Summary: It’s the season of goodwill, is it not? Well ... not according to the ecclesiastical calendar! In the church year we’ve just celebrated the first Sunday in Advent - a time ...
Happy New Year everybody!
Yes, it’s the first day of the ecclesiastical new year - the first Sunday in Advent - and as you’ll see, everything is a bit different today.
The colours are different, the hymns are different, and there’s a sense of festivity in the air … well, maybe not a sense of festivity, but there probably should be, for Advent Sunday is a significant day in the Christian calendar for it’s when we remember what is coming!
The word ‘Advent’ indeed comes from the Latin verb ‘venio’ - to come - and ‘advenio’ - to come towards. For we are coming towards something?
What is it that is coming? I’m a little wary of putting this question to the congregation as I may get the answer, ‘Santa Claus is coming … to town’. And I don’t really want to dismiss the fact that Santa Claus is coming, nor that Christmas is coming, with all its festivities and joy and commercialism. But what we celebrate at Advent is not that Christmas is coming, nor that Santa is coming but that Jesus is coming … so look busy!
I saw that on a T-shirt, selling in Darling Harbour this week. ‘Jesus is coming, so look busy’. That particular joke isn’t original to the T-shirt company of course, but it does make you think about what you would want to be found doing if Jesus suddenly appeared on the scene.
Tony Campolo used to say that when he was growing up the preachers used to scare the kids by warning them that Jesus could appear at any time, and woe betide them if he turns up and finds them at a movie theature! Tony says he grew up with a constant fear, every time he went to the movies, that Jesus would return during the feature and he’d miss the end of the movie.
I heard sermons like that too as a kid, and I was always more concerned that I’d be on the toilet or something like that. Either way, I guess the real point is to think about what we would want to be found doing if Jesus suddenly appeared, for whatever it is, it’s probably what we should be getting on with now anyway.
I’m conscious too, as I read in the Scriptures about the second coming of Jesus, that while it is ‘good news’ in the best sense possible, it is good news that is surrounded by a lot of bad news. Indeed, the festivities of Advent, from an ecclesiastical point of view, do have a rather dour feel to them.
Look at our colours this morning! While the rest of the country is starting to deck itself out in the Christmas colours of green and red, we have moved to the other end of the ecclesiastical colour spectrum - donning violet, the colour of sombre reflection.
I think that’s because, while we rejoice at the thought of Jesus returning, we recognise too that this will take place in the midst of great human pain, and nowhere is that made more clear than in our Gospel reading this morning:
"And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:25-27)
There’s not much that is Christmassy about this picture, is there - at least in terms of the commercial version of Christmas. There’s not a lot of similarity here between the coming of Jesus and the coming of good old St Nick!
Now, I don’t want to start bashing Christmas, particularly as it is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, and most of the symbols we associate with Christmas do indeed find their origin in the Bible and in the story of Jesus‘ birth. Even so, I do feel that even when Christmas is a Christian celebration, our modern version really reflects more the middle-class captivity of the church than it does the original message.
“Peace on earth and goodwill to all men” - that’s the spirit of Christmas, isn’t it? Not really. “Peace on earth and goodwill to all men with whom God is pleased” is what the angels were quoted as saying - the original message being a little more ambiguous than the popular sanitized version.
The modern version of Christmas is reflected in slogans about how this special season brings out the best in people - a season of family and goodwill, seen in Tiny Tim walking into the room saying ‘God bless you one and all’. The Biblical pictures of Advent show us both joy and pain as the new world is brought to birth.