We enjoyed our quick visit to Amsterdam this past week. Two images particularly struck me. I bought them – postcards – and have them in front of me as I write. The first is Otto Frank – the father of Anne Frank and the sole survivor of those in hiding who were arrested in August 1944 and sent to Auschwitz – standing in the attic of the secret annex where he and another family had hidden for just over 2 years. The black and white photo was taken in 1960 as he leaned against a wooden post in the attic looking down at the floor solemn and remembering. The story of how he was given Anne’s writing on his return and how it was eventually published and how he interacted with the theatrical and then cinematic dramatisation as well as the saving of the house from demolition can be researched – there’s a section on him in the Anne Frank Museum – and that was a hidden part of the photo too. But what I saw was a man who had meticulously organised his family to go into hiding, who trusted people to help him stay hidden (no one knows how they came to be arrested) now back in the empty house in which they had waited for the end of the war, for the time they could leave as free people and it was only him there.
My second image is one of Rembrandt’s paintings which I found in the Rijksmuseum. It’s not all that big and there was no crowd gathered around it (as people did for ‘The Night Watch’) but I have liked it for a long time. It is called ‘Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem’. It is a dark painting (and I’m not talking the subject matter) but is a diagonal of pale light in encroaching darkness in which sits an old man (his features are so detailed!) resting his head on one hand as he contemplates the future while no doubt remembering what he’s seen so far of the destruction.
Advent is a waiting time. We understand waiting (and are often impatient about it!). However for the waiting to be worthwhile, we also want the happy ending; the waiting to end in the way we desire – to have our loved ones healed or to have success on our terms. To wait and wait and then have an outcome we don’t want makes life harder than it needs to be and we question all sorts of things. When John the Baptist waited in a prison cell, he had all sorts of questions. Waiting for relief or rescue or resolution leads us to our ideas of God (because by definition he’s able to bring our waiting to an end very quickly). Christians are always in danger of turning God into a ‘fairy godmother’ who will get you to the ball on time and make it possible for you to live happily ever after. My two pictures remind me that life and God are not so straight forward – so easily bent to my wishes – that my waiting can simply not go the way I want.
And so I also need to hear other Advent words (applicable all year round) – words of comfort that I am not alone in my waiting (my turmoil, my grief, my frustration, and so on) and that God is with me in the waiting. His presence isn’t a predictor of success on our terms. No, God’s presence is always gracious and we find our waiting a time to learn that to be true – know it, trust it, live it – even in the most dire of circumstances. God gives me two pictures also – that of a manger and of a cross. ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope’ (Psalm 130:5). — GS