I don’t know if your December resembles mine, but every year it seems that Christmas rushes towards me faster than the year before. This year a German friend has kindly provided me with a sort of magnified Advent calendar, a little series of numbered bags with a small gift for each day of Advent – Germans really know how to do Advent and Christmas! The row of bags on the shelf has diminished with alarming rapidity. Here we are, ten days from Christmas, and my shopping certainly isn’t done, I’ve written no seasonal greetings, and you really wouldn’t want to check for dust in the vicarage.
But I have already celebrated the birth of Jesus on six separate occasions with various schools coming to church. That is one reason Advent seems so short. All this means that when I read the passages in the lectionary about being patient while we wait for the coming of the Lord, my inclination is to say, please Lord, not just yet!
The pressure to prepare for Christmas is relentless every year. The season needs planning, money, time and effort. We are so focused on the coming celebration that we have very little time, except here on a Sunday morning, to be experience the extraordinary atmosphere of the Advent season.
Because really Advent is not about shopping lists and decorating trees and sending cards. It is about being present to the darkness in which we sit while waiting for the light of the coming of Christ. Two weeks ago this church was full for the Advent carol service of readings and lessons by candlelight. Tonight there will be another Advent service, this time with traditional American shapenote songs, focusing on the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures containing good news for the poor. These evening services in Advent, by the light of the candles on the wreath, are my favourite times in this hectic month.
Advent is about awakening our hunger for God. It used to be kept quite strictly as a penitential season of fasting, like Lent. In those days the celebration of Christmas would come, as Easter still does, as a wonderful change and a great day of rejoicing and feasting. But nowadays, inevitably, we are all jaded with parties and too much food and drink before we ever arrive at Christmas Eve. Boxing Day tends to be the bracing antidote to the festivities, the day we go for a brisk walk and resolve never to eat sugar again, rather than the second day of a twelve-day festival.
There is nothing we can do about this. It would be idle to suggest that Christians could go into purdah and refuse to take part in the way our society now celebrates Christmas. But rather than be po-faced and judgmental about it, we can allow ourselves the treat of keeping Advent alongside the pre-Christmas madness.
If we are not physically hungry in Advent, we can still sharpen our spiritual hunger. I have been hugely helped in this by the beginning of the Bible Challenge. Each day in Advent I open one of my German friend’s little bags to see what treat is in store, and I also open the Bible to read further in the story of the Hebrew people. Taking Genesis in great gulps, three chapters a day, has been an amazing experience. And now we are already moving on to Exodus, the foundational story of the people of Israel and the narrative that inspired civil rights movements across the globe.
Our New Testament reading has started, naturally enough, with the gospel of Matthew. As I’ve told some of you, I decided to read the daily New Testament chapter in French, on order to make the familiar strange. It is very easy to slide one’s eyes over the page of well-known text and not really take it in. But when you have to work at it, you have a very different experience. I found it quite arresting to take in the Sermon on the Mount – somehow I never imagine Jesus speaking French, though of course French people must always do! My favourite moment was finding “Blessed are the meek” rendered as “Heureux les debonnaires”. I had to stop and think about that one. Rather than picture a posse of elegant men about town, I needed to remember that the French word comes from de bon aire, meaning of good disposition, but the sheer effort of looking this up and thinking it through meant that the very familiar passage struck me afresh.
I hope that many of you who are doing the Bible Challenge are having similar experiences of surprise. One person said to me how startling it was to realize what a naughty lot the patriarchs were. If you want to know what she meant, you’ll just have to read Genesis for yourself. There are plenty of passages in it that never make it into the Anglican Sunday readings.
Making time to read the Bible every day means there is at least a quarter of an hour each day in Advent when we are not panicking about the Christmas menu or what to buy for the relatives. We place ourselves in another world, a place in which men wrestle with angels and women give birth at ninety. It is a world made strange. We have to listen carefully and take time.
And maybe that helps us to get a sense of expectancy, of waiting for something to come. The epistle of James says “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient.” In our society people want quick results from any exercise in spirituality. Try this meditation or that crystal or the other technique and it will transform your life in a week. But Advent reminds us that waiting on God is a lifelong project.
Read the Bible every day and we won’t be instantly enlightened. People who talk about the plain meaning of the scriptures have clearly never really read them. Reading the Bible is a dense and difficult exercise, as well as a surprising and rewarding one. We will often be left confused. That is why reading it together is such a great idea – we can share our questions and our difficulties. Just as Jewish readers have always done, we wrestle with the scriptures, as Jacob wrestled with the angel.
Pray every day and we won’t see visions. Sometimes we may be warmed with a sense of God’s presence, but many times our prayer will be dry as dust, or even frustrating and irritating. Advent teaches us to be content to sit in the darkness, waiting patiently.
I had a memorable lesson in this just recently. I led a quiet day just before Advent Sunday for the Sisters of Sion, a Roman Catholic religious congregation whose particular focus is reconciliation between Jews and Christians. One of the sisters sought me out to tell me, at some length, the story of her faith journey. She was a child of a large Jewish family in Hungary in the 1920s. Through a chance encounter, she got hold of the New Testament, read it and fell in love with Jesus. She waited patiently to be baptised until she was old enough to do this without her parents’ permission. Later she came to England as an au pair in 1939, and was marooned here throughout the war, during which her sister and some other members of her family were sent to extermination camps. In that time she had entered a convent. It was years before she saw her parents again, and then it was a long time before they could be reconciled to her decision to become a nun. She was finally able to care for her sick mother and say the Jewish prayers with her before she died. It seemed to me that her life had been a long series of tests of her patience and endurance.
But as I listened to her story, recounted in English, which was her third language, I was overwhelmed by the serenity and thankfulness of this 95-year-old nun. She told me repeatedly how blessed and happy her life had been. She was still on a pilgrimage of faith, still open to new things. In fact she had a quiet word with me after I had led evening prayer at the end of the retreat day. I had used the usual formula of Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. She suggested in the friendliest way that saying Glory to God, Source of all being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit, was a nice alternative sometimes.
I said goodbye to her and all the other retreatants and went home. Just a few days later, I had an email from the organizer of the quiet day telling me that this sister had peacefully died. It seems that reflecting out loud on her long life of waiting on God had been the last thing she needed to do.
Be patient, beloved, says James, until the coming of the Lord. Advent reminds us that we are waiting, not just for a harmonious family Christmas, though that is a great joy if it happens, but for God. We may be full already of mince pies, but our souls have a deeper hunger. Let’s retreat occasionally from the bright lights and the tinsel and find a quiet dark corner in which we can sit patiently and expectantly.