Waiting and Healing
"There are forms of waiting which fill us with joy and expectation, as for example when parents expect a child. And there are forms of waiting which have a healing power".
I will never forget a night in April 2002 in which, as I often did at the time, I arrived in London from Paris at Waterloo station, which still was the terminal of the Eurostar at the time. I was going back to Oxford after the Easter holidays which I had spent with my Benedictine community in the South-West of France. There was only a short distance between Waterloo station and Grosvenor Gardens, where I used to take the bus to Oxford, but since I was carrying a large suitcase I decided to take a cab. It was quite late and you can imagine my surprise when, as the taxi reached the river Thames and crossed Lambeth Bridge, I saw miles and miles of an orderly and subdued queue, hundreds and hundreds of people slowly pacing somewhere. I believe I can be forgiven for needing some time before I could understand what was happening – I had spent the previous 2 weeks abroad, and in the monastery where I lived at the time there was no radio or television and little access to social media. I knew that the Queen Mother had died, but I was not aware that her lying in state was happening that very night in the Palace of Westminster, and that over 200.000 people were filing past her coffin. This extraordinary scene produced a lasting impression on me. People were willing to wait for hours, overnight, in the streets, to pay a last tribute to the much beloved monarch.
When something really matters to you, when it affects you deeply, you are willing to make a sacrifice. There might be some discomfort but this does not bother you or makes you sad, rather it gives you comfort, joy even. These long hours of waiting were not empty nor lonely. The UK that night was not simply a country, a people, but suddenly appeared to me as a family. There was a palpable atmosphere of serene grief, of profound gratitude, of caring – one of those moments that reveal the real soul of a nation.
Whenever we hear the word sacrifice, the first idea that comes to our mind is giving up something, a loss, often forced on us by the external circumstances – the pandemic has imposed sacrifices on all of us which we would be perfectly happy not to have to undergo. This however is not the Christian meaning of sacrifice. A sacrifice in Christianity is something I want to do because I care, something I do not endure but I embrace – and even more, it often is something that creates or strengthens bonds of love, instantaneously connects people and even strangers with each other and makes them a family.
The original form of sacrifice in the Bible is the meal. Each time Jewish people ate, they were aware that this apparently ordinary act should not be taken for granted: they had food because God had given them a land, they could sit and eat in peace because God had given them safety, they had bread and wine because God had created a world were earth and heaven, rain and sun, allow the crops to produce their fruits. For this reason they were glad to offer some of the produce of the soil as a gift, or a sacrifice, to God. They were also keen to start every meal with thanksgiving, which was for them the fundamental form of sacrifice – as we constantly hear in the Psalms: “Let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!” (Psalm 107.22).
When we hear the word sacrifice we think of loss and discomfort.
When they heard the same word, what came to their minds was a shared and heartfelt sense of belonging and of gratitude which united them to God and with each other and made them one people, one community, one body.
In today’s gospel we meet two among the Gospels’ most endearing characters, Simeon and Anna. They had both spent their whole lives waiting. Of Simeon we are told that he was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2.25), and of Anna that she had become a widow in her youth, and that since then, for almost sixty years, had devoted her life to worship and had never left the temple (37). It is implied that both belonged to the category of these beloved models of biblical piety called the anawim, those who did not trust in their own strength but relied entirely on God, who kept the hope of Israel alive because they firmly believed that however long it might take, God would soon intervene in history, come to the rescue of his people. Simeon and Anna’ lifestyle might sound a bit extreme: they spent most of their lives in the temple praying. They, however, had not embraced this existence as a penance, would not have said that they were giving up anything by doing what they did. They were waiting for the Messiah, for this mysterious character the prophets had talked about, who would bring comfort and freedom to the people of Israel. This desire and this hope kept them watchful, sustained their resolve, filled their prayer.
The form taken by their sacrifice was waiting.
Sometimes in our lives waiting can be unbearable, as when a relative or a friend is undergoing a potentially life-threatening surgery. Other times it can seem meaningless, as when we are caught up in a traffic jam. But there are forms of waiting which fill us with joy and expectation, as for example when parents expect a child. And there are forms of waiting which have a healing power. Any form of counselling, for example, is helpful only if the listener waits for the other person to open up at her pace, does not put any pressure on her, is patient, non-judgemental, able to give space and full attention to her. Waiting in this case is indeed a sacrifice, not because of the effort and discipline it requires, but because it is embraced as an expression of generosity, of caring, and of love.
This is the sacrifice Jesus wants from all the believers: “Follow me” (Mk 2.14), “Have faith in me” (Jn 14.1). The only thing he asked from his disciples was that they should spend time with him. They often grew impatient and wanted action, but Jesus taught them that they had to learn from the example of Simeon and Anna: the only way of recognizing the way God acts in history is patient, perseverant, eager, loving, watchful, prayerful waiting.