Advent is here again, the season of chocolate filled calendars and trying to work out when is the best time to go shopping and the best time to put up our Christmas trees. According to the tradition of the Church, it’s also a time to take stock of our lives, a time of self-examination. It’s a bit like Lent, but with tinsel.
The story of Advent is actually more grown-up than Lent: The central metaphor for Lent is Jesus fasting for 40 days in the wilderness. During this time Jesus faces temptations (colourfully described as a symbolic encounter with Satan) but if we read on we find Jesus overcame the temptations and spent most of the 40 days with the wild animals being ‘ministered to’ by angels. In my imagination this has always been a ‘Disney Princess’ moment with birds chirping sweet tunes to entertain Jesus while meerkats bring some berries and a cup of water and two funny angels sing a song about enjoying life’s simple pleasures.
That’s Lent. Advent has a much sharper edge. The Central metaphor for Advent is the defeated and persecuted people of Israel longing for deliverance from their oppressors. And in parallel to that, it has traditionally also been a time to think about the so-called Second Coming of Jesus, which for many Christians pretty much means ‘the Apocalypse.’
So we have two times of self-examination in the Church: one when we think about Jesus and the cute desert creatures, and one where we think about political oppression and the End of the World.
Advent is all a bit difficult if we take it seriously. I can see why popular culture prefers to put chocolate in Advent Calendars and focus on Santa preparing for his epic journey rather than the oppression of the Israelites. I can see why we’d rather think of snow covered countryside and the ‘red red robin bob bob bobbing along’ rather than the Apocalypse.
But the themes of Advent are central to putting the joy of Christmas into context. Christmas is just one small part of a much larger story. In the latest Inclusive Church Newsletter Dianna Gwilliams (Dean of Guildford and Chair of Inclusive Church) wrote:
“It’s interesting to note that if Christmas was removed from the Bible we would lose a few paragraphs but if we were to remove Advent we would lose all the New Testament and most of the Old. Advent invites us into a consideration of an in-between time – both knowing that the light has come, but acknowledging that we also wait in the dark.”
Some people believe in a literal ‘Second Coming’ of Jesus “Lo he comes with clouds descending” says one of my favourite (if slightly barking mad) Advent Hymns. But Jesus returning in the clouds is not my vision of the Advent hope. I think Jesus returns whenever his teaching of love is followed; Jesus returns whenever we feed the hungry; Jesus returns whenever we talk to our lonely neighbour; Jesus returns when we campaign for justice; whenever we are kind to the least of God’s children.
The Apocalypse as described in Scripture is not actually the End of the World. If we manage to read through the hallucinogenic nightmare of the book of Revelation (and get past the beasts with seven heads and the cavorting with the whore of Babylon) we find that all the crazy stuff, and all the turmoil, are just the birth-pangs of a better world. The important message of Revelation is that no matter how bad things get, if stars fall from heaven and the moon turns to blood, if warfare engulfs the world, there is still hope.
Advent is the season when we look at the darkness, and we chose to respond, not with despair, but by lighting a candle.
Advent is a time when we renew our hope in a better world, and commit ourselves to try and bring it about.
When we talk about the Kingdom of God we celebrate a present reality. The Kingdom is here, but we also long for its fulfilment when the world is filled with justice and we have peace at the last. We live with the tension of the ‘both now and not yet’ of God’s Kingdom.
We look for signs of the Kingdom, and I see them in our slow but inevitable process towards women bishops, in the Pilling Report on Human Sexuality (which contains sone of the sanest things the Anglican Church has said about sex for a long time – but there is still a way to go). I see the signs of the Kingdom in the work of London Citizens, bringing together people of all faiths and none to make our society more fair and just. I see the signs of the Kingdom in the faith that keeps fighting to keep the Wash House youth group going despite losing funding, in the commitment to our ESOL classes, in the work of LEWCAS.
This week some of us were at the Greenwich London Citizens Assembly, those who were there please forgive me for repeating the reflection that kicked-off the event; it is very appropriate to this season of Advent. It is adapted from ‘You Have to Pick Your Team’ by Sonya Vetra Tinsley:
‘Every day presents infinite reasons to believe that change can’t happen, infinite reasons to give up. But I always tell myself, you have to pick your team’.
It seems to me that there are two teams in this world and that you find evidence to support the arguments of both. The trademark of one team is cynicism. They’ll tell you why what you are doing doesn’t matter, why nothing is going to change, why no matter how hard you work, you are going to fail. They seem to get satisfaction out of explaining how we’ll always have injustice. ‘You can’t change human nature,’ they say. ‘It’s foolish to try.’ From their experience, they might be right.
Then there is another group of people who admit that they don’t know how things will turn out, but have decided to work for change. I see Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela on that team. I see many of my friends. They’re always telling stories of faith and hope being rewarded, of ways things could be different, of how their own lives have changed. They’ll give you reasons why you shouldn’t give up, testimonials why we’ve yet to see our full potential as a species. They believe we’re partners in God’s creation, and that change is possible.
There are times when both teams seem right, both have evidence. We’ll never know who’s really going to prevail. So I just have to decide which team seems happier and more fulfilled – which side I would rather be on. And for me that means choosing on the side of faith and hope. Choosing to organise for social justice rather than disorganising for despair. Because on the side of cynicism, even if they’re right, who wants to win that argument anyway? If I’m going to stick with somebody, I’d rather build a team of people who have a sense of possibility and hope. I just know that’s the side I want to be on.