Advent: Hallowing the Present - Reflections for Advent 2021

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Advent: Hallowing the Present - Reflections for Advent 2021

Cally Hammond

1. Hallowing the Present

‘What is special about the Christian new year, about Advent? When we ask ourselves about the meaning of Advent, it can help to compare how people mark the start of the legal and social New Year, on 1st January. In that case, the key thing is not what we do on New Year’s Day, but what we do at the moment when one year turns into another, 2021 into 2022. In other words, what we do on New Year’s Eve. Lots of people go to parties and enjoy plenty of food and drink, with fireworks and singing at midnight. Some, like me, are more curmudgeonly and prefer a quiet time at home. Many of us make resolutions, to do better in the new year than in the one now passing. In many Christian churches, where Advent is not much observed, and where midnight mass does not happen, there is instead a watch night service on New Year’s Eve. In this case the sacred and secular New Year timetable map onto one another. However we mark the change, then, we have a sense of a boundary ahead which must, which will, be crossed, whether we like it or not.

I value Advent because of a pattern which occurs in nature and the Church together. The time of growing is completed, and the harvests finish. Nothing more can happen, nothing more can grow before the light turns at the solstice (once 25th December), and Christmas Day arrives. Waiting is hard. Surely few of us enjoy having to wait for what we want. Yet the ability to defer pleasure is a mark of human maturity, of being a person who can take the long view, and be patient instead of snatching at what they desire. Practising deferred pleasure turns tiresome waiting into thrilling anticipation, a much more positive experience.

Advent hallows this time of waiting. As we shall see in the weeks ahead, it does so by looking back in human history. This is not nostalgia, it is a form of active remembrance. As we call to mind the patriarchs and prophets of old, and then turn to John the Baptist and Mary the mother of Jesus, we can trace the pattern of divine guidance through so many centuries and far ahead into our own time. We are as much part of the pattern of God’s Advent providence as any patriarch, saint or prophet – as we shall discover in weeks to come.

2. Learning from the past

Looking back into human history helps us make sense of the present, and prepare for the unknown future. In Jewish thinking, our backs are to the future, like someone rowing, because we are moving towards it but cannot see it. The past, in contrast, is what we are moving away from, but our face is looking at it. We can see it because it has happened to us already. We have plenty of time, while we row blindly to our ultimate destination, to observe, and to reflect upon, our past.

Scripture, taken in bite-size pieces, is a story of individuals. Taken as one of the 66 books, or as all 66 together, it is a story of nations and peoples and kingdoms; a story of overthrow and renewal, destruction and hope. In the first part of Advent, we make a conscious decision to learn from the past. We go back in time to look at the earliest human beings whose stories we know, and who believed in a god who was, who is, recognisably the same god as our God.

Once we get past the early chapters of Genesis, the story of the tower of Babel marks a turning point, rather like that between 2021 and 2022. It is the starting point of the time of the patriarchs. There cannot really be “God’s people” until the nations have been divided by different languages. Now we encounter Abraham, the first patriarch. The story of Abraham and his wife Sarah, and their tumultuous offspring, has much to teach us, but one lesson will do for now: God works through imperfect human beings. The patriarchs were full of rivalry, jealousy, favouritism, spite, and pride. But they also had faith, and sometimes obedience, and above all the capacity to recognise God’s hand at work in apparently ordinary things. Sometimes they even glimpsed God himself. Good and bad, they were God’s chosen people; and his will was fulfilled in them.

The prophets have a different focus. They take the human story out of its family setting, and put it into the world of power and politics, of society as a whole. The prophets speak with many voices, but one message is common to them all, and as relevant in our “now” (which for them was an unimaginable future) is it was in their own time. What we do, and how we behave, especially towards other people, and even more especially towards the powerless and under-privileged, is infinitely more important than what we say. God challenges us every Advent with a message about justice pouring from heaven like a rainstorm, drenching everything with its power, and washing away wrongdoing in an act of cleansing which is first a destruction of what was there before. Truly, in Advent “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9.10).

