There was a Victorian bishop who once left a rather unusual will. It was short, written in verse and he asked that it read out to all of his clergy on his death. It said: tell my priests when I am gone, o’er me to shed no tears. For I shall be no deader then, than they have been for years. It is no secret that not all clergy are exactly fireflies in the dark night of this world: although you have been and are very fortunate in your clergy here at St Mary’s (he says quickly). But I know one priest in the diocese who once told me his motto in life was ‘start each day with a smile: get it over with’.
So, perhaps all of us, clergy and laity, need to hear those haunting words of Advent: be on guard, be alert, for God’s sake, wake up! It’s my favourite day of the Church’s year because I think nestling in the themes of today and the Advent season are lessons we lose at our peril as people of faith and that’s why I think they are there at the beginning of each Church year so we wake up to them.
We are living in a time of words and opinions and chat shows and endless social media notifications, tweets and retweets. But for all this communication, deep down in us, there is a deeper hunger. TS Eliot captured it when he asked: where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge and where is the knowledge we have lost in information? Messages sound off each and every way as to how we should look, think, act to be human. Sadly so many of those messages today are based on the premise that to be a human being is to spend money you don’t have on things you don’t want in order to impress people you don’t like. That to be human is survival of the fittest. Fit for what we are not able to answer. Shropshire shepherd…we all long for that deeper, rooted place of resonance, a place of wisdom on which we can build a life, build relationships, build real faith. We long for this. And Advent puts us back in touch with this longing because it is a good and holy longing, placed there for purpose and to be pursued.
So, first, Advent is a season only too aware of human restlessness, fragility, change. It is aware that like cool china cups, the closer you get the more to a human person the more cracks you detect. We are fragmented people, full of reverence and rebellion, full of devotion and then a sense of dereliction. We are incomplete, always shifting, sometimes sliding, and drawn into distraction, a surface existence of competition and avoidance, a long way short of life worthy of that name. Advent knows all this and at its heart is the longing, the yearning for what is eternal, holy, good and beautiful, the sacred source and stream of life and love. You hear this in the Advent antiphons crying out: “O Wisdom”, “O Desire of nations”, “O Dayspring” come, come to us and touch us into life. It is a season in the vocative, aware of our clutter, aware of our deepest longing. It is a season in blue or purple, aware that if love is to break in there needs to be self-disclosure and a resuscitation of our first love of God. It is a season that dares to suggest that to be a true self does not mean being selfish, that the best things in this life are never things, and that for a divine birth in us there needs to be pain and discomfort as our protections are dismantled and our contours pushed. Advent reminds us that difficulty can be important to a soul.
And because Advent is therefore a season of passion and desire it is, of course, a season of poetry. If you fall in love you stop being a literalist. Poetry is the language of love and therefore it must be the language of faith. Like all longing lovers, we dive into the depths of metaphor, intimation, art and non-verbal truth telling. So, it is very difficult being a literalist in Advent. The words that try and capture both our confusion and God´s reality splinter as they work to hold them both. And that reality of God, say the gospel readings of Advent, should terrify us. Not because God is fierce and out to get us like some zealous traffic warden, no, not because he is vindictive but because he is real and we are not always. If Jesus parables don’t always make easy sense that’s because they are not meant to make sense so much as make you, re-make you. God gives us a gift of being and we give back the gift of becoming. God loves us just as we are but so much he doesn’t want us to stay like that. Advent is provocative, hard in its demand: are you really ready to meet this God of truth? In the City of London between 1400 and 1560 it was forbidden to wear masks in the street at Christmastime. It was too easy to hide and mug people on their way to parties. Well, it is true: our masks can eventually eat into our faces and it is difficult to tell the face from the shield. Advent dares to wonder what life might be like without them, and of how God might be able to get a bit closer without them.
Advent, finally, is a season of promise and expectation. This journey has a purpose, has an end. And on the way, this world is full of signs and windows onto the eternal God, hints and guesses, but we will never possess God fully for our longing is the heartbeat of faith. If our longing for him goes so does our relationship with him. “Such a fast God”, writes RS Thomas, “always before us and leaving as we arrive”. In another image of his, we constantly place our hands in the burrow to find this elusive God, not finding him where we want him but able to feel the warmth of where he has been, before moving on and enticing us to follow. God, said the mystic, Meister Eckhart, is like a person who clears his throat while hiding in the dark and so gives himself away”. This God, that Advent sings of, is a God who gives us enough to seek him but never enough to fully find him. He wrestles with his lovers. He educates them with his silence. He catches them off guard, too, when he speaks with his body-language, Jesus Christ, and reveals a kingdom where things are seen from the other way up which is the right way up.
So, Advent Christians will be men and women who know they haven´t got all the truth, that there is always more to learn, more to change, more places where we need to be transformed. Jesus saw the full stops in people’s lives and turned them into commas. He taught his followers that it is always more important to be loving than to be right – and that is a lesson the Church needs to relearn at the start of every year. Who do people become in my presence?
Advent Christians will not be literalists. They will be unapolgetically poetic in their worship and praise of God and as they read the scriptures they will take note of St John Chrysostom who tells us to read them like a letter from a friend, not picking on each word in itself but to read the love between the lines. To read the love between the lines of your life too.The Advent truth seems clear: the hard secret of our humanity is that while the body has the capacity to heal itself the soul it seems doesn´t. The soul can only be loved into life – and love is always something that we can´t generate out of our own insides. Come, come quickly, and love us into being human and humane again.
I’d like to end with a story. I was brought up by my grandparents. As a boy I knew my grandfather had flown in the Royal Air Force in World War 2 and he was a bit of a hero to me but he never spoke about his experiences, except one day mentioning ‘Dresden’ and weeping. I didn’t understand then but I do now. He has since died but two years ago I was asked to preach in the reconstructed Frauenkirche in Dresden. He was very much in my mind. On the way to the train station at the end of my visit the taxi driver asked me why I was in Dresden and I told him I had always wanted to come. ‘Why?’ he asked. I took a deep breath. ‘because my grandfather was a navigator of a Lancaster bomber and on 14 Feb 1945 I know he flew here as part of the bombing raid and he could never talk about it’. The man was quiet and then said ‘ah, that was the night my mother was killed’. He pulled over the car and turned the engine off. He then turned round to me, put out his arm out to me and said ‘and now we shake hands’.
That man, like me, knew the facts. He knew the horrors of that night, he had lived his loss, learned about the thousands dead. But he knew more. He had become wise. He knew how to make a full stop into a comma, how to interrupt revenge into something more true. He taught me something that day and it is something that a church today can celebrate: that we rightly ask what it might mean to be loyal to the past, but the more urgent Christian question is how can we be loyal to the future? And that is over to you and to who you become, to the things that you believe matter. God bless you, that this Advent you may become awake and on guard in your longing for the wisdom from above.