Rowan Williams on Waiting, Quiet Reflection, and a Baby that Changed Everything
Archbishop Rowan Williams describes Advent as a “time of waiting.” He then unpacks what that means for the Christian and how our Western culture generally speaking (Christians included), have real difficulties with waiting. We want immediate gratification; we don’t want to wait—if a webpage takes more than a few seconds to load, we complain, throw a fit, curse, or try to figure out a way to purchase a newer, faster, sleeker computer. Waiting is a concept for twenty-first century globalized folks thoroughly infused with negativity. We just don’t “do it” well. Even so, as Williams explains, as Christians we are called to
“remember in Advent the time of waiting before the birth of Jesus, and [to] remember that time of waiting as the Bible shows it to us as a time when people were indeed longing for something that would change everything, and yet at the same time not quite knowing what that something would be.
During Advent, Christians go back to that time of waiting as the Bible shows it to us. They read again the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Old Testament. They read about how people were longing for an end to slavery, longing to be back home in some sense, longing to be at home with God again, longing for reconciliation. And all of that is expressed in the most powerful metaphors, especially in the prophesies of Isaiah, metaphors about the desert blossoming, metaphors about the rain falling, metaphors about day dawning after there’s been a long, long night.”
The four weeks before Christmas have blown by and now our waiting, our counting and marking the days on the calendar before opening the gifts is nearly over. But what about this other Gift, a far grander Gift, this baby born in a manger so long ago? What difference does His birth, His life, His Incarnation make?
“When Jesus comes into the life of the world with something unplanned, overwhelming, something that makes a colossal difference, we long for it and yet we don’t quite know what it’s going to involve. But this is a bit odd isn’t it, you might say. Surely Jesus has come into the world and by now we ought to know what sort of difference he’s made? But the truth is that we don’t yet know the difference Jesus might make. We know some of the difference he’s made to our lives as individuals, to the life of the Christian community, the Church, to the whole world. And yet there’s more. We’re still waiting to see what might happen if Jesus was allowed into our lives that bit more fully; that bit more radically.
So again for Christians, Advent is a time when they do a bit of self-examination. Have I allowed Jesus in yet? Has the good news really made the full impact it might make, or is my life still locked into old patterns, into darkness, into slavery, into being not at home with myself or God or with other people? It’s a time of self-examination, of repentance indeed, facing myself honestly and saying sorry for the things that don’t easily face the light. And it’s a time of expectation and a time of hope. A time, therefore, also of quiet.”
Here’s another word we’re not particularly found of, nor very skilled at cultivating (myself included)—quiet, reflective periods of quietness in which we can ask ourselves “[w]hat would it be for the good news really to change me’ […]for that to happen I need some reflective time; I need some peace; I need to slow down; I need, you might say, to take my time about things. And so all those bits of our contemporary culture which are about rushing to get gratification, getting the results straight away, all those habits in our culture which so drive the crises of our culture, whether it’s the credit crunch or the environmental crisis, all those things we have to cast a rather cold eye on during Advent and say slow down, take time, let yourself grow and open up, rather like a flower coming to blossom – a time of expectation, a time of excitement, a time of waiting, a time of peace, a time where we’re clearing our hearts and our minds a bit so we really can see clearly when Jesus arrives, and feel fully the impact of his coming.”
With John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary, both of whom learned to wait and to wonder at this Christ who would turn the world upside down, we too are challenged to “see what the reality of God is like,” which of course is not an easy task. Truth be told, “[i]t may be deeply painful as well as deeply joyful. Death and judgment, and hell and heaven. It will be that experience of confronting the truth in such a way that you’re changed for good. We say yes to all of that even with the pain and the risk. Or God forbid we say no we can’t cope with the truth, we’d prefer our own darkness. And so part of our self-examination during Advent is looking into ourselves and saying, ‘Well can I get myself to the point where I can look at God and say well there’s truth and there’s beauty and light and love and it’s painful for me, weak and stupid though I am, to face that, and yet I’d rather be there with the truth, however much it costs, than be locked up with myself?’ During Advent, we try to get ourselves a bit more used to the truth –the truth about ourselves, which is not always very encouraging, but the truth about God above all which is always encouraging. The One who comes will come with a great challenge. It will be like fire on the earth as the Bible says. And yet the One who comes is coming in love. He’s coming to set us free. And that’s something well worth waiting for.”
 The full transcript may be accessed via the Archbishop’s webpage: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/2040.