‘I am about to do a new thing,
now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?’
Last Thursday we switched on the Trees of Light in Bedford Square in Tavistock. At first the power supply hadn’t settled down properly and only one of the trees lit up; then another did; then all three came on – and then they all went out! For a few moments, I was glad that my opening words hadn’t been from John 1, ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it’. Thankfully, a few moments later the lights on all three trees came on and stayed on.
Like those flickering lights, the Advent themes of hope, peace, joy and love can seem intermittent or like flickering torches rather than blazing lights when we look around us at the state of the world. Whether our thoughts go to the personal difficulties and sadnesses in our own lives, or to the alarming rise in living costs, or to the people of the Ukraine, facing a central European winter with more than half of their energy network destroyed, such things can seem like wishful thinking.
A few weeks ago I was struck by a commentary I read on a Gospel passage, which said that realism is to accept the world the way it is. I have been pondering since what it means to be realistic and what it means for us, as Christians, to be realistic. The readings which are set for us throughout Advent and, indeed, Christmas are filled with realism. In Isaiah, for example, we read of wars and conflicts. On 26th December we celebrate the Feast of St Stephen, stoned to death for witnessing to Jesus. Two days later we keep the feast of The Holy Innocents, the children murdered by King Herod’s soldiers. The Bible appears to confirm what the world tells us, that life is, indeed, brutal, tragic and hard. So how can we talk meaningfully about those Advent themes in the face of all this?
One thing that has only struck me this year is that three of these – peace, joy and love – are among the ‘fruits’ of the Spirit listed by Saint Paul in Galatians 5. In other words, these are the behaviours or qualities that result from God the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. The Sunday before last was, of course, Stir-Up Sunday, when the famous collect (prayer) encourages us to bestir ourselves to live in accordance with the way of Christ, not to carry on drifting through our lives. In the centre of this month’s magazine, you will find a piece written by a Parish Priest who later went on to become the first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool. It is very much of its time, but I was taken with the urgency and purposefulness he exhorts his people to. Some of his ideas might make us uncomfortable but, as someone said to me this week, the Holy Spirit comes to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.
Hope, according to Saint Paul, is one of the three key Christian virtues (1 Corinthians 13) and Advent is very much a season of hope and expectation, as we both look ahead to the gift of the Incarnation (God ‘pitching his tent’ with us) and to what we know will happen, but of which we have no experience, the Day of Judgement. In many ways, going back to those thoughts about realism, hope makes no sense whatsoever. The rationalist will tell you to base all your decisions on so-called facts. It does not take a genius to state that in our country, and around the world, there are many people who are concerned, anxious and confused. To speak of hope currently is surprising, perhaps even for us. Yet we must, for that is the only distinctive thing we have to offer the world – the hope that we find in the cross and the empty tomb.
My wonderful wife, Jo, loves Christmas and has a list of films that she likes to watch in the run-up, including the Muppet Christmas Carol (which, incidentally, she once told Michael Caine was her favourite of his films; he wasn’t impressed!) and Love Actually. I confess that I’ve never watched the former but this year, as Bethan is now 15 and old enough to watch it, we will definitely watch the second one. The bit that springs to my mind now is when Sam, the young drummer, is singing ‘All I want for Christmas’ to the girl he has fallen in love with. Perhaps as we go through Advent and into the great season of Christmas, let us echo that song and say to God the Holy Spirit, ‘all I want for Christmas is hope and peace and joy and love’ and let us invite him into our hearts, into our families, into our communities and into our world.
I wish you a purposeful Advent and blessèd and joyful Christmas!