Themes of time, darkness, and light loom very large on the first Sunday in Advent. This day we commence a new cycle of scripture readings which will focus upon the Gospel of Matthew. Advent is traditionally the period of preparation for celebrating Jesus birth. What does it mean to prepare to celebrate an event that is fixed in time, almost a past event than something yet to come? This is one of the ambiguities of Advent.
Moving towards Christmas, our progress will be measured in this place by the lighting of Advent candles. I hope our progress will also be measured by self examination and soul searching. Jesus the Christ was born into the world to deal with our sins. Celebrating that, should we not strive to perfect our living so that we may honour Jesus coming?
An Advent refresher. From the 4th century the season was kept as a period of fasting, as strict as Lent. This fasting rule was later relaxed, the Roman Catholic Church still keeping Advent as a season of penitence. In addition to fasting, dancing and similar festivities were forbidden in these traditions. The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches still hold the tradition of fasting for 40 days before the Nativity Feast. Fasting and Penitence both focus the mind on the way we live, the things we do, the practice of our faith.
Darkness is a powerful motif. Many children are afraid of the dark. St Paul speaks of "casting off works of darkness and putting on the armour of light". Darkness was present at the beginning creation, before God lit the skies with sun and moon. It is something which is opposed to God. It was the ninth plaque of Egypt. Darkness is a partner in hiding from sight things or actions we would keep hidden. Darkness is that time when evil deeds are done, when robbers come, when harm is inflicted on the innocent. Darkness impedes ones ability to see where they are going. To see to use hands or feet to perform a task. Darkness impedes ability to see with whom we are interacting. Darkness prevents us from seeing ourselves.
Flanders and Swan are my favourite English comedy duo. Flanders to Swan: "no one has a higher opinion of your music than you do yourself". As long as Darkness endures people will be unable to see who they really are, to name the truth in themselves. Advent is a time of challenging darkness. Each candle we light symbolically challenges the darkness. Advent is the gift of time and place to shine Gods light into those corners in our hearts where darkness, or shadows, conceal things which are burdensome to us.
Light is the opposite of darkness, a companion to the actions of God. Light and life are companions. Light is the agency by which truth is discovered. The qualities of Light are seen in recent films in Lord of the Rings light symbolises the end of the Dark Lords reign, as the clouds and fog are rolled away in the moment of victory; likewise in CS Lewis Narnia film, light bursts in at the downfall of the White Queen, and the end of perpetual winter. Or WW2 films where the tide of fascism was a shadow which fell across Europe till driven back by the allies. Advent is the bearer of light for our souls.
Time is the other theme of today. We prepare for Jesus coming but when will it be? Through the ages people have tried to predict Jesus return. Do they not hear Jesus words "of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels, nor the Son, only the Father". Certainly the early church had to deal with this passage from the anticipation of a return in the lifetime of the apostles, and the taunts of Hebrews who mocked their hope, to a slow reassessment of Jesus words into something less literal, but equally powerful.
When I was younger I caused my parents frustration when I said wed be home for lunch at 1, and turn up nearer 2! Another person wrote of the Grandparents journeys home pre mobile phone we are coming but they were notorious for stopping to chat many times. Expected, but experience taught that while there would be an arrival, the time was unknown.
In the gospel Jesus speaks of Noah and the ark. It is suggested (Larry Gillick, S. J., of Creighton University's Deglman Center for Ignatian Spirituality) the community then understood the point that people in Noahs time lived with no idea of the judgement and fate that awaited them. He contrasts them with the generation to whom a clear warning is given be watchful! What is this watchfulness? Part of the thinking of those predicting the 2nd coming involves a sense of possessing the knowledge or information that enables them to name the time. I remember fundamentalist farmers in my first parish who were sure from all their biblical knowledge they had it worked out I quickly learned the futility of debating as their knowledge of book, chapter and verse left me way behind. I understand this passage as "Jesus is asking for his apostles to stay alert rather than their being prepared by certain knowledge, needing to be more people of faith in Jesus as the personal presence of the covenanting God".
Alertness, Watchfulness concerns awareness of our own living, and here the place of self examination and penitence in Advent, as in Lent, becomes relevant. The old hymn "Awake my soul and with the sun" with its verse "and live each day as if my last" reflects an awareness of this principle. This is nothing surprising it is simply living according to the precepts Christ has taught us: loving God with all our heart and our neighbour as ourselves and seeking a relationship with Christ. Live this way, and two possibilities emerge one, that whenever Jesus returns, we are ready. Two our living effectively brings in "the kingdom of God" as present reality, and there Christ will be. The contra is to live with no regard to these things, thinking that tomorrow will be fine it was St Augustine who in his youth had prayed "Grant me continence Lord, but not yet". We each know where we fall short, where we need get better, where it is time to stop something altogether be it our own thinking, our ethics in love or business, the way we behave to other people at church and in the groups we belong to.
Could this Advent the time to make a tangible change? Amen.