3rd December, 2017
We are now three doors into this year’s advent calendar! At the vicarage we have now uncovered a sheep, a cow and a small star, which of course is distinct from the very large star that will appear closer to Christmas day. I am fortunate that my advent calendar is a reusable one, and doesn’t afford me the opportunity to eat even more chocolate than usual.
Of course there is a strange anomaly here. I might be three days into my Advent Calendar, which is a little odd given that today is actually the first day of Advent. Advent officially begins on the Sunday closest to St Andrew’s Day. The anomaly crept in just over a century ago. Advent Calendars, serve two purposes depending on your perspective. If you are a parent the use of an Advent Calendar is to stop children asking, how much longer do we have to wait? If you are a child, Advent Calendars might answer the question of how much longer until Christmas, but in doing so also become an excruciating reminder of how slowly December seems to go by. So yes, relief for parents, and mild torture for children.
But back to the anomaly. Gerhard Lang is the person responsible, although his mother may be partly to blame. Advent Calendars appear to have arisen in Germany in the mid 19th century and originally used candles or chalk markings as a way of counting down the days of Advent. Gerhard Lang’s mother went a step further by creating her own calendars which rewarded her child with a sweet for each day of the calendar. As an adult, Gerhard Lang became a publisher and was the first person to mass produce Advent Calendars.
But there was a challenge. The days of advent changed every year. What would happen if he failed to sell all of these calendars? He would have to dump the leftover stock between years. Until he realised he could ignore the actual days of Advent and standardise his calendars to 25 windows thereby making sure he never had the problem of underselling his product. So for the purists out there, feel free to only use 23 days of your Advent Calendar this year. I however, will stick with the pragmatic choice of Gerhard Lang and go the whole 25.
I have said before that each year I bear witness to people debating the rights and wrongs of how to do advent and Christmas. Sometimes I join in, because let’s face it, Christmas decorations sitting right next to Halloween costumes is a funny sight at the supermarket. But there is a point where strict observance of “traditions”, whatever those traditions are believed to be, actually gets in the way of what the traditions are trying to express. And sometimes, the traditions themselves have become so distorted and convoluted that they don’t actually help us at all.
We began this morning with a prayer telling us that Advent is a season of waiting. Ask anyone who has an Advent calendar and they will tell you that Advent is about waiting. And they are right, at least in part. In Advent what is it that we are waiting for? The word itself does in part mean coming, as in something is coming. Who thinks that it is Christmas that is coming? Anyone dare to think that maybe we are waiting for something else?
Traditionally the readings on the first two Sunday’s of Advent direct our attention, not to the coming of Christ at Christmas, but rather to Christ returning at the end of time. And yes, there is some well-trodden theology along the lines of, “get your act together because you don’t know when Jesus might turn up”. It’s an idea that suggests that we are all naughty children mucking about in a classroom and we should be behaving better because the teacher could walk in at any moment. Of course with that idea lies the implication of punishment, and frankly there are better motivations for being good than the threat of getting into trouble.
But this idea of waiting expectantly for the end of days is problematic for another reason. For many, this theology lulls them into a kind of apathy, after all, Jesus will return and sort things out. All we need to do is keep our noses clean in the meantime. Sometimes waiting is not the virtuous thing we make it out to be. And this is really the thought that kept coming up for me as I reflected on today’s reading. To what extent does patience, waiting and looking forward to something in the future actually get in the way of the Christian message?
Our weekly readings often attempt to draw together a particular theme. In the case of today, one such theme is this idea of advent being a time of waiting for Christ’s return. If I chose, I could certainly use all three readings today to develop that particular theme. And I accept that this particular theme is a part of the biblical narrative, although I would argue it is not as pervasive a theme as church tradition often leads us to believe.
Yes, I agree with the many biblical scholars who accept that Jesus did speak about the end times. But, I would argue that they are a small subset of a much greater body of teaching. Similarly, I accept that Paul in some of his writing was convinced that Jesus was soon to return, but I also know that he appeared to revise that idea through the course of his writing.
I believe that the stronger theme present in both the teaching of Jesus and Paul directs our thoughts not to what may or may not happen in the future, but rather what is going on in our lives right here, right now. The vast majority of the bible is concerned with human life and our experience of God in the everyday world. Laws, parables, epistles are all primarily concerned with how we love God and love each other in this life. In fact Jesus when Jesus spoke of the coming of God’s reign he always drew attention to the way God’s reign is already being expressed in this world. God’s reign is not something for us to wait for, it is already here, and God is anxious for us to spread that news far and wide.
I can’t help but wonder if Jesus turned up right now and asked us what Sunday we are celebrating, and we responded by telling him that this is the first Sunday in Advent a season of waiting, he might feel a bit disappointed with us. “What is it you are waiting for?” might be his question to us. “Don’t you know that I left you with a job to do?”
So maybe this year, the task of advent isn’t to wait in anticipation for Christ’s coming either at Christmas or some far off event at the end of time. Maybe we need to reflect on why we choose to wait at all. Perhaps there are things that we shouldn’t be waiting for. We don’t actually need to wait for Christmas to share the joy of God’s appearance on earth in the form of a child. We don’t need to wait for Good Friday to speak of the love of God that with holds nothing. We don’t need to wait for Easter to speak of a love for each of us so great that it couldn’t be defeated by torture and death. And we certainly do not need to hold back from loving each other within this community and beyond this community. God’s reign is already here, the challenge is to live each day as if we truly believe that. Amen.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant