Elizabeth and Mary: A Lesson in Joyful Waiting

Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours each year waiting in line, and more often than not, we hate every single minute of it. In our “get-it-done-now-and-move-on-to-the-next-thing” world, waiting is a drudgery none of us enjoys. Of course, supermarkets know this, so to keep us entertained, and buying up to the last minute, they open up just a few of their endless rows of checkout registers and pack the shelves we’ll be standing between with tempting goodies that we’ll pick up as an “impulse buy.”

Waiting is also frustrating at other places like doctor’s offices, the department of motor vehicles or any other government office where we’re forced to conduct business. That minstrel theologian Tom Petty had it right all along: “The waiting is the hardest part.”

Mary, however, might disagree with that assessment. In the first chapter of Luke, we find an example of what can only be called “joyful waiting.” First, we encounter Elizabeth, a barren woman who conceives and later gives birth to John the Baptist. Next, we read of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, telling her that she, too, will conceive a son that she must name Jesus who is promised to “reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

When the two women meet, John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb, and Mary breaks into song, singing what is now called The Magnificat.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she sings, “For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

Both Elizabeth and Mary are waiting, but there is no dread, no fear, and definitely no hurry to rush God’s plans for their lives. This time of waiting before the birth of Jesus has been built into the Christian liturgical year in the form of Advent, a Latin term meaning “toward the coming.” Christians in the fourth century fasted during this time, only breaking the fast with the visit of the wise men after Jesus’ birth.

Advent is meant to be a time of “joyful waiting,” a time to reflect on how this world, even in its meanness and cruelty, remains pregnant with new and awe-inspiring possibilities. We are impatient people, however, and as our world becomes quicker, and our needs satisfied faster and faster, we have little patience for waiting.

As LGBT people, we are especially tired of waiting. We are tired of waiting for the church to realize the gifts we bring and want desperately to share with our faith communities in full communion both in the pew and the pulpit. We are tired of waiting for our fellow citizens to see the evil of putting other people’s right to marry, work or simply live on equal terms with everyone else up for a popular vote. We are tired of waiting for our state and federal governments to grant us the equal rights and benefits everyone else is entitled to simply because they are American citizens. We grow tired of waiting to be treated as whole human beings and not “intrinsically disordered” people whose lives are “incompatible with Christian teaching.” We get tired of waiting for the day when we don’t have to defend our worth, but instead are seen as whole, equal human beings.

But, if we take a cue from Elizabeth and Mary, perhaps we can find ways to make our waiting more joyful by learning how to find ways to celebrate each moment of our time as we anticipate a world that doesn’t just tolerate us, but affirms us as well.

As I write this article, Hawaii is on the verge of becoming the 15th state to grant marriage equality to gay and lesbian people. That means we’re still waiting for 35 states to come to their collective senses and grant full rights to all of its citizens (or the Supreme Court to grow a set and actually declare marriage equality a right for every citizen as they did for interracial couples in Loving v. Virginia in 1967).

For those of us still living in those states where marriage equality is denied, instead of focusing on how far we have to go locally, we can celebrate joyfully the victories that take place around us. With marriage legal in a growing number of states, it really is only a matter of time before it is the law of the land. The genie is out of the bottle and she’s not going back in, so instead of waiting in despair, we wait in hope and anticipation that full equal rights will soon be born all across the country. Until that moment, we continue to work, to move the lines forward and change more hearts and minds on this issue.

There has been much progress to celebrate recently in the realm of religion as denominations like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Presbyterian Church (USA) moved to ordain openly LGBT clergy. As of this writing, the United Methodist Church, which had been traveling backwards in their acceptance of LGBT people, is finally turning toward acceptance. Some 30 pastors are banding together to violate the church’s laws against clergy performing same-sex marriages. In addition, some regional councils have passed measures affirming LGBT people against church policy.

If you had told me some 18 years ago when Whosoever began that we would have made as much progress as we have on issues of marriage and acceptance within society and the church, I would have laughed out loud. No way! The climate against LGBT people was simply too bad in 1996. But, look at how far we’ve come! I know that waiting is hard and we want our full rights as citizens right now and not a minute later, but the fight for our civil rights is moving at lightning speed.

That’s not to say that it makes the waiting any easier. It doesn’t. As someone who lives in a state that will probably be one of the last ones dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century on many issues, it can seem like a hopeless wait. But, just as the signs of Holy blessing were all around Elizabeth and Mary before that first Christmas morning, the Holy signs are all around our movement for full civil and religious rights.

Advent is often called “The Season of Light” even though it takes place in the darkest time of the year. That’s the paradox of this wild, unpredictable God we love and serve. The moment we are convinced that the darkness will overtake us, the light of the Holy appears, a savior is born, and we, like John, leap with delight.