Jesus said, ‘keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming’.
One of my favorite moments in literature comes very early on in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I think it highlights beautifully the Advent faith which this season seeks to distill in us. When the Pevensie children first meet Mr. and Mrs. Beaver the name of Aslan is introduced into the story, Aslan being the Christ-figure in Lewis’ masterpiece, and the children react in a multitude of different ways – Peter is filled with a call to action, Lucy with a sense of wonder and Edmund, having already met the evil white witch, is filled with a sense of dread; all because they hear the name of Aslan. What message do the beavers give the children? A simple one: ‘Aslan is on the move’. Aslan is on the move – God is on the move, and this is message of advent, this season when we look forward to the coming of Jesus at Christmas and reflect on how God moves in our lives and in our world.
Yet it’s so hard to focus on the darkness and enter into this kind of prayerful expectency when the world seems to sweep us away with all its lights and bling. For a moment, I’d like you to imagine with me a parallel universe… let’s just imagine a parallel universe where everything is pretty much the same as ours but a few things are different. We are walking down the streets of Canton in late November and we overhear a conversation, two old ladies are saying to one another – ‘I do love this time of year, those first weeks of December, they’re so stress free.’ ‘Yes’, says the other, ‘I love that everything’s a little quieter than usual and how the shops pull their curtains over the shop-windows for a while… and you know there’s lovely preparation going on behind them, but the street is darker and we can’t wait to see what’s behind’
‘Ooo yes, and I’m so glad the social calendar’s a little more relaxed. There’s more time to be at home, to be quiet, to sit in the darkness, to pray. And its so nice that the children are more relaxed, they don’t come home from school all hyper – they’ve been doing some meditation, lighting some candles in the dark’
‘Then isn’t it wonderful on Christmas Eve! From the darkness, suddenly there’s a great opening out! The lights are switched on, the shop windows are revealed – there’s a beaming blaze’
‘I love it’ says the other, ‘and twelve days is about right – it’s about as much as we can take. I just love the contrast’
Can you imagine having that conversation? Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Instead, of course, the reverse happens! We are sometimes tired of Christmas before it happens; so much has been thrown at us… we’ve been to several Christmas doos already; we’ve heard so many exhortations to buy stuff and do stuff.. somehow, there’s no moment of transition or contrast! There’s no time when you can say those watch-words of Advent… ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ We never walk in darkness!
We know oh too well about ‘light pollution’, compared to my home in rural North Wales, you can barely see the stars here – the heavens are hidden by a thousand tiny, man-made lights. Well, if there’s such a thing as visible light pollution – where, ironically, our little man-made lights stop us seeing the great lights – how much more so is there a mental, spiritual light pollution going on in Advent! There are so many little fairy lights going on all over the place, that we cannot focus on the great light that is coming! The light which is beyond everything; shining in the face of the infant, and, most surprisingly, is shining deep within each one of us… as the reading from St. John’s Gospel at midnight Mass will remind us, ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world’.
We know, in our heads, that Advent is to Christmas something like what Lent is to Easter. It’s a season of preparation – the Church in her wisdom always puts a fast before a feast! We don’t fast to punish ourselves or anything, we’re not world-denying, we fast so that we can appreciate even more the good things that we have. In Lent, we set things aside to depend more deeply on God and then receive them back from him with joy at Easter. I think there’s a way to do this in Advent too – although I don’t think Advent is about abstaining from physical comforts and foods. Advent, I think, is about abstaining from distractions – from those flickering man-made lights. It’s a time for dwelling in the darkness and asking those deep questions: where is God moving? What do I long for? Who is Jesus Christ for me?
This means that we, as Christians, have to resist some of the bling and chaos of this time of year – or else we risk missing the great Light who is coming and getting lost in the million fairy lights which blind us. By the way, I know that I’m setting an impossible task – but I hope that we can find some small ways of doing this, but I’ll come back to that in a moment. The call of Jesus in the Gospel to keep away this Advent is first and foremost about developing the habits of looking for God on the move within our lives and in our world. It’s about entering in to the world of the Old Testament prophets – who were looking for signs of God in the world and proclaiming that one day, although they could never imagine the reality, God would come among us to save the world.
