Category Archives: Advent

Waiting

27th December, 2023: Pocklington, Yorkshire 

I wonder whether you have ever sat in a theatre waiting for a musical to start. There’s a sense of anticipation and excitement,  tinged by the fear that someone tall will unexpectedly appear on the seat in front of you and obscure your view. After what always feels like a lengthy wait, the conductor stands up, taps his music stand, and then the band strike up with the overture.  The overture grabs your attention. The burble of conversation stops and there’s a sense of excitement as people eagerly soak up the music. The overture reaches a crescendo, and then comes to an end. There is a moment, often just a very brief moment, of silence. A moment of waiting. A moment of profound anticipation. And then the curtain rises and the performance begins.

After the waiting of Advent, with the anticipation and excitement of the coming Christmas, tinged with the anxiety that someone will spoil it all by testing positive for covid on Christmas Eve, the big day comes. Advent seems to last for ages, and then suddenly Christmas arrives! Christmas Day brings its own sense of excitement and  grabs your attention. The food, presents and family traditions. The day reaches its crescendo and comes to an end. Then, between Christmas and New Year, comes this moment of silence. A time of waiting. A time of profound anticipation.

I always look forwards to the New Year with a mixture of excitement tinged with nervousness. Before it arrives,  the New Year looks like a blank page, waiting for the story of the coming months to be written. It feels fresh and exciting. But of course, I know that there will inevitably be moments in the story of the year to come which will be challenging and disappointing.

For the moment,  I’m in that special place between Christmas and New Year.  It feels a bit like that moment of silence before the performance begins. For me, Christmas has been the overture, reminding me of the greatest story ever told – Immanuel – God with us.  When the musical starts, it’s going to be good. Of course there will be the odd song which I don’t particularly like. One or two scenes will be longer than I might have wished, and several which could have been longer.

The coming year looks challenging. It’s not going to be straightforward. But the God of Advent love and joy, fills me with hope and an inner sense of peace. Whatever the future holds, I am not facing it alone.

‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’
Matthew 28:20 (NIV)

An Advent Reflection

Doncaster, South Yorkshire. 22nd December, 2024.

So. Advent is nearly over. It really is time to get to grips with planning for Christmas.

A couple of years ago, I asked a friend whether he might have time to meet for up a drink before Christmas. He checked his diary. It looked good, but before committing be needed to check the family spreadsheet. In his family, the advent period was so busy that the diary was not enough. The pressure of children’s parties, shopping, cooking, cakemaking, social engagements, decorating, wrapping of presents, visits to the pantomime and so much more meant that a diary was not enough. The definitive plan was in a spreadsheet.

See the source image

As a family, we had several Advents when a spreadsheet might have been a good thing. Especially when we were both working flat out and had three teenagers to keep track of. After all, this is supposed to be the time when we look forward to the coming of Christ – but we just get so busy that it becomes a period where we are blinded by the endless pressures and distractions which sap our energy and obscure the real meaning of the season. We are pushed and pulled in so many directions that we struggle to see the way ahead without the support of specialist Advent software.

We need to pause and take a deep breath. We’re missing the point of Advent. We’re missing the point of Christmas.

Advent is about the coming of Christ, but it’s about more than the coming of the Christ Child. For generations, it has been a season when we also look forward to the return of the Messiah. The Second Coming of Christ. The coming of the Christ as a human baby and the return of the Messiah are absolutely central to our faith. At some point in this busy season we really should be finding time to think about what Advent actually means. We should find time to reflect on the importance of Immanuel for us. We really must find time to slow down so that we can pause long enough to glimpse the majesty, power and glory of Christ in this hugely important season. We really should find that moment to be still. Perhaps a spreadsheet would help?

Anyway. Christmas is almost upon us and there’s still so much to do. We really both need to get on.

Happy Christmas.

Advent 4: Love

The traditional theme for the fourth week of Advent is ‘love’.

I’m wondering whether ‘love’ may be one of the most confusing words in the English language. I love my wife. I love my children and my Grandson. All ok so far. I love sitting on a beach watching a beautiful sunset and the view from the top of the hill down the road. That all makes sense. I love my apartment and I love the Christmas decorations in the town Square. These are all valid uses of the verb ‘to love’ in contemporary usage in the UK. I love paella or my wife’s cheese pie (she makes a very good cheese pie). You might love your car or your phone. But now there’s a hint of a problem. My love for my wife (we have been together since we were teens) is surely very different from your love of your iPhone? Can we really be talking about the same thing?

But of course as native English speakers our culture resolves the problem, because we all know what we mean. We can see a difference. We’ve sort of learned a scale – a continuum if you like – which allows us to use the same word in many different situations and mean something similar, but not the same. That sense of continuum