WAITING CAN BE DIFFICULT. In a time of near-instant communications and even quicker opinions, it is a state of being which is under threat. Waiting – in non-emergency situations – is seen as negative, even to some, as a form of insult.

To understand it as an essential part of ‘building forward better’, I turn to the sense and condition of Advent. Maybe this is strange for a member of a religious group which has no seasonal liturgy – Quakers may feel moved by the Spirit to reflect on the Nativity at Midsummer or minister on the Resurrection in December. But Advent, with its waiting and duty of vigilance appeals to me. It feels a Quakerly season.

Waiting does not imply passivity. It offers time for reflection and discernment but also for alertness and readiness for responsibility. This may be very difficult when the time we are going through seems to take away so much agency and to offer so little hope. This is probably why Advent has been replaced in the world of media and marketing by ‘the run-up to Christmas’ – a rather trying time preceding the supposed fulfilment of a big blow-out which still retains a sentimental overlay of ‘baby Jesus’ combined with a confused melding of Dickens and the Waitrose Christmas ad. No wonder we so often get to 25 December, tired, a little irritable and ultimately, oddly disappointed. It is just more of the same and we are jaded by the cyclical dashing of half-understood expectations.

The watchman imagery, used by the prophets to turn hearts and minds towards light in our darkness, is beautiful and poetic in expression. Artists, writers and musicians have responded to the vision for millennia. It still speaks to us now if we will pause and embrace a wisdom which says both ‘be patient’ and ‘be ready’.

But it is the being ready which may be overlooked. Ezekiel the prophet gave a visionary warning to Israel about its relationship with the watchman. The language of swords, trumpets and blood on heads may not be to our liking these days, but there is no escaping the call to vigilance nor the cost of failing.

As we approach the shortest day, threatened by the climate crisis, a pandemic which seems to be intensifying its grip, a government which we increasingly do not trust and a society which is being encouraged to use identity as a weapon of division, it feels as though we are as astray in the darkness as much as those to whom the prophets once called out. It is easy to lose heart. Yet it is within our own power to turn away from darkness and to be agents of light. This is the time to begin to gather ourselves to build a better future, whatever the temptation to wallow in despairing bitterness or to turn away in apathy.

The last two years have made it plain that we must apply our hearts and minds to greater equality; to understand that no one can flourish where lies and misrepresentation have become the accepted currency; to refusing an easy pass to vested interests and above all, to learning that intelligent waiting knows when to move to action.

This is what the Advent season holds out to us. It may seem that in the darkest times, this is just wishful thinking. But the prophets and the poets offer us an agency and a dignity so far beyond that of just getting and spending: “ a white light, still and moving”.


Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has a particular interest in how spirituality influences our social and political choices. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and works on editorial issues. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen