Advent 1

May the Lord, when he comes, find us watching and waiting, Amen  

For some unknown reason, I am tasked with being part of a team to put up Christmas lights in our household. Usually, I wait until it is really cold or wet or both. But last Saturday (when it was neither) we got them up; it does help that my daughter is trained to climb ladders (for work) and can be persuaded to empty the gutters whilst she is up there. This year my wife said the lights looked very good; I did invite her to come out and offer feedback, as one year she wasn’t pleased at all and told me so.

Of course in our household (in the basement) are two kids, aged 7 and nearly 4 and this is pretty exciting for them. And although it is still a way off before Christmas (27 days I guess) perhaps this year of all, putting up some lights and decorations seems to be a way to offer some joy and a sense of hope at a time when we are still in the middle of the pandemic. Of course, each of us has to decide how to deal with this challenge in terms of how we celebrate Christmas and how much to decorate, but it seems to me that there is something to be said for having at least a small display inside or outside our homes to bring cheer to others as well as ourselves.  

In the Church, Advent makes the beginning of our time of preparation for Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ. It is a penitential season (meaning a time for seeking God’s forgiveness) but somehow doesn’t have the gravity of Lent. That said we can use this time for preparing ourselves to receive the greatest gift of all, Jesus Christ. There is no doubt this has been a challenging year, for some heartbreaking, for others stressful, for all of us a time of losses and the need to adapt and change the way we do things. We can’t see our friends when we want, at present we can’t come to Church, and even when we could not everyone was able to come because of age or infirmity. So this year perhaps more than ever we should take a moment to step back and be aware of our own challenges and our losses and offer those to God. Only then may we begin to count our blessings.

As we consider the gospel text (from Mark) we see that this is no birth narrative but something else altogether. Jesus is instructing the disciples (and therefore us) of the need to keep awake, be alert and to watch. Time after time in this passage (suggests Buggs) we are asked to be ready because something is going to happen. We are warned not to be deceived and to watch out for ourselves, not least in the times of a pandemic. Although the disciples (says the same commentator) know Jesus to be the Messiah, they do not understand his message.  

We all know that when we face challenges we sometimes want to switch off, to pretend things aren’t happening. But Jesus wants us to be present and aware, ready for what it is to come. We may remember that when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane (in the very next chapter of Mark following today’s passage), he asks the disciples to stay awake. And what do they do: they fall asleep because of the intense fear and stress they are under at that moment. We may recall times in our lives when such a situation has caused the same reaction in us, I know I can.  

This same passage speaks of a time when the Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed; which happened about 40 years after the death of Jesus. In our time the closing of our places of worship (which most of us have never experienced before) puts a strain on our religious practice and especially our opportunity to meet one another in person. First we should acknowledge that loss and then we should seek ways to be in contact with each other, to care for ourselves and to care for one another.   

It has to be said when my grandchildren came out at 5pm last Saturday for the official switching on of the Christmas lights there were very excited. First were the set at the front of the house and then the set on the deck which included (new for 2020) one of those inflatable Disney characters, Minnie I believe, who is a hero for Olivia. In fact you have to switch this character on or else she sits a dejected, wet heap on the deck.  

A few weeks ago I was saying that we are supposed to let God be in control, and of course, most of us, including me, find that hard to do. Yet sometimes when we stop trying to strive, we can be set free.  For part of Advent is about surrender, placing ourselves in God’s hands and at God’s feet. So this Advent we can give up striving, reaching, rushing, and let God be God in our lives. Perhaps we can give a little time to read something that inspires you; that encourages and brings you to a place of joy, a place of peace, a place of hope that draws you to the child born for us, born for all the world.  

Yes, this season is a time for finding gifts for our loved ones, sending greetings to our friends, and preparing to celebrate the feast of the birth of Christ. It is about reminding ourselves where our hope lies, how we want to direct our lives and enjoy and rest in God’s presence.  

Advent is not so much a season for doing loads more spiritual stuff but perhaps could be a time for stopping, for reflecting, for savouring all that God has gifted to us in terms of our family, friends and the Church. Advent is about letting go, about allowing ourselves to rest in God’s embrace and to stop wanting to have more time to get everything done. It is about preparing, about being ready, about our openness to receive the ultimate gift.  

Advent is about recognizing our distinct and complete need for others in our lives, how we are not meant to do this on our own, but in company and alongside others who also follow the way of Christ. For God never intended us to make this pilgrimage on earth alone, a journey that begins and ends in God. Rather God gifts us with other people who are making the same journey, who are heading the same way, who seek the same goal.  

Advent is about coming before God and laying aside all our struggle and concern, our burdens and worries, and placing them at God’s feet. Advent is about resting, and relaxing, waiting and anticipating the gift that is to come.  

Advent is the gift before the gift, and we should use it well.  

May your Advent be both holy and joyful, Amen