Warning! This post contains spoilers about the films The Commitments, Waiting for Guffman, and Big Night.
The church often does a disservice to us during Advent. It blows the big reveal too early. Pastors always cut to the chase too soon. Advent is about waiting. Advent is about the time before the time, when Israel and now us, cried out for a Messiah.
Advent is about the day before. Advent is about waiting and waiting for something to happen. Advent is about hoping for a savior even when we aren’t sure if he is going to come.
And pastors blow it. They always talk about waiting but always point out that the wait is over, that Jesus is coming. But for all those who waited before Christ came…they didn’t know what would happen in that manger. Hindsight is 20/20 and we know the end of the story now, but at the time it all felt like more waiting. Will he ever come? Is there something at the end of this tunnel?
He will come.
He probably won’t.
What are we waiting for?
Advent is about waiting for someone to come and not being sure if he will.
One of my favorite movies is Christopher Guest’s Waiting For Guffman. This mockumentary is not as popular as some of his others like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, but is his best. In the film a small town prepares for its anniversary and a passionate and quirky theater buff named Corky has written a play about the town’s history. Far from Broadway, Corky enlists local talent (if one can call it that) who delightfully cannot act but make up for it with passion. They are regular people from town, not actors though some have an yearning for the limelight. The film is hilarious and follows the sophomoric but deeply dedicated group through the ups and downs of production.
Corky soon hears that a producer from New York is coming to see the play and it throws him and the cast into a frenzy. This could be there big break (granted they had any talent). Guffman ia a big chance. Guffman is from the city, the theater scene, from Broadway! His presence will legitimize Corky’s life and passion. So they throw themselves even further into the production. The night of the play and the whole town comes out. And the show begins.
In the wings of the stage and backstage Corky and cast are waiting, waiting, waiting for Guffman. Will he come? Why is his seat empty? What will he think?
As the play continues they play their hearts out and conclude to a standing ovation! The town loves the play and someone is sitting in the seat reserved for Guffman. He came! They are ecstatic and invite him backstage and ask his thoughts where it is revealed…. this is not Mr. Guffman. He never came. This man accidentally sat in his seat. They are all crushed. Next we see them all they have returned to their normal lives of dentists, travel agents, Dairy Queen workers, and struggling actors. Guffman never showed and they have nothing to show for it.
Another film about waiting is The Commitments.
It is an amazing film full of amazing music, the Northern Soul of Dublin, Ireland. Jimmy Rabbitte is a hustler and puts a band together, a ragtag band of misfits from the poor side of town. All struggling to make it, the band becomes their escape. They pour themselves into the music and the performance. They struggle, they fight, and they embrace the music of soul. Maybe, just maybe they can get out. If they play hard enough maybe they can make some money, get famous, or find a way to move away from the slums. One night their trumpet player, Joey “The Lips” says his old friend Wilson Pickett is in town and that he invited him to their show. Wilson Pickett! One of their heroes will come to them? He, whose songs they play and whose music the emulate, will come to see them? Their show begins and they watch the back door and soon as the show continues they begin to fight and Pickett never shows. Similar to Guffman, they go their separate ways, never to play together again. They lost their chance.
Finally, we will look at Big Night, starring Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub. Two brothers run a restaurant that is on its way out. Though Primo (Shalhoub) is a phenomenal chef and Secondo (Tucci) is a masterful maitre’d, they cannot keep the doors open. That is until a sleazy friend, who runs the succesfull club across the street, tells them that Louis Prima will come to their restaurant. Yes, THE Louis Prima! “The Lip” (Not to be confused with Joey “The Lips” Fagan of The Commitments).
They begin to craft the perfect night at their little restaurant. With the perfect ingredients for the perfect dinner, flowers, alcohol and friends they wait for Prima. Prima will turn it all around for them. They will cook for a star and others will come. Prima is their chance to make it and hold the bank at bay. And so they cook their heart out and the restaurant fills with folks waiting to see Prima, but it gets late and they start to drink and eat and dance until the party is in full swing. The guests have the meal of their lives. The brothers have a full restaurant. And soon, at the end of the night…Prima never shows. They have failed in their plan. The restaurant will close.
So what do these films have to do with Advent? Everything.
They are films about waiting and about being stuck somewhere, yearning for a way out. Guffman has Corky, stuck in a rural town with a passion for the stage! The Commitments are all kids stuck in the slums of Dublin. Big Night’s two brothers desperately want to succeed but wonder if it will happen. On their own they cannot make it. Something has to happen for them. Some kind of magic, be it a theater producer from the city, a chance to perform for Wilson Pickett, or to cook for Louis Prima, can help them get out and get over the hump. Advent is about being in this place. In Advent we celebrate the days before the birth. Advent is a reminder of a time when there was no Messiah.
Advent ends with Christmas. The Christ child is born and the Messiah arrives and his parents name him Emmanuel which means, “God with us.” He is the solution to the problems. He is the answer to the question. No longer do we wait. But the day before his birth, December 24th (or whenever he was actually born), we have no Messiah. There is no God with us (while I know God was with us before Christ’s birth, stick with me. It’s just a thought exercise). One day we wait and hope Guffman, Pickett, Prima, or Yeshua show up.
This is not a post about how we have a God who shows up. We do and that is a wonderful way to end this post. I could write that, and maybe I will another time. But this post is about the day before and the waiting and how we may be missing out. We rush to the end of the story like the pastors who jump to the end, trying to reassure us so we don’t worry too much. But lets look to these films again and see is something can be learned from the waiting.
In Waiting for Guffman their eyes are on the prize, they solely seek one thing; the praise of Guffman. And when they don’t get it, they crash and burn and scatter. However, they forget that wonderful night when the town cheered and they sang together. It should not be about the failure and the non-arrival of Guffman (he may have never intended to come). They forget the night together and the accomplishment of the huge task. The cast comes together and does something magical. The focus on Guffman makes them miss out on that. The community is overlooked.
The Commitments ends with the band crumbling. Their egos clash and the fights get too big. And so they move on with dreams dashed. They land back in the harsh reality of Dublin. But does the failure mean they had nothing? Was it all pointless? Or does the few months they played together count for something? They were famous in their small corner. They were good. They played beautifully and they poured their hearts into every second of it. Is the point of soul to get rich and get out or to sing from the broken places? Their escape doesn’t come from riches and fame, but it was in the moments together, fighting through the struggle one song at a time.
And Big Night echoes these sentiments. Prima never shows. The plan fails. But they have a wonderful night where all of their hopes for the restaurant come true. The place is packed. The music is loud and the food is heavenly. Surrounded by friends, they live their dream for a moment. And that may be enough.
In each of these films the characters look to the future for a messiah. They look to a star to come and save them and miss out on the fact that those around them, the others who join them in their despair, are the ones who can and are saving them. They can and do save each other. They sing and dance their hearts out, if even for one night. They pull together and cook and amazing meal. They drink together, they dance together, their struggle together. If we look and wait for a Messiah, we may be missing out in the gifts and grace the Messiah has given us today. We could miss out on the escapes right in front of us, missing the forest for the trees.
So for Advent, let us wait for the Savior but let us also look to each other. Yes we need divinity but in the meantime some humanity may do the trick.