Editor’s note: “Are We the Waiting” makes for fitting background music for this piece. Click here.
I am listening to my new favorite Advent song. From Green Day.
How’s that for antithesis? I won’t tell you which album as this teaser is already polarizing.
I’ll admit: I’m not cool enough for the punk genre,
because I use words like “genre” to describe punk.
But this song just won’t let me go. There’s been a few of those for you, I’ll wager.
Maybe it’s the solitary drumbeat calling from the first few bars (instead of sleigh bells) or the Gibson strum that answers back. Or, maybe it’s because this song begins as a soothing ballad—and ends with metallic rage. It just feels appropriate for this season, somehow.
But my true captor—I suspect—is this tangle of words I’m still unraveling:
“Are we we are, are we we are the waiting unknown.”3
For weeks I’ve played this song on repeat, attempting to excavate these lines from their resonating depths.
Why do they move me . . .
or the thousands of others who—like me— scream the lines above without any idea of what they were scripted to mean? (Warning: swear alert if you listen to this live clip. It’s Green Day.)
Recording artist Seal once explained the art of personalizing to his fans with a question: “How many times have you fallen in love with a lyric that you thought went ‘Show me a day with Hilda Ogden and I’ll despair,’ only to find that it went ‘Show me a way to solve your problems and I’ll be there’”? “The song,” he continued, “is always larger in the listener’s mind.”1
Think the “Hallelujah” chorus of Handel’s Messiah that always brings us to our feet, or Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.” Friends. It’s been almost 40 years: I still swear he’s saying “Mama see, Mama saw the mountainside,” and I’m at peace with that.
As for Green Day’s “Are We the Waiting,” there’s more to the story, of course. There always is.
Most interpretations point to the album’s anti-hero, who finds his feet sinking into the city’s wet concrete. He is trapped in a now liminal space that once promised unbridled fulfillment and freedom. (Familiar?) Lured by the urban life he craves, our anti-hero sheds his sheltered, suburban skin only to find that the “skyscrapers” and “stargazers” he longs for leave him even more . . . lost.
And it’s in this universal anguish, that my suburban, middle-aged, unpaid-Uber-driving soul finds solidarity.
“The rage and love, the story of my life.”3
I am listening to someone I love, ache . . .
so I scrape my chair across a frosty deck and strain to hear her voice tremble under the weight of heartbreak. It is a life-long lift, with a heaviness I can’t begin to comprehend.
“Where?” she stutters through tears, “is Jesus in these days—these years of pain?”
I’ve got nothing:
No Bible verses plucked out of context will do.
There is nothing to do but sit in the pain of one more indefinite, liminal space that’s nailed our feet to the deck’s frigid floor. There is nothing to do but long for something better than this.
I feel nothing, but an inexplicable reassurance that she is loved, too, by an invisible Jesus here in the “waiting unknown.”
“This dirty town was burning down in my dreams
Lost and found, city bound in my dreams.”3
I am listening to a professor cover “The History of Christmas Concert Music” in 45 minutes. (As if . . .)
Like Seal, Dr. Robert Greenberg tries to explain the inexplicable: What is it about the “long and magnificent tradition of Christmas concert music,” he asks, “that’s so darn good that it transcends denomination, or ethnicity, or nationality? When we stand in excitement during the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus from Handel’s Messiah,” he continues, “does who or what we worship, if we worship at all, mean anything?” 2
“Well of course not!” he answers himself.
“Great music, great art, is universal. It has something to say to all of us—no matter when, where, or by whom it was created.”
Then Greenberg throws a curveball. He reveals a little-known story about the “Hallelujah Chorus’s” debut: Legend has it that King George II rose to his feet as it played. The audience, in deference to him, also stood—a tradition that continues to this day. What moved the king is shrouded in historical speculation. Was this mortal monarch standing for the immortal “King of Kings,” or was he just having a bad day with his gout? Seriously. Perhaps his reasons don’t matter as much as ours.
“Does who or what we worship,” as Greenberg insists, “mean anything” in the darkest nights of the soul? In the maddening, liminal spaces of “the waiting unknown”?
I am listening to a cancer survivor,
who stepped from the darkness of failing faith into Light again.
We cradle steaming coffee cups on this crisp morning. A constant draft from the door hovers over our feet.
“How did you do it?” I press, about her quick decent into despair and slow crawl back up again.
“Faith. It’s the long game,” she smiles.
And so, I think, is the longing.
“Forget me nots, second thoughts live in isolation
Heads or tails and fairy tales in my mind.”3
I am listening to “St. Jimmy.”
If you’re a Green Day fan, you know that it’s the sister song to “Are We the Waiting.”
I’d like to tell you that our anti-hero pries his feet from the drying concrete just in time;
that his misplaced longings for the city led him on to Jesus!
He becomes, “St. Jimmy,” the drug dealer instead because Green Day, you see, is loaded with Christmas cheer.
But what about the rest of us? We, who lurk in unmet longings, dark nights, and liminal spaces must also choose our steps. Hope itself just isn’t enough. Our anti-hero hoped, and it lead him down a “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” (Swear alert, once again.)
Maybe it’s Who we place our hope in that—to challenge Dr. Greenberg—actually matters.
Maybe it’s ALL that matters.
“Authentic hope doesn’t speak in platitudes or offer easy answers. It doesn’t promise that everything will work out the way you want it to. Instead, it acknowledges the truth that life is sometimes difficult, disappointing and painful. It looks reality in the face and still makes room for what might yet be possible.” (Contemplating Christmas: An Advent Devotional for Finding Hope in the Dark)
We are listening to You, Lord Jesus,
waiting for what’s only possible through You—
and longing for a hope that, for once, does not disappoint.
Light of the World, be ours too,
in this darkness,
and may our longings ever lead us to You.
1 From Seal’s 1994 self-titled album cover.
2 “The History of Christmas Concert Music” by Dr. Robert Greenberg (The Great Courses).
3 Lyrics from “Are We the Waiting” by Green Day.