Advent is. . . a Call to Patient Waiting


When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide;”

Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

    British poet, John Milton (1608-74), knew what it meant to wait. This Puritan Christian, the writer of the magisterial “Paradise Lost,” who lived through the chaos of the English Civil War and who, midway through his life went blind, recognized that “to wait” has several important meanings.

Its most common sense is “to allow time to go by, especially while staying in one place without doing very much, until someone comes or until something you are expecting actually happens or until you can do something.” Is also means “to remain temporarily neglected and unutilized.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for Milton’s sonnet, it can mean “to attend, as a servant, as in ‘to wait upon’ and ‘to supply the needs of’ as a servant waits upon the Master.”

Milton uses all these meanings in the conclusion to the dilemma he poses in the first 13 lines of the sonnet. It is the dilemma of the person born with a major disability, of the person robbed midlife of an important faculty, of the disabled, of the elderly:  how can I serve God when those capacities I was seemingly built for are snatched away? It is also the dilemma of all sinners trapped in our own powerlessness.

The Children of Israel yearned for the Messiah. Though they had the Law they did not yet have the Word. They waited in patient expectation.

“They also serve who only stand and wait.” Like the Hebrew prophets, holy men and holy women, ultimately, especially in Advent, we stand and wait, like servants at the door of the King’s Audience Room. We attend, we wait for the coming of the Messiah and we wait on the call of the King, ready to serve. And that waiting is service.


Johnston Smith is a retired teacher and an active spiritual director in Winnipeg.

  • Peter Chouinard
    Posted at 07:32h, 15 December Reply


    I met you in Midland, ON during the 450th anniversary of the Jesuit’s arrival in Canada. I see you, like me have retired since we last spoke. Talk about waiting! I waited my whole life it seems to experience the freedom of retirement. Yet, in the waiting for retirement and in the waiting of Advent I see so much living and giving and loving. I see new opportunities, and, I imagine like so many of us, I also see some missed opportunities.

    Your post has opened my eyes to some of those missed opportunities and for that I thank you.
    Joyful Advent waiting and taking in more deeply the knowing “that God is in everything”, even there.


  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 13:10h, 15 December Reply

    Thank you Johnston!

  • Peter Monty, SJ
    Posted at 14:59h, 15 December Reply

    Thanks, Johnston. Very perceptive and encouraging!

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