conjure up the accommodation I need.

I can’t make somebody change their mind about me.

I can’t fast forward the next hour or day or week or year.

Waiting is primarily about recognising that we are not all-powerful.

That we are not God.

In fact, waiting at its best, involves accepting, even embracing our powerlessness, our need.

And that’s always an invitation for God to be at work in us.

There can be preparation carried out during the waiting: I can tidy and decorate the house, or prepare my heart. But sometimes we are entirely passive, utterly dependent, which in an anathema in our culture. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

“Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten. It wants to break open the fruit when it has hardly finished planting the shoot. But all too often the greedy eyes are only deceived; the fruit that seemed so precious is still green on the inside, and disrespectful hands toss aside what has disappointed them. Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting – that is, of hopefully doing without – will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment… For the greatest, most profound, tenderest things in the world, we must wait.”

What are you waiting for today? How can the pain or frustration of that wait become an invitation for God to be at work? For indeed in this season, we await nothing less than the greatest, most profound, tenderest thing of all.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. 

   Lord, hear my voice!

Let your ears be attentive

   to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,

   Lord, who could stand? 

But there is forgiveness with you,

   so that you may be revered.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,

   and in his word I hope; 

my soul waits for the Lord

   more than those who watch for the morning,

   more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!

   For with the Lord there is steadfast love,

   and with him is great power to redeem. 

It is he who will redeem Israel

   from all its iniquities.

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