Advent Firesiders

Waiting (2009)

It was not so much that Demos, the mother of all think-tanks, should have published something so obvious - stating the obvious is, after all, a valuable social function; you only have to think of the king's new clothes - and, I suppose, was paid handsomely for doing it, but that the reaction should have been so credulous. Children thrive best, it said, on a diet of tough love rather than indifference and neglect; they learn the value of meeting their commitments and, here's the crunch, the value of delayed gratification! That was the thing that met with the incredulity. To think of such a thing. It was such a radical idea that it commanded extended news coverage.

Now it's easy to become smug. After all, we know the value of delayed gratification and are sorrowful, if not scornful, of the mantra: "I want it; and I want it now!" But who can honestly say that he or she does not borrow to have it now rather than saving to have it later? Compared with those naughty bankers, however, our mortgages are modest.

But Advent is a special time devised for delayed gratification before the birth of our Saviour, just as Lent is an even longer period of delayed gratification before the Resurrection, so we are accustomed to the routines of waiting. We know from experience that it is often better to travel than to arrive, that some object or event long looked-for can disappoint; but this is different because the outcome is certain and it never disappoints.

Yet it becomes ever more difficult to wait in an integrated way. While we light the weekly candles on the Advent wreath, buy presents and prepare for the great feast, the other side of us sings carols about shepherds and kings, attends parties and wonders what we might buy in the sales. On this last point, the whole of human time has been pulled out of joint by the mantra: Christmas trees in November and hot cross buns in January.

I have likened the time of Advent to a civil war between the red of Father Christmas and the purple of Advent which, for me, combines the human blood of Jesus and the blue of Mary in a call for patience and penitence. We can never turn the clock back and, to be truthful, we cannot shut the door on our world: how would it be if we refused, Puritan-faced, to attend works parties or nit-picked about which hymns and carols we were prepared to sing before sunset on Christmas Eve? It was easy to delay gratification when you only had one lamb to eat on one particular day and you can't avoid year-round turkey but you can avoid calendars stuffed with chocolate, the very paradox of Advent!

So we need a different way; and what I suggest is that we introduce just a little more Advent and Lent into the whole of our lives. In these comparatively straitened times we might be accused of making a virtue out of necessity but, no matter how hard we are pressed, and how difficult it is to borrow money, we will still be materially far ahead of 90% of our world; and we might find that saving rather than borrowing will leave us a little more for giving, particularly if we get a discount for cash!