Hope & Waiting: A Mormon Advent Homily
“Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints…Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it takes and it takes, and we keep living anyway.” So Aaron Burr sings in Hamilton encapsulating some of the spirit of the first Advent candle, representing Hope and Waiting (different traditions, people, and denominations have different ways of talking about the symbolism of the Advent candles, but we’ll be using Hope and Waiting this year).
“Wait for It” feels appropriate to the Advent season generally, but particularly this year, with 2020 being filled at a national and global scale with lots of grief and pain and confusion and suffering, indiscriminately and inexplicably experienced. And, yet, we have to keep moving forward, finding a way to live when our ideal—what we feel we have been promised—is out of reach.
I find the life and story of Jane Manning James emblematic of this Advent spirit of Hope and Waiting. Cece and I use Matt Page’s Mormon prayer candles (available here) for our Advent work, for a particular Mormon inflection, but you can use whatever candles you have available.
Jane’s life is inspiring in many ways, but particularly for me, for the way that she lived a life of Hope and Waiting. Joseph and Emma Smith offered Jane the possibility to be sealed to them as an adopted daughter. Jane initially declined, not understanding what exactly they were proposing (the doctrine of sealing and adoption was new and it took some time for it to be understood as the central ordinance that it is to much of current Mormon theology). Shortly thereafter Joseph was killed (by assassins, as the song goes) and things were murky for some time after.
Jane eventually decided that she wanted to take Joseph and Emma up on their offer, but only had Brigham Young to turn to (she went West with the Saints). She petitioned for years and was largely met with refusals. Eventually she was sealed to Joseph and Emma, but not as a child, as a “servitor”, despite the promises from Joseph and Emma and that many other members were sealed to Joseph and other Church leaders as children.
Jane continued to be a faithful member of the Mormon community, all while continuing her requests to be sealed to Joseph and Emma. Jane died before this request was granted. In 1978, some 70 years after her death, Jane was sealed to Joseph and Emma as their child.
For Jane’s entire life she hoped for blessings that were promised—she waited. I think we all go through life waiting for promised blessings. Those promises may not always be as explicit or concrete as the promise that Jane waited for, and we may not even know what it is that we are necessarily waiting and hoping for.
The beginning of Advent is about making some of those hopes and promises known—we read the prophecies (another name for the first Advent candle is the Prophecy candle, which is the name I grew up using) of the coming Christ and are in the space of waiting—we know that Christ will be coming, but it is still distant, removed.
What do we do in this space? How do we have Hope in our Waiting? What does this mean for me?
I think that this year especially, it is important to think about how Hope and Waiting can be holy times for us. Christmas will likely look different for many of us than it has before, a time without many of the gatherings and large get-togethers that may have defined Christmastime in the past. I will be missing the connections and togetherness that often define Christmas, missing what has often been “the promise” of Christmas. Hoping and Waiting for the day when that promise can be fulfilled.
Hoping and Waiting doesn’t mean we do nothing, sitting by passively as life moves on differently than we had expected. Hope and Waiting are active, they require us to do things to work to bring to pass the promises that we see. Jane petitioned for decades to receive the blessings that she was promised, even after they were potentially fulfilled. And, all the while, she ensured that she was doing all she could to live a life devoted to the God that would bring her those promises. The lack of fulfillment of those promises on the timetable that Jane expected and wanted didn’t mean that those promises wouldn’t be fulfilled.
But how do we live in that space? How do we know when a promise will be fulfilled later? When should we re-evaluate what we Hope and Wait for?
I don’t know. But I do know that these are the questions I’ll be pondering as we move throughout this particular first week of Advent. May we all find comfort in the story of Jane Manning James and others as we hope and wait this Advent season for the promised blessings that won’t be ours this year.