Preparing for Advent
There is still, very slightly, some sense of Lent within our culture; one occasionally still hears the unchurched talking about having to give something up ‘for Lent’, although for what reason is rarely enunciated. Advent, however, is a different matter. It is entirely overshadowed by Advent Calendars (always commencing on December 1<sup>st</sup>, regardless of the actual date of Advent Sunday, Christmas preparations, lights (I saw lights appearing in houses in late October this year!) and the constant insistence on the need to celebrate Christmas, although there seems now to be almost no awareness of the reason why it should be celebrated. The reduction of the second-most important Christian festival to a phantasm of the jolly fat man in a strange red outfit (weird, given that St Nicholas traditionally wears green, the heraldic colour of a bishop and, coming from Myra in Turkey, the last thing he would wish to wear would be a hideously heavy outfit trimmed with thick fur), reindeer and the giving – and especially receiving – of ever more inordinately priced presents. In the present economic climate, particularly in the light of the financial tsunami to come imminently, this is particularly concerning. It is almost as if, after a year of panic and seemingly warmly embraced unprecedented restrictions on our accustomed freedoms we are, as a nation, desperate to participate in a whirlwind of festivities to counter what many have found to be the truly dreadful ‘Year of the Virus’. It is almost a case of, ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die’.
In this increasingly absurd situation, which is compounded by the usual pagan Christmas festivities, the meaning and purpose of Advent is getting lost, even for most Christians. To keep it simple, Advent has a dual purpose. On the one hand, it is a season of preparation for the joyous event of the commemoration of the birth of Christ at that first Christmas in Bethlehem. To those of us who have been privileged to be physically present in the cave where Jesus was born, this is an intensely exciting season, filled with anticipation of the moment when we keep festival to celebrate the birth of the Son of God on the very spot at which we have been honoured to kneel! It is a season of excitement and promise, and rightly so.
On the other hand, it is traditionally a season of repentance and fasting, for the Christ who was born in Bethlehem to a poor Jewish family ‘will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’, as the Creed tells us. There is therefore a focus on ‘the Four Last Things’: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. These things are real and we shall be confronted with them, not as a vague promise or threat but as a very real certainty in our lives. Yes, we know that we shall die, but at St John Henry Newman observed, there is an enormous difference between acknowledging, in a sort of academic fashion, that I will die and knowing as an absolute personal certainty that I will die.
In time past, death was a very visible, everyday occurrence. Life expectancy was limited, and a great many people did die young. A walk around gravestones in a Victorian, or older, graveyard is a very salutary experience. Our ancestors, having as much dread of death as we do, nevertheless faced its reality in a different way than our culture tends to. Preparation for death throughout life was considered the norm, at least in theory and manuals to assist one in this task were always best-sellers. Reflection on this ultimate fact was the central point of a great many sermons and mourning and funeral customs made the presence of death a very public matter indeed. In our society, to the contrary, it tends to be hushed up as an embarrassment – don’t talk about it and it might go away!
Advent recalls us to a Christian understanding of death and dying. Our faith in Jesus reminds us that, as an historical fact, Jesus was put to death in a very grisly manner but has been restored to life. Not merely human life, but Resurrection life, his divine life. Moreover, we have the absolute certainty that we shall rise from the dead with him. He has given us his promise that the fullness of life for all eternity is ours, if only we will trust and follow him. This is joy beyond telling! Yes, we still have our own physical death to face and it is scary but now it can be properly understood not as a final ending, the total dissolution of who and what we are, but rather as what it is – the doorway to eternal life!
Advent reminds us of this and of the certainty of our judgement and hence the absolute need of repentance. Do not focus on the necessity of being perfect enough to win a place in God’s kingdom, for you never will be on your own merits. Focus, rather, on obeying the commandments and doing the work God has given you to perform – and above all, on repentance, for all of us have fallen short of God’s glory and stand in need of his mercy.
That mercy, be assured, will be granted us, if only we have contrition, however imperfect, for our sins and try to follow Christ more surely. Christ has given his word and we must never despair, for he is faithful and lovingly merciful to all who cast themselves on his care.
This coming Advent by all means let us prepare for the celebration of the birth of Christ at Christmas. After such a dreadfully depressing and stressful year, we certainly need a time – and a cause – for celebration. Let us, though, use these few weeks as an opportunity to reflect on our mortality and let that inspire us to examine ourselves more thoroughly and focus on repenting of those things which have come between us and God’s commandments, safe in the knowledge that, in doing so, we will receive his merciful forgiveness and be enabled to enter into his Kingdom, where all tears are wiped away and where we shall rejoice with all the saints, who are God’s good friends and our, for ever and ever.
May the Lord grant you rich blessings as you prepare, through this Advent season, to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, our Saviour.