“Lo, He comes with clouds, descending,” are the words of a favourite Advent hymn.
“Clouds descending” may have a majestic tone or sound like a terrible storm about
to strike. 29th November, Advent Sunday, the first day of the Christian year, begins
with a contrast: the Light of the Nations to which all shall come, the majestic mountain
of the Lord, the city of peace, where there shall be no more war; and then in the
gospel we hear the warnings of what the day will be like, the Day of the Lord: a
day of judgment, sudden and decisive, and without warning.
Meanwhile, we scrabble on with life lived in the midst of death. Cities are threatened
with crime, and our dwellings become more and more fortresses against possible attack.
Military build-up is in the wind, needed, we are told, to protect us from terrorists.
Violent video games fly off the shelves as Christmas gifts. Rural areas are dumping
grounds for prisoners and cheap immigrant labour, and in the words of the poet, W.
B. Yeats, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
In our spiritual lives, we are tossed from certainty to doubt, from victory to despair.
One day its God’s world, and the next we wonder, Is anyone in charge?
Advent is not a time to prepare for Christmas. It is a time to open our hearts more
to Christ. Advent is a breaking in, a strong reminder that God has a plan that is
unfolding, even if we don’t see it. All these things taking place, the news, bad
and good – global warming, natural disasters, terrorism, petrol over £1.00 a litre,
the possible cure for disease through stem-cell research – these things are merely
side acts on the stage. The real event is taking place in a hidden, yet powerful
way. Lives are changed every day because of Christ, people are healed from sin and
death, eyes are opened to new realities, and we seldom hear about them because we’re
too distracted by the other stuff.
So, this is the time to put away your iPod for a day. This is a time to turn off
the BBC, ITV, Sky or whatever your source is. This is a time to find some solitude.
In fact, insist on it. This is a season to draw apart for a little while, to read
scripture, to take ten minutes and breath slowly, letting the promise of God fill
your lungs with fresh air. This is a time for taking stock of what really matters
and letting go of some things that don’t.
An elderly woman lived in a drab apartment. She used to be visited occasionally by
a Curate from her church. The apartment was in a cold concrete block of flats, and
the views out of the window were of a scrap yard. They would always sit and drink
tea when the Curate came. On one visit the Curate said, “Maybe you need some green
plants to make things a little less stark.” “No,” said the old woman. “I look out
in the junkyard and think about all the parts of my life that I let go of a long
time ago. Then I think about what I have left, and it’s all good!” The Curate left
thinking about his own cosy home and how hard he worked to make it a haven from the
world. Maybe he didn’t need to try so hard. If junk can become grace for us, a reminder
of things left behind, perhaps we all ought to spend some time in Advent looking
at a junkyard!
Families are always under stress at Christmas. Advent offers some alternatives: an
Advent wreath on the table and its increasing shine as a new candle is lit each week;
an Advent calendar to mark the days of waiting; a brief passage from scripture with
the evening meal. These are anti-stress times when people’s souls get restored among
those they love. Those who live alone can sit in front of a lighted candle and remember
loved ones and friends who have surrounded them in the candlelight. Most of all,
we can recall a God who loves us so much that we are offered a time to prepare, a
time to wait, a time to remember that underneath all that seems to be crumbling is
a firm foundation, and the One who is to come.
May this Advent be a blessed time for us and for all whom we love.
Rev’d Stuart Ansell