Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thoughts Delivered on Advent Sunday 2011

There are some places in my life that are very important to me. Places where I grew up. Places of which I have special memories. Places which are in themselves milestones along my journey of faith. And many of these places are churches.

The church of St Mary Magdalene, Himbleton, was the church of my rural boyhood and where my father was rector for many a year.

Worcester Cathedral was where I attended school.

St David’s Roman Catholic cathedral in Cardiff, Wales, was three minutes walk from my place of work, and there I would often go to read and pray at lunchtimes.

And there are others, in England, Wales and France. And when I return to these places I always revisit these churches out of a sense of reconnecting with the past and gaining a sense of assurance that these places are still there. And while they are still there then all is well with the world. Even the knowledge from afar that they remain, stone upon stone, can be a source of comfort.

I call these places emotional and traditional anchors. Places that have shaped me and supported me mentally and spiritually over the years, and without which my life would be poorer. And who knows, without them I may not be standing here today.

We all need these anchors, and this is a time of year when that need seems to grow and amplify. Those little traditions, those memories, those objects of solace that make the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas all the more poignant and special.

It may be a family ritual or activity; a food or drink; a card or letter received (I now must include email and text and tweets!) A thought, a piece of music, things shared or things deeply personal.

Should you ask: My favorite Christmas traditions are the putting up of the outdoor lights, and the tree. Always the tree. And sitting before that tree very late on Christmas Eve (or is it very early on Christmas Day?) musing. And my favorite Thanksgiving tradition, in between all that cooking, is watching the National Dog Show!

The power of these traditional anchors at this time of year cannot be under-estimated, and certainly never undervalued. Which is one reason the marketers and retailers bombard us with their own versions of a traditional holiday season. Yet theirs is a different set of values. And theirs is a different season.

We call this season Advent. Literally adventus. The Coming. Four weeks of anticipation when traditionally… Well, what tradition?

For approaching Advent with a fresh and open mind we may experience a shock to the system. For there are no notes of comfort here, neither gentle assurance and harmony – but rather a sense of disturbance and even discord.

Isaiah sets the tone this morning with a clear appeal for God to begin a campaign of volatile disruption.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…

Wait a second! There was no mention of that in the Macy’s Day Parade! And yet Isaiah continues:

We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. Imagine writing that on the inside of a Christmas card!

St Mark’s Gospel takes up the very same theme:

The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Whatever happened to a White Christmas?

The scriptures that lead us from Advent Sunday through Christmas are always at variance with the holiday culture and expectations that we have created, and with which we have wrapped this most powerful of celebrations. Yet we protect our traditional anchors, forgetting that they are human products, not God’s. And they are temporary.

I began by mentioning a few churches that have nurtured me in different ways. The prelude to this morning’s gospel reading was the scene where one of Jesus’ disciples comments on the beauty of the temple building, and received a stinging reply:

Do you see these great buildings? They will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.

So much for Jesus and tradition!

Traditions and the rituals and ways that bind us together as communities and families, and which comfort us as individuals, have their place and value. Life would be a desolate experience without them, but with regard to the work of God they must be put into limited context. For God often chooses to act untraditionally and unconventionally. And the Incarnation is a prime example.

The prayer of Advent is the prayer of Isaiah. It is the prayer of St Paul. It is also the prayer of Jesus. I is a two-fold prayer.

We join in that two-fold prayer at this time of year. We pray for God to act and come among us. And we pray that we are ready when that happens.

This is a very untraditional season indeed!

No comments: