This year, Advent and Hanukkah underscore the virtue of patience

This year, Advent and Hanukkah underscore the virtue of patience
© Getty Images

Every major spiritual tradition teaches the virtue of patience, of waiting, of how personal sacrifice in the short term can build spiritual strength and resilience. Although those universally held values conflict each year with the instant gratification pushed upon us by our secular commercial culture, the contrast during the holiday season is particularly acute.   

The two principal religious observances during December — Advent and Hanukkah — both honor the virtues of waiting patiently. In Christian tradition, Advent marks the weeks of ritual waiting in preparation for the expected birth of the Messiah at Christmas, while Hanukkah, in the Jewish tradition, commemorates the patience of the Maccabees in waiting for supplies to arrive to light the Temple in Jerusalem, a patience that was rewarded, tradition holds, with a miraculous eight nights of light when there was oil enough for only one.   

But even as Pope FrancisPope FrancisThe faith community can help pass a reparations bill Pope encourages audience to take a break from stresses of modern life Pope Francis reimposes restrictions on Latin Mass, reversing Benedict MORE and other leaders have urged each year that the holiday season is “a time of waiting, a time to reserve to the spiritual life the important place it deserves,” our culture erupts in the weeks before Christmas in inflatable Santas and Snoopys and Frostys, with garish multi-colored flashing lights, with endless anodyne Hallmark and Lifetime movies and spending turbocharged by advertising and, in Dr. Seuss’s immortal words, “all the noise, all the noise noise noise noise!”   


Ironically, from the perspective of Advent, by the day after Christmas, when our waiting is over and our celebrations should be beginning, we are — literally — spent. Our inflatables lie collapsed as though machine-gunned on our lawns. The Christmas carols stop on satellite radio, the car ads morph into crash diet pills and New Year’s sales, and the dried-out Christmas trees are soon decorating our curbsides with needles, waiting to be hauled away. The eight days of Menorah lighting for Hanukkah are also too easily lost in the commercial hubbub, with some Jewish leaders bemoaning the emergence of Mensch on a Bench and other Hanukkah toys.    

If ever a year demanded, however, that this season’s celebration of patience, waiting and a renewal of spiritual life be observed as intended, surely it is 2020. We are losing the equivalent of our 9/11 deaths every day now to the COVID-19 virus; health care workers are pleading for governors to take more aggressive actions to ensure public safety, to little avail. 

The political will among even the most responsible state executives seems to have dissipated as the public has become less tolerant of restrictions. Critical decisions have been pushed down consistently to the lowest levels of power, so that a global pandemic is being managed not at a global level, and not at a national level, and no longer even at a state level; governors across the country are holding press conferences isolating “hot spots” and encouraging mayors to lock down. We are thus left with the absurd suggestion that the mayors of, say, Hohokus or Wappingers Falls can arrest the spread of a global pandemic. The truth is that the virus is everywhere; our entire nation is a hot spot. Our government has failed us; more fundamentally, we have failed each other.  

That’s why this season should be so important. Surely the time has come to follow the biblical teaching that “whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.” Surely this is beyond politics, beyond libertarian orthodoxy: The best thing we can do for the least of our brothers and sisters this year is to stay home, to venture out only when necessary, to take measures of kindness such as wearing a mask and keeping our distance when we do venture out, and to wait for the vaccines that will arrive, for some anyway, in time for Christmas and for the rest sometime in the new year.   

We should, in other words, cultivate and celebrate this holiday season the forgotten virtues of patience, of waiting. Advent celebrates waiting on four successive Sundays, observing the centuries-long patience of the Jewish people in waiting for deliverance as described in the words of the Advent hymn, “O Come O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” Successive Sundays observe the peace that comes from acknowledging the need for assistance and forecasting its arrival (John the Baptist), the faith and love in waiting that can redeem the world’s suffering (embodied in the shepherds and the Magi), and, finally, the joy that comes from realizing that our salvation comes not from the deeds of the high and mighty but from humblest sources imaginable: In the Christian story, a baby born to poor parents in a stable. 


The lighting of the Menorah candles on Hanukkah celebrates the relighting of the Temple in Jerusalem, when oil that should have lasted for only one day kept the temple lit for eight. 

Even for nonbelievers, there is power in the myth and metaphor of these stories. They speak to patience rewarded, to keeping the light of hope burning through the darkest of days.  

This has been a singular year, marked by conflict, disease and death. It is ending with the virus cresting as never before, with a nation still bitterly divided politically, and with the world holding its collective breath that the vaccines are effective. But if we have learned anything from 2020, it’s to stop expecting answers globally beyond what we are willing to do individually. We can honor our fellow humans by wearing masks and avoiding crowds. And we can give each other the greatest gift by simply staying home, lighting our candles in hope for the joy that surely will come if we are patient and caring enough to wait for our deliverance.     

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.