Occasionally, I get asked what my biggest wedding disaster was as an officiant. The truth is, I haven’t had what I would consider a disaster, but there were a couple that caused an awful lot of anxiety.
One was when I was a pastor in New York City. The couple getting married had met when the bride was doing a stint in the London office of a big investment bank; he was British and worked in a different department there. They met, hit it off immediately, and became so serious about each other that he moved to New York when it was time for her to move back to the States, and got engaged not long afterwards.
As we were doing the wedding rehearsal the night before the wedding, I asked the bride what time everyone was supposed to arrive for the service. “Well, he and the groomsmen will be here at least 45 minutes early,” she said, “but I want to make a dramatic entrance, so the bridesmaids and I are going to drive up in a limo right before the service starts.” I gently told her that was a terrible idea. “Look, you really don’t want to do that,” I said; “you never know what’s going to happen; you want to be here and settle well before the service starts. I’m asking you to be here absolutely no later than 30 minutes early.” We went back and forth a few times, and finally she reluctantly relented.
The next day, 45 minutes before the service started, the groomsmen were right on time. When we got to “T minus 30 minutes,” I went to check on the bridesmaids. Nobody had arrived. After about ten minutes, I went back to the groomsmen and asked if anybody had heard from the bridal party. They fished their phones out their pockets and checked for messages, but nobody had one.
“I guess she just decided to be dramatic after all,” I said nonchalantly, and went out where I could watch the door into the lobby where they were supposed to arrive. But ten minutes beforehand, there was still nothing. Five minutes beforehand, the Sanctuary was full, but nothing from the bridal party. I went back to the groomsmen; they had heard nothing. I asked them to call the bride; nothing. Call any of the bridesmaids; nothing.
The groom coolly suggested we just be ready because she must be coming right before it starts. At 3 p.m., when it was supposed to start, there was nothing. And then the clock kept ticking: five minutes late, ten minutes late, twenty minutes late; nothing. By this point, the groomsmen are all barraging the bridal party with phone calls while the groom tried to put on a brave front, but I could see that British stiff upper lip starting to quiver and bead with sweat.
At the thirty-minutes late mark, I decided I had to do some crowd control, so I went into the Sanctuary through a door up front, preparing to announce that the bride had been delayed so we were delaying the start of the service, which was hopefully the truth. But as I walked in and looked across the Sanctuary, I could see through the glass doors onto the street out back, and as I switched my microphone on to speak, I saw a black limousine screech to a stop outside the main doors of the sanctuary and bridesmaids start to bail out the open door like paratroopers on D-Day.
So I simply said, “the service will begin momentarily,” and went back to get the groomsmen. Afterwards I learned what happened. First, yes, the bride had decided that I wasn’t going to ruin her dramatic entrance, so she was going to arrive right at 3 p.m. after all. Second, their limo had picked them up on time downtown where they were staying, but their car had gotten caught in a parade, of all things, on their way to the church and had sat in traffic without moving for 45 minutes. And third, everyone with a cellphone had left it behind, so they couldn’t warn us what had happened. So all we could do was wait and hope that the bride was going to come at an unexpected hour.
Now, for at least some of you out there, the craziest part of that story is the detail about the cellphones. But this was around 2002, when cellphones rarely had cameras, when nobody was on social media, when even texting wasn’t even a big thing. Cellphones were, well…phones, and since nobody wanted to receive phone calls during a wedding, it didn’t seem like a big deal to leave them behind. Those of us who are old enough forget that it didn’t seem crazy not to be able to connect immediately with someone under almost any circumstances, let alone something as important as a wedding, and be able to simply ask them how far away they are and when they will arrive. And for those who are too young to have experienced life before smartphones, it sounds almost medieval.
Of the many, many changes in our culture that smartphone technology has wrought, one of the most important ones is how we experience waiting. We don’t wait for much of anything anymore without a precise understanding of exactly why and how long we’re going to wait. From meeting up with friends to package deliveries to GPS directions, we know how long things are going to take and when people are going to show up, so much so that when it doesn’t happen according to plan we are surprised and irritated.
Waiting with no real knowledge of how long we’re going to have to wait is reserved for the most powerless experiences of our lives. Some of those are the kind of unpleasant things that mediocre stand-up comics write routines about: waiting in line at the DMV or airport security; waiting in traffic out on 22; waiting on hold for customer service. Some of them are much more serious and important: waiting on test results; waiting to hear about a job interview; waiting to see if the person you want to spend the rest of your life with is actually going to show up for the wedding.
We associate waiting with powerlessness, with being at the mercy of something or someone else who has the power to give or withhold what we want or need. And so our associations with it are the emotions of anxiety, impatience, or despair. With that as our basic reference point, it’s hard to get motivated about focusing on the season of Advent as a season of waiting. Why would we want to focus on the act of waiting, on the act of being at someone else’s mercy?
Well, because Advent is not about being at Jesus’ mercy for whenever he decides to finally come. Advent is about remembering that we are not at Jesus’ mercy; we are already a part of it. It is about remembering that the end of the brokenness of this world – its pain, its injustice, its resistance to God’s grace and love – began with the birth of Jesus Christ, but it did not finish there. It did not even finish with Christ’s death and resurrection, though the outcome of the battle against sin and evil and death was finalized there. No, it finishes only with the fulfillment of what we pray for each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: it finishes when God’s will is done, fully and finally, on earth as it is in heaven.
Obviously, we’re not there yet. But the good news of the gospel is that we will be; that outcome is set and certain. The only question is timing: “about that day and hour no one knows,” Jesus says clearly. So there is no need for anxiety or despair (though perhaps a little impatience is understandable).
But there is also no reason for apathy, because in the meantime, we are invited to be part of getting there, of helping to build Christ’s kingdom in the world, of “making disciples of all the nations,” as Matthew records Jesus commanding his disciples at the end of his gospel to wait in the meantime with power and purpose and hope, assuring them that as they wait to “remember, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
We wait with power every time we do not give in to anxiety or despair or impatience or apathy; every time we fulfill Christ’s Great Commission in big ways and small. We wait with power every time we visit someone who is lonely, comfort someone who is grieving, feed someone who is hungry, welcome someone who is a stranger.
We wait with power every time we insist that others be treated with God’s love, justice, mercy, and peace. So, in the meantime, come to Christ’s table and receive the power of Christ’s presence in bread and cup, to strengthen us for our life and work. Because here in the meantime, there is plenty of work to do while we wait.