I never thought being the vicar of All Saints Hove would entail five carol services in the first week of Advent, or even decorating a tree almost before that season had started! It seems like Christmas is coming earlier each year, and sometimes that feels great – the trees and decorations lighting up the street of Denmark Villas has been a wonderful antidote to the cold dark winter’s nights – but it can also mean that Christmas is eclipsed by what becomes an obsessive need to purchase and to buy, to shop and to consume, the promise laid bare too quickly.
I wonder whether all this frantic activity, the almost schizophrenic need to be celebrating, buying, doing and moving, means we are frightened of something. Perhaps if we were to stop just for a moment, the whole of our life would end. It’s as if each of us is like one of those amazing plate-spinning entertainers, but with more and more plates spinning every moment there is the growing fear that everything is about to come crashing down.
But into all of this come some of the texts of terror that Advent throws at us each year, apocalyptic texts of extreme endings whether of judgement, death, fire or plague. It is as if God is trying to pop the bubble we are living in, attempting to shout over the endless repeating “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer” that there is something we really need to give attention to, something all our activity, all our frantic busyness has almost permanently blinded us to. Perhaps this something is the need to take seriously our own lives, to really dig down into the questions about what finally matters to us, who we really are, and who we really can be. At our Advent discussion group on Thursday people commented on the writer’s constant appeal to dig down and excavate into the depths of who we are to find God, and this digging down is so important today in a world obsessed with surface movement, with the froth and bubble of the merely apparent.
But God doesn’t just provoke us with ‘texts of terror.’ Today is Gaudete Sunday, which reminds us that the real spirit of Advent is that of rejoicing. ‘Gaudete’ is the Latin word at the beginning of today’s introit in which we are exhorted to “Rejoice in the Lord always… for the Lord is near at hand” to “have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God,” because the Lord has “blessed your land” and “turned away the captivity of Jacob.” Gaudete! Rejoice! This rejoicing is made possible as God’s coming opens new depths within each of us, depths of wonder and praise as wilderness areas of our lives begin to bud and abandoned ruins begin to be rebuilt.
Let’s begin with Isaiah, whose poetic language is almost unparalleled, bursting with words of renewal and hope. The frustration and pain is over, says the Lord, the darkness of exile is ending as homecoming begins. Those who were locked in patterns of despair and death are being freed to become who they were finally meant to be: the forgiven and the forgiving. The Spirit of creation is on the move again, this time in the words and actions of his people, words to bind up the broken-hearted and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and actions of radical welcome and homecoming as those with nothing are embraced by the loving compassion of their God. I saw some of this re-creative activity on Thursday evening where a small team of people laid tables and made beds for some of the homeless of Brighton and Hove at our Nightshelter. What a wonderfully brave proclamation of goodness in what is for many a cold and wintry season.
Moving to the gospel of John, we see how he takes up these prophetic themes, issuing another royal proclamation that something new is happening, that God is on the move, that a way is being prepared right in the midst of the thorns and the brambles of people’s lives, a way opening up for the coming of God itself. And then there is John the baptist, immersing people in a new life, overwhelming them with new possibilities. “Break out of the self-defeating patterns of the past and embrace the promise of the new,” he says as he watches peoples’ bitterness, fragmentation and hatred being washed away in the waters of the Jordan. His is the voice crying in the wilderness, daring to speak words of hope and renewal into a context of despair.
But how can we hear this good news if we don’t even think we need it? Before the people of God could hear the joyful proclamation of God’s endless compassion, they had to walk into the darkness of exile. They had to face the poverty and failure of their own humanity, they had to face the limitations of their own generosity, their inability to live in love with neighbour and stranger. And long was that exile, painful and hard. But it was exile that enabled them to face the truth of who they were, but also the truth of God, a God who’s love can never be exhausted, a God who’s compassion is abundant, a God who brings life even out of the most deathly situations, a God who’s love triumphs over every fear.
But this good news is so profound that it has to touch the deepest parts of us. It is not a superficial thing, something to keep us entertained for an hour on a Sunday, but something that threatens and promises to turn our lives inside-out. If we are to continue to build a community of depth here at All Saints we will have to face our own exiles, we will have to travel to the wilderness places both individually and as a community as we train our ears to listen again to the provocative voice of God. There will be little deaths that each of us have to face in order to come live to the promise and blessing of God. But the promise of God’s return to this world, to our world in justice, compassion and untrammelled love doesn’t simply trump the sense of loss or grief, of failure and exile or help us pretend that nothing really matters. Instead the promise of God’s advent helps us be more truthful, because even when we are overwhelmed with the powers of death, God isn’t.
In the end, perhaps Advent is about a coming that is at once both judgement and blessing. It is judgement as it brings into the light those things we would sometimes rather forget, pushing us into painful places of exile so that truth can be spoken and heard. But beyond that it comes to us as blessing, bringing a radical newness that breaks open every past and present moment with a promise that speaks of compassionate love. It is this divine love that draws us from death to life.
Christ is born of the Virgin Mary – Rejoice!
The time of grace has come –
what we have wished for,
songs of joy, let us give back faithfully!” (Gaudete, a 16th century Christmas Carol)