Waiting in line


14 Dec 2020

One of the British Empire’s finest cultural legacies would be one of the most over-looked: the ability to queue, or wait in line.

I think we should pluck up our courage and just come out and say it: all colonial powers are oppressive forces that are particularly destructive of the local indigenous people and their culture. That said, of all the European colonial powers we might have had, I thank God we had the English. I think the US, Canada, and New Zealand might be grateful too.

Apart from the glories of their language, if the English had a colony for long enough it left behind six institutions: parliamentary democracy; a separate judiciary; a generally incorrupt and competent public service; the rule of law; the best education, healthcare, and welfare it had at the time; and, most importantly of all, a military who takes orders from the elected government. For all the British Empire’s many and manifest sins, all these claims cannot be made of any other European colonial power.

One of their finest cultural legacies, however, is also one of the most over-looked: the ability is to queue, or wait in line. If ever you have been overseas you know that the Brits do it best of all, followed by the countries they colonised. Though other European countries have offered the world priceless other cultural gifts, the joy of patiently waiting in line is not one of them.

In a train station at Paris years ago, I remember standing in a long line for a taxi. I had never seen jostling, shoving and abuse like it in my life. And when ‘Madame,’ holding her miniature dog in her arms like it was a baby, pushed in at the front of the line, all hell broke loose. The Italians and Spanish hardly know what a line is, but the Germans and Dutch do it well enough albeit but rather humourlessly.

The native English-speaking world, however, is good at lines and waiting to be served. It is even better when the line throws up a much appreciated, and until that moment undiscovered, comedian. One-liners abound, and a star is born!

The success of waiting in line entirely depends on patience, knowing that everything is going as efficiently as possible, and that we will soon be rewarded for our time and effort.

One of the biggest themes of Advent is to cultivate patience. We are given many readings where John the Baptist and the prophets encourage their followers to be patient, for the age of the Messiah will soon dawn. The Israelites needed to be patient. Each generation hoped and prayed that they would be the one to witness the appearance of God’s anointed. The Jews still hope and pray for this to happen.

The Christ, however, did not come as many expected. Some thought he would arrive with a flourish and in a dramatic event. Others argued that his arrival would usher in the end of the world. Still more said it would be a regal entrance which would see the political overthrow of the Romans.

The very people who longed to see the Messiah missed out because they became impatient on one hand, or they were convinced it could only happen one way—their way.

John the Baptist is the first to see publicly Jesus for who he really is. He recognises that Jesus’ sacrificial love can fill our valleys, lay mountains low, make crooked paths straight and rough ways smooth.

Advent is the season of the “patient yes.”

Every year all of us in the Church figuratively stand in line and remind ourselves of how blessed we are to have seen our salvation in Jesus. It was worth the wait.

We remember the faith of those who longed to see what we see and to know what we know. And we cultivate our patience for life’s valleys, mountains and crooked paths where sometimes we can feel Jesus’ absence more than his presence, where it is only when we look back and we can see that he was with us as we went up-hill and down-dale.

The virtue of patience also means we get a handle of our place in God’s creation. Seneca the Younger, the great Greek philosopher of the first century, observed that those, who had the most money and thought themselves the most important, were the ones who seemed to get the most angry – about everything. Think about what happens at an airport when a storm hits and, through no fault of the airline, the plane gets cancelled. Who makes the most noise? The first class passengers! They think their money and position will inoculate them from things going wrong, from waiting patiently in line. It sometimes does, but never all the time. Who makes the least complaint? The ones for whom this trip were gifts, and their seats were right at the back, next to the rest rooms.

Advent keeps us humble, knowing that we are the direct beneficiaries of God’s patience with us, and that, through no time and effort of our own, we have been definitively rewarded.

As we wait together in line during Advent, let’s do so with good humor and keep saying yes to all that salvation holds for us: yes to God’s personal love; yes to Jesus’ kingdom of justice and peace; yes to every opportunity to serve the Gospel, and yes to knowing that our God is a companion with us at every step of our journey.

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of What are we waiting for? Reflections for Advent and ChristmasThis article is the first in a series of Advent articles that appeared in A Silver Lining, from the Parish of Our Lady of the Way, North Sydney.

First Sunday of Advent Year B, 29 November 2020, see Entwined for eternity
Second Sunday of Advent Year B, 6 December 2020, see The unsettling sound of silence
Third Sunday of Advent Year B, 13 December 2020, see Keeping our eyes open

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