This means that keeping awake this Advent is about more than just not being asleep. It surely must be about more than just not being asleep, because lots of us go through life not fully awake to it, for all sorts of reasons. We follow familiar routines; we believe that the way things are is the way things must be; we do what’s expected, and often even do our best, without necessarily stopping to ask why we’re doing what we’re doing, or whether this is how life has to be. There’s a familiarity and a comfort to our habits, to the patterns we weave for our lives, and that means that lots of us, lots of the time, are content to stay with the comfortable, and stop really looking at it because we know its contours so well. We fail often even to recognise the things that make our conscience twinge: discrimination in our country, a homeless man in the street framed by the glistening lights of an expensive shop, images of refugees and destructive wars on the news – we are so used to this that we often fail to hear the voice of our conscience anymore; fail to recognize God’s challenging, reforming movement – the movement of him who came among us to liberate the world.
To be awake to that presence in the world is partly to let the whisper of your conscience speak; to dare to imagine that we are made for more than the acquisition of wealth and that our lives are more than the sum of our achievements. And sometimes we need a wake up call to realize this – sometimes we have to be confronted again by the truth of God’s movement. Sometimes that wake-up call is welcome: in falling in love, in the gift of a child, in responding to a sense of vocation, in simply hearing the name of Christ proclaimed in a new way to us. Other times we are jolted awake by illness, or bereavement, or redundancy, or a broken relationship, and suddenly the familiar contours of our lives are made strange. Redundancy, for example, can provoke us to see that we are more than just what we do. Bereavement and illness can make us re-evaluate what’s really important because they face us with the reality that we do not have limitless amounts of time.
Advent, in its liturgy and Scripture, is our annual wake-up call – reminding us to be watchful, reminding us that the world as we know it is broken and in need of healing, and our lives, habitual and comfortable as they are, can always be more closely conformed to the life of Jesus. Being watchful for God’s movement begins when we learn to look for it in the whole of our lives. It’s easy to see God at work in the sunset, in the smile of a baby, in the touch of a lover. It’s much harder to glimpse his presence and movement in the unwelcome medical diagnosis, or in the bleakness of grief, or in the repeated lies of a person gripped by addiction. And yet the promise of Advent is that God moves in the darkness as much as in the light. To keep a good Advent is to begin to wake up to the presence of Christ in our midst, and sometimes that starts as simply as remembering to look for him.
This may seem a little shocking because, if we’re honest, I think lots of us don’t expect to find God in the darkness or in the mess of our lives. A big part of the problem is that we have this ridiculous idea that God only loves the bits of us we find loveable and, because of this, we start putting a face on for God, just as we do with other people. We have this false assumption that God only moves in the light, only works among good people in good situations. But the light of Advent, which grows brighter as we journey to Christmas, is the light that shines in darkness. We miss it if we look for its glow only in the light of our world and of our lives.
So, how do we begin to look for this light? How do we prepare ourselves to celebrate the coming of the Light of the world in 28 days time? I have three practical suggestions, and you are welcome to talk to me more about them after our service:
- Take time between now and Christmas, either a few minutes each day or maybe 30 minutes on a quiet Sunday afternoon, to be in silence – to turn your focus away from shopping and preparations; away from the hectic social calendar – and spend some time with the Lord. Time to ask the Lord to give you eyes to recognize his presence in the darkness – time to remove our mask, and invite God afresh into our lives.
- In these times of meditation, I can think of few better things to do than read the prophets, especially Isaiah. I’ve prepared a weekly scheme for reading some wonderful extracts from the prophets each week – beginning to imagine ourselves in that Old Testament time, where people longed for God to move in the world.
- Finally, I think we have the opportunity to take part in some small acts of social disobedience – resisting the endless barrage of adverts telling us to buy stuff and do stuff to be happy. Even if it’s just buying charity gift cards, or asking friends to donate money to a favorite cause instead of buying us a present. Perhaps Advent is the season to think about people throughout the year we have neglected; the elderly man on our street who we never visit; the relative who we know is struggling; the friend we’ve fallen out with – and taking steps to amend these relationships.
My sisters and brothers, we worship a God who, in Christ, has come among us, bringing the radiance of his light and glory, even into the darkest places of our world, and of our lives. God is on the move – always and everywhere. For His promise is that at midnight or at cockcrow, in joy or in those silent hours stalked by fears, he will come – this holy light who shines in the darkness, and whom no darkness cannot overcome.