I was at the Ethnic Chaplains Christmas meal this week (in the middle of December) at the Italian Chaplaincy and got chatting to Andreas the new German Chaplain in London who I knew 26 years ago when he spent a year at L’Arche. We were both lamenting how Advent can get overlooked in the mad frenzy of Christmas which begins ever-earlier each year, even in Church settings. Andreas expressed his surprise that the Ethnic Chaplains had sung a lusty chorus of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ (i.e. already announcing the birth of Christ) at the end of our pre-meal prayer in the church in front of the enormous and beautiful crib in the Italian church. I can’t remember whether the baby was already in the manger (I suspect he was); he is certainly there now in the crib outside Canterbury Cathedral. Even the three kings have arrived early!
I had to confess to Andreas that earlier that day I had been singing Christmas carols with an elderly Irish lady that I go to visit. She had loved it, as had I. I said I’d had to admit that to try and hold Christmas back until, well, Christmas (i.e. December 25th) was to swim against the tide. And whereas in Germany there are actually more Advent hymns that Christmas ones, the sole Advent song that most people know in English is ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’. However, I think we can still be attentive to this most evocative and meaningful of liturgical seasons, and to the universal images that are presented. At this darkest and coldest time of the year we have the image of light and dark, and as Isaiah tells us (Chapter 9 v2) “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”. And the gospel readings tell us to be prepared, like the wise virgins in Matthew 25 who had oil in their lamps “for you do not know the day or the hour”.
Going back to Isaiah we are also given hints of the feast to come: “a banquet of rich foods and aged wines”. (Chapter 25). One of my favourite images of the Kingdom of Heaven is a great banquet, with the poor and rejected in the seats of honour. And I’m struck how in the Orthodox church Advent is kept, like Lent, as a time of fasting and penance; the fast before the feast.
Another central image of Advent is waiting in hope, and the Church teaches us that we await two comings: the arrival of God made flesh in the form of the baby Jesus; and the second coming of Christ at the end of time. I must confess that I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the prospect, so vividly portrayed in the scriptures, of God coming in judgement to separate the sheep from the goats. I struggle to believe that some will be condemned to eternal punishment, and I think that both sheep and goat, good and bad, are within each of us. Having said that, I think that all that we do on this earth has profound consequence even if we may not see it at the time. The Vietnamese writer, poet and monk Thich Nhat Hahn mentions the concept of ‘right word, right action’, whereby we need to be extremely careful of what we say and what we do because the consequences can be for good or for ill, and we may never know what good or what ill we have created. And perhaps there is an echo here of that injunction in Matthew’s gospel “be alert and be prepared, for you do now know the day or the hour”.
We see in our work in the Irish Chaplaincy how a simple word or act of kindness to a prisoner or a house-bound and lonely elderly person can indeed bring a glimmer of light into somebody’s life, and can have profound and far-reaching consequences that we might never be fully aware of.
So in this holy season of Advent may we be prepared, may we be kind to one another, and may we live in hope…
And if you’d like to hear the Advent song I once wrote which is based on some of my favourite bits from Isaiah, here is the link: ‘A Light in the Darkness’
Wishing everyone a blessed time of Advent, and a wonderful feast of Christmas.