I’ve always loved learning new words and phrases. I think this is because I feel that words represent a very particular form of ‘magic’. That is, it is through words that we expand and transform our imaginative worlds.
The first time I heard the phrase ‘deferred gratification’ – probably over thirty years ago now – I was unsure about what it meant. If I recall correctly, the context for the phrase was something like this: ‘The middle-classes are much better thanthe working-class at deferred gratification.’ At the time, I’m not sure the context helped much!
Since, then, of course, I’ve learnt that ‘deferred gratification’ refers to a psychological phenomenon. When someone displays ‘deferred gratification’ it means they can hold back their desire for something. They do not need to be ‘gratified’ immediately. For example, I might really want to buy a new tweed skirt. I might really, really want it ‘now’! However, if I am able to control my desire for it and put it off for a while, I’ve shown a capacity for ‘deferred gratification’.
Leaving aside the claim that the middle-classes are better at deferred gratification than working-class people, which I think is faintly ridiculous, there is no question that ‘waiting’ for things can be difficult. For, in the world we live in now, we can get what we want when we want it. Indeed, with the wonders of the internet and the power of credit cards, it can seem as if none of us have to wait for a thing.
I suspect few of us enjoy waiting. Anyone who has a chronic illness and lots of hospital appointments will have tales to tell about waiting rooms. The NHS is amazing but waiting for hours for an appointment can try the patience of a saint. I’ve witnessed people lose their tempers, or weep or become very withdrawn in the face of waiting. Also, who hasn’t waited in all day for a delivery, only for that delivery not to arrive? It can be infuriating. It’s hardly surprising that waiting around is not high on most people’s bucket lists.
During March we shall travel through that extraordinary penitential season, Lent. It is an opportunity for us to reflect on the power of waiting. For I don’t think it has to be a negative experience. It can be an opportunity for us to reflect on the way we are dependent on God and the grace of others. For when we wait, we are in the hands of others. When any of us wait in for a parcel or wait for a bus or wait in a queue, we are not in charge of our fate. We rely on others.
Lent is – for some – a chance to give things up or take things on, but it is also an opportunity to watch, wait and listen. Indeed, we see in Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness – from which we take Lent’s shape – someone who is seeking to be utterly dependent on God. Jesus places himself entirely into the hands of his Father. He waits upon the Living God. We might not be quite so bold. However, rather than be irritated or annoyed by Lent’s invitation to pause, reflect and wait, it can truly be a time where we are more exposed to God’s reality.
What are we waiting for during Lent? Well, most clearly and definitively, we wait for and on the demands of Holy Week and, ultimately, the joy of Easter. The six weeks of Lent which conclude at Easter is a time of preparation. If we treat Lent seriously, it will be demanding. It can be challenging to look for the signs of God’s abundance in a time of penitence. However, it’s all worth it. On Easter Day, God reveals his risen self in Jesus Christ. This is the God who has walked with us through the penitential season and who goes ahead of us to the Cross.
We wait because God waited first and we rejoice because God rejoices. May this Lent be time of holy preparation – whether in Lent groups or through Quiet Days or through some other discipline – for the Day of Salvation. For on Easter Day, the whole of creation rejoices in God’s love. Let us dare to add our voices!