Waiting for Godot or the Wait of Advent

Being human means being consigned to waiting. The waiting may be on the order of waiting for Godot – a compounded futility and frustration. The two main characters in the play, Vladimir and Estragon, are in pain. One is suffering physically and the other is suffering mentally and in both acts they take steps to try to hang themselves.  Waiting is simply what they are occupied with. It does not seem that Godot will provide relief and it is doubtful he will even show up. In fact, it is not clear that he even exists and if he does exist, given the evidence of his purported ill treatment of the boy messenger, he does not seem to be particularly kind or even worth waiting for. This purported “keeper of sheep and goats” has left his characters hanging. Their literal discussion of the act (of hanging themselves) and the existential circumstance both indicate the need for some sort of closure or relief, but they wait as this seems to be their lot.

Vladimir, the more philosophically inclined, insists they wait but it is a burden accentuated by Estragon’s aching feet and Vladimir’s enlarged prostate. The suffering is slightly relieved by conversation, an incomplete joke (Vladimir cannot complete the joke due to the constant need to urinate), and the capacity to sleep. But as Job lamented and as Estragon experiences it, even sleep produces nightmares and Vladimir refuses to listen to Estragon’s dreams – so sleep is only isolated suffering.  A pair of visitors accentuate the futility and unfairness. Their visit offers promise one might forego the mental agony of waiting, or so it is implied in the incapacity for thought of the two visitors (Lucky, the slave and Pozzo, his master), but this slave/master circumstance is even more immediately oppressive than aching feet or mental anguish. Things are not right and this oppressiveness points beyond itself to waiting for something better. The play illustrates the human predicament needing resolution and reducing everyone to waiting.

George Carlin describes a dog’s life as waiting for something to happen – the eager tail wagging, the longing looks, is all pure anticipation. But what awaits humans is not a ride in the car. The temporal condition, a unique human understanding, means that there are only so many acts in any life, so we wait for life to play out and somehow resolve itself. The angst driven aspect of the waiting is accentuated by the incapacity to grasp the nature of the long-anticipated arrival. There is an ambiguity as to the identity of Godot, perfectly fitting in describing the marked absence contained in human anticipation and angst. The ambiguity is angst ridden – is it death, God, rescue, final destruction, or simply an unfillable absence longing for final presence? To name it may be to misname it and to miss the all-inclusive life absorbing nature of the wait. Freud’s death drive, Lacan’s real, or Kierkegaard’s angst, is all encompassing in that it cannot be specified.

Advent, from the Latin word adventus, is a time marked by expectant waiting of a different kind. It is the expectation of the birth of Christ, reimagined and infused with hope of the Parousia, so that “God with us” identifies the nature of the absence. The waiting is not over at Christmas or Easter but now waiting is an ongoing order of expectation in which the genealogy of suffering, oppression, and death, are exposed. The angst is identified and pinpointed in the peculiar absence portrayed in the Gospels. God is present in the worst sort of suffering and advent is a training in a reoriented waiting.  

The medieval Catholic Church, in its pursuit of glory “now” (in Luther’s estimate) missed God in the suffering of the cross. Wealth and power mark it, or any church, indicating the refusal of advent – the refusal to wait. The theologians of glory have turned to the noise machines (Deus ex Machina) of the cathedral and mall like structures, the glittering gold of wealth, and the empty promise of power. Instead of waiting upon the Christ in humble places – the manger and the cross – they would seek him out in the Palace. A “theology of the cross” (Luther’s phrase) turns from glory (the big, the loud, and the noisy) to the humble and the unnoticed. Advent is a period of learning to live the principle of the manger and cross which address the human condition from within.

Advent affirms the human perspective – the place of lamentation and waiting for things to be made right. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2). Waiting in suffering lament is the recurrent theme of the Hebrew Bible, from Psalms, to Isaiah, to Habakkuk. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence! and you will not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2).  The perspective is not one that would brush aside human suffering, violence, and evil, but presumes this is precisely the problem creating the painful wait. The messianic salvation breaks into the midst of this suffering, not to resolve it from above, but to cure it from within.

The verdict that Christ must die due to God’s wrath and not because people would kill him, overlooks the lament inherent in advent. There is no lament and waiting in Penal substitution and no real engagement with the human perspective. God and the persecutors are on the same side in justifying the death of Christ as his death resolves a heavenly need and does not address an earthly absence. God and his followers are now at the foot of the cross reveling in the final (in)justice. The dying is an objective legal necessity and the perspective is divine rather than human (divine anger diverted).  The books are cleared “now” and the blessings can flow, and there is no waiting for justification. There is no advent.

Psalm 22, which Jesus quotes on the cross, depicts the worlds injustices: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1). The Psalm describes the crucifixion scene: “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’” (22:7-8). Yet in the midst of this suffering, and this seems to be Jesus point in quoting the Psalm, there is hope. It is not simply the futile waiting for Godot but prayerful complaint brought before God, the very form of which presumes “he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him” (22:24).

 Christ is not departing from Hebrew advent but is completing it. His cry from the cross partakes of a biblical theme: waiting upon God to act to remedy the world’s injustices. His quotation of the Psalm simultaneously enacts and fulfills the hope at the end of the prayer. God has already acted and is acting as Christ quotes it. This Scripture is now being fulfilled: “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! (22:26). “Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it” (22:30-31). He has done it, he is doing it, and he will do it, but who can see it? Only those who wait. It is a process that requires waiting.

Waiting in the fields are the humble shepherds. The stargazers have patiently plotted a path of star light. A few fishermen recognize God is acting in a small way through a child, a carpenter, a roving teacher. Here is a man the world would overlook: “He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench” (Math. 12:19-20). It was not those at the center of power, important Pharisees, powerful kings, or experts in the law, who have the patient perspective to wait and in waiting to recognize the Christ.

At the end of Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon once again encounter Lucky and Pozzo beneath the tree where they are waiting, but this time Pozzo is blind and Lucky is dumb and Pozzo has no memory of having met the men the night before. The suspicion dawns that Pozzo and Lucky are the alter-egos of Vladimir and Estragon and that their waiting is interminable as they are incapable of knowing if Godot has arrived or already come and gone. The two men once again assure one another they will hang themselves tomorrow should Godot not show.

We are all made to wait but the choice is an insufferable waiting or the hopeful waiting of advent.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

2 thoughts on “Waiting for Godot or the Wait of Advent”

  1. Love everything about it. God does not turn his face from the Son on the cross…God is on the cross.

    In CS Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, he often describes it as the “wanting.” Always wanting something, but never quite able to put his finger on it. He finally decides that the having is not so fine a thing as the wanting.

    1. This may have seemed a sort of abrupt move in the flow of things but I was thinking penal substitution puts its advocates in the place of Pilate and Herod in wanting an instantaneous solution through death.

      Thanks for the feedback!

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