3. Keeping things simple

The third week of Advent is sometimes treated as a rest from the hard discipline of the penitential season. It’s like a half-time whistle to allow a breather before a strenuous second half. Even if we don’t keep Advent very rigorously, it is still worth taking some time to reflect about the person who features in our worship this week; a man who seemed to find tough spiritual discipline easy, and who was direct and simple in his advice to other people who came to him for help.

When we look at the advice he gave people, we find first and foremost that this man practised what he preached. He lived simply, drinking no alcohol, eating locusts and honey rather than bread. It is a very extreme form of dependence on God’s providence. But he does it without showing off his conspicuous piety, or judging others who were less ascetically inclined. He just encouraged them to repent. To confess their sins. And to be baptised.

His name was John. John the Baptiser (or Baptist). As with many British surnames, the job he did day by day came to define him. Of course these days not all Bakers are bakers, and the same is true for Millers, Butchers, and Bookbinders. We don’t seem to be creating such names for our modern world though: no Mechanics, alongside Cartwrights; no Designers alongside Drapers, no Carers alongside Chamberlains. John’s work, baptising people, was not only his trade, it defined the man himself. Many people derive satisfaction from the jobs they do, feeling that they contribute positively to their employer’s business or their own. But when they let their work dominate their life, we tend to worry, and start dropping hints about a “work-life balance.” It can be risky to think of our life being mainly about the work we do, especially if we gain affirmation from the status our work confers.

I see no sign of this in John the Baptist. His whole life was about giving way to someone else, about stepping back, not forward. He certainly did not derive status or satisfaction from being a relative of Jesus. He didn’t go round boasting about how close they were: “Jesus? When he was starting out I was his role model, you know. Yes, I was the one who baptised him.” John made way for Jesus without anxiety, hurt pride, anger, or regret. That selfless focus on preparing people for the one who was to come, Jesus Christ, is meant to show us how to prepare for the coming of Christ too. No human being, Jesus told people, had yet been born who was greater than John the Baptist. But those who come after him? They will be greater, because they (and, one day, we) will belong to the kingdom of God.

4. Christmas Eve: Time and Eternity

Advent is almost over. It should be an exciting part of the Christian calendar, which is one of God’s most valuable gifts to his people. It is hard to get bored when every day of the year has its own character and colour. Or when so many transport us into the world of long ago (commemorations of Bible saints), or more recent history (Remembrance Sunday). Or when they stretch our minds and hearts theologically (Trinity Sunday), sacramentally (Corpus Christi), and personally (Mothering Sunday).

The attraction of this hallowing of time is so powerful that no-one feels the need to ask, “why?” Why celebrate the birth of Jesus in 2021 when we already did that in 2020? And 2019. And all the other years of this era. The year is a unit of measurement endowed with fundamental meaning because we collectively affirm that life is better so. It marks out our individual existences in stages. It shapes our social existence too.

During Advent, people have been burning down candles marked off in sections for each day, or opening cardboard window to see pictures, or find chocolate. This heightens the pleasure we find in anticipating happiness. Not that it is like this for everyone. Some people experience nothing but a countdown to boredom, arguments, and too much of other people’s company. Others dread the copious quantities of alcohol, and being cooped up all day within the same four walls, which will quickly lead to hurt and pain of body or soul. Yet even when our actual Christmases are unsatisfactory our mind’s eye is fixed on the ideal, in which when every gift we receive is something that delights us; and every gift we give evokes exactly the joy we hoped it would.

Christmas Eve is a special day in its own right, full of its own festive rituals: wrapping presents, filling stockings, cooking meals, Christingles. Advent and Christmas Eve have this in common: that they are ‘officially’ times of preparation like a warm-up act for the main attraction. But this conception conceals their truer nature. They have their own rhythm, and a completeness which is more than the groundwork for something better. “Hold the past and future in tension”, it insists. Keep the “Judge eternal, throned in splendour” and the “babe of Bethlehem” together, for they are one.

We can learn to hallow each day, and enjoy all the present moments of the life God has given us, neither obsessing about the unchangeable past, nor planning always to be happy tomorrow. That is how we shall be drawn to the dawning of the true Light, the splendour of the eternal Light, the radiance of the incarnate Light who lightens everyone who comes into the world.

The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is the Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.