This is the time of year when the words of my one-time tutor, David Runcorn, are ringing in my ears:
“The trouble in Narnia is that it’s always Winter and never Christmas. Our trouble is that it’s always Christmas and never Advent.”
Advent tends to be subsumed within Christmas. I remember very clearly the response of my teacher in primary school when asked what Advent is: “It’s about getting ready for Christmas.” That certainly seems to be the general perception in society, and even in churches there is scant evidence to the contrary.
This was particularly brought home to me in two independent, but near-identical conversations I have had recently. Having explained that Advent is a season for reflecting on the hope that Christ will return and renew the whole of creation, I enumerated the traditional themes of such reflection: death, resurrection, judgment, ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’. Both people were astonished, exclaiming “Why does nobody ever tell you this stuff?!”
Why indeed! That would be a good question to explore, though at the risk of sounding patronising and/or judgmental (irony intended).
But my reflections have been going in a different direction this year. The season of Advent is the only time in the church year that provides a specific prompt to engage with the hope of Christ’s return and to live in the light of that hope. If Advent is not observed in that way, but swallowed up by the burgeoning festival of Christmas, then the concept of Christ’s return is being neglected from Christian faith.
So what might be the consequences of that neglect? How might an understanding of Christian faith – and consequent efforts to live it out – be distorted by neglect of one of its key concepts?
The image in my mind at this point is of a strangely shaped but delicately balanced mass – a piece of abstract artwork perhaps. Lop off one part of it, and it starts to tilt ominously in a certain direction, and also, perhaps, to look quite different. What direction might Christian faith tilt towards when living in the light of Christ’s return is lost from it?
What has come to mind as I have pondered this is ‘fretful activism’. By this I mean expressing a sense of ‘the church’ needing to respond to an ever-increasing range of needs/problems with a looming sense of urgency, responsibility and consequent burden.
Could it be that, blinkered from the hope of God’s initiative to renew creation, we fall prey to creeping sense that we – the people of God – are responsible for sorting out the mess, for putting the world to rights?
The distinction is quite a subtle one. Those gospel texts that appear, in some form, to anticipate the return of Christ are laced with exhortations regarding how we live in the meanwhile. We should be alert, stay awake, have our lamps trimmed, maintain good order in the Master’s estate, etc.
So clearly the hope of God’s initiative of renewal does not mean that we should live as we please and wait for it to happen. Rather we are called now to live in the light what we believe will be in the future. We are called to live in such a way as to demonstrate our hope and faith. If we believe that God will one day vanquish evil, feed the hungry, give the stranger a home and comfort those who mourn, then it clearly makes sense to behave in like manner now, while we wait.
But there is a great difference between, on the one hand, doing what we can out of a sense of joyful, expectant hope that God will one day resolve the underlying problem; and, on the other hand, taking on a sense of responsibility for resolving the problem ourselves. The latter, I suspect, leads only to burn-out and despair.
I was chatting about this today and translated it into the realities of individual discipleship. Give me a shopping list and ask me to help stock the local Food Hub, and I will gladly do so – whilst also praying for the day when such things are not necessary. But suggest that I am responsible for overcoming the need for a Food Hub and I soon am overwhelmed.
These are just my musings, and I may be barking up the wrong tree. But I definitely feel that we – the church – are missing out if we neglect Advent. Perhaps even missing out on the very energising hope that will fuel our activity as we wait for Christ’s return.