Readings: Isa 2:1-5 Matt 24:36-44
Advent was always my favourite time of year as a girl growing up in the Anglican church. For a start, we had a change from the plain green of trinity, or ordinary time. It seemed so tiresome by the end of it! Now, we had purple – my favourite colour – for altar frontals and stoles, and the change of colour seemed to signify that something new was happening. Colour-coding is a strength of the Anglican Church!
And then there was the music. I used to sing in our church choir, and from mid-October we would be practising for the Advent Carol service. The familiar carols would be greeted like old and dear friends. I still love the austere beauty of ‘O come O come Emmanuel’, and ‘This is the truth sent from above’, as well as more obscure pieces like ‘This is the record of John’. It helped that my whole family was musical, and we would sing through the carol books in preparation for Christmas.
As I got older, I realised that the words for the advent and Christmas carols were different – while Christmas was a straightforward celebration of the babe, the son of God, born into the world, advent had a tinge of sorrow, of prophecy, of otherworldliness. Some of the later verses of carols point to this – the carol ‘What child is this’, set to ‘Greenleeves’, has a verse about nails tearing Jesus’ flesh. Many of these carols tell the story, not only of Jesus’ birth, and the angels and shepherds, but also of his death, of the reason why God in his loving mercy sent himself to us as a baby.
Advent then is a time for considering the Why of the incarnation, the purpose of God coming, and that Good Friday, followed by Easter Day, is always part of the picture. This is what sets us apart as Christians fr9om the secular world – there is a Reason for Christmas!
In our symbolism and traditions for advent we have an advent wreath. When I was a girl making the advent wreath was one of the crafty things we looked forward to doing with mum, who is brilliant at that sort of thing. We would fossick through Dad’s shed – always quite an undertaking! -to find the twisted wire circle, then find special twigs – always holly, ivy and pine, to decorate it. There were old carols about those too- the English church is rich in symbols and stories, and particularly so during Advent and Christmas. We would attach the plants, being careful of the spiky holly-leaves, but always getting stabbed anyway. Then our wreath would be decorated with red ribbon, and candles would be wedged in, some years more successfully than others, though that got easier when they invented blu-tack.
The Advent wreath is a circle, with plants and spikes. Does that remind you of another circle with plants and spikes? I hadn’t realised just how closely related the advent wreath is to the crown of thorns, until I saw a medieval painting of a very fat, jolly-looking crown of thorns, and it struck me how festive and Christmassy it looked! Then the sheer poignancy of the symbolism hit home, and I wept, as I realised that the Advent wreath and the crown of thorns are really the same thing – either end of the same story. They ‘book-end’ God’s time in an earthly body – waiting for his coming, and watching him die.
Candles are another symbol that we use during Advent to point to the joy of Jesus coming to earth – today we light just one. One solitary little flame, gleaming in the darkness. One pinprick of hope. It’s like a beacon drawing us home, a candle burning in the window to guide us through the night. And as we get closer to the time of celebrating Jesus’ birth, more candles will be lit – the light will be brighter, more obvious, and the way will become clearer.
Advent has an end-time sort of feel to it – in our readings we hear of what heaven and earth will be like when Christ returns. As we look forward to commemorating the first coming to earth, we are also pointed forward to the second coming. There are many ways to look at this – you can use long words like eschatological, -this is a terrible word to pronounce and to type, but it comes from the Greek word eskatos, which means future, so that makes it a bit easier. It means to do with end -times. Or you can avidly read how it could pan out in the Left Behind series – who has read these? Come on, hands up! These books are very vivid and scary, and we wonder how such things could be.
When we look at today’s readings we can see the end-time prophecy – Isaiah is echoed in Matthew. There will be wars and betrayals, the whole social order will be turned upside-down. In Matthew we read about how one will be taken and one left – do you remember the opening scene in the Left Behind books where people on a plane were Raptured, and an old lady was looking for her husband, carrying his pants, because she thought he would probably need them!
Well, we don’t know what the future will be like, in spite of all our speculation. Maybe these readings have a purpose that’s particularly necessary at this time of year. They get our attention.
I don’t know about you, but my diary is filling up fast with end- of-year dos, bring a plate here, morning tea there. That’s lovely, but it’s busy. And then of course there’s Christmas to organise, presents to buy, make, wrap, send… the list goes on, and it can be really overwhelming if we let it.
Advent is a time for drawing aside from the Busy-busy of our regular lives. The readings are vivid and otherworldly, and help us focus on something other than the end-of-year panic and turmoil, or, if we have limited resources, feeling left out of the end of year turmoil. We really can feel a bit Left Behind!
This Advent, I encourage you to take a deep breath, to read the daily scriptures, and immerse yourself in anther world, a world where Jesus is coming again, and what that means for you. There’s a bumper-bar sticker I like that says “Jesus is coming look busy”. In Advent we are all too busy. Maybe we should change it to say, Jesus is coming, look for him. We could be like the chauffeurs at the airport, with Jesus’ name written on our signboard! And in our busyness, if we take time to focus, we will see him, in the people we meet. Maybe we can see Jesus in the frazzled checkout girls at the Warehouse, when the queue is twenty-deep. A kind word may bless them. Maybe we can see Jesus in the struggling family whose presents this year are coming from Trash Palace. It’s not easy when the commercial world is on a tinsel roller-coaster of spending and consuming, and that’s our challenge, to look for Jesus, wherever we are.
We might look for Jesus in the mentally-ill person, the hygienically-challenged, or the just plain annoying. And if you’re really blessed you can find all of these without leaving your front door!
A phrase that has been to the fore for me and for everyone I am praying for is “Draw aside.” Step off the travellator of ‘busy ‘and ‘commercial ‘and ‘end of year do’. Find a little bit of space, of time, where you can breathe in God’s peace, and look forward to Jesus coming again, as we look forward to commemorating his first coming.
May we pray.