New Year, Old Story

Sunday 29th November 2015
The First Sunday of Advent
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Luke 21.25-36

I am told by people older than me that Dick Barton, the radio serial replaced by the Archers, produced the most outrageous cliff-hangers so that listeners could not bear to miss the next episode. This appeals to our ordered sense of curiosity, the need to know what happens next: children can't wait to know what happens next; adults buy books called page-turners; everyone is leaning forward toward the future. When a politician falls from power or grace the immediate reaction is to speculate on a successor. The King is dead. Long live the King!

But modern novels and films don't all work like that: they start in the middle, or even at the end, and they slice up chronological order and reassemble the pieces in often bewildering sequences, focusing  more on the complex forces which form an individual or a collective consciousness rather than relying on a theory of chronological, organic development.

The Church's year largely conforms to the traditional pattern: Jesus is born, dies, rises from the dead, ascends into heaven and sends the Holy Spirit; and then, after some 20 Sundays of considering the life of Jesus during the years he proclaimed his mission, we move into the pre-Advent period which deals with eschatology, the last things, culminating in the Feast of Christ the King, reigning amongst his angels and saints in Heaven. But the difference from traditional storytelling based on our need to know what happened next is that we already know; our Christian life is much more akin to the modern experience of understanding events from different times simultaneously. And this approach is brought home to us in today's Gospel. We might have thought that we had cleared the eschatological decks last week to make room for the looking forward in Advent this week but we were wrong. Here is Luke leaping forward, past his own sublime account of the Nativity and mission of Jesus to his pronouncements about the end of time, pointing to the basic truth that the ultimate purpose of the Incarnation is our salvation.

Nonetheless, having recognised the seamlessness of truth outside human time we, for a symphony of reasons, including nostalgia for our childhood, the love of a good story, the nearness to our experience of a vulnerable baby compared with the stratospheric mystery of God, a tradition which encourages homely or artistic participation, the unadulterated joy of giving and the pleasures of feasting, are happy to get back to the familiar and well loved story of Advent and Christmas. The trouble is, that the rest of the world has taken the "What happens next" too far by celebrating Christmas before Christmas Day rather than after it. When I was at school we were not allowed to sing Christmas carols until the early nightfall of Christmas Eve. Until then we sang the magnificent and increasingly set aside repertoire of Advent with its sense of longing and increasing impatience, its rhythm of travelling with Mary to Bethlehem and its regime of fasting and prayer, more gentle and more comforting than Lent.

And without going so far as to say that Advent is a thing of the past, we have to recognise that the world we live in requires us to go with its grain in spite of our private needs and feelings: we can't boycott Nativity Plays because they take place throughout Advent; we can't stand by, mute and po-faced when others are singing Christmas carols; we can't refuse invitations to feast with our peers when we know that the feasting will stop, rather than start, on Christmas Day.

And yet, we can still find time for Advent in our homes as well as in our churches. We can, for example, open the windows of an Advent calendar which lacks chocolate, the whole purpose of the Season being to delay gratification; we can eat modestly on those days we are not feasting; and, above all, we can leave ourselves more time for prayer and peaceful contemplation of the forthcoming mystery of the Incarnation.

And if the traditional colour of advent purple has been overwhelmed by the alien, hybrid giant in the red coat, we can regain some of our purple by mixing some blue, for Mary, with the red because above all other times of the year, this is Mary's time. Too often this young woman who responded so readily to God's call has become an object - one might even say has become objectified - of abstruse theological speculation, mostly based around male obsession as to whether, for example, she was a virgin, whether she lived a perfect life free from sin and whether she was consequently assumed into heaven. Frankly, I wouldn't go to the wall for any of it, although the last two doctrines are more plausible than the first, because these debates tend to obscure the central truth about Mary which is her absolute obedience to the will of God regardless of the consequences to her own reputation and comfort; and I wonder how much of our reputation and comfort we are prepared to give up to do God's will. Too often, I get the impression that our Christian commitment is comfortably cultural with a bit of interesting doctrine thrown in but that we pay very little for it in terms of our conditions of life.

That is why contemplation in Advent is so important. It is not an ideal time to put things into perspective when the whole world is shopping, organising and eating and drinking itself into a state of utter frenzy but it is the fittest time so that we moderate our own individual and collective hysteria, making proper preparation without driving ourselves to excess or, alternatively, pushing us to the opposite pole of hating the whole thing. The capacity to love our waiting, to celebrate the birth and to thank God for it are the blessed gifts of the Holy Spirit who always stands at our door if we will but give Her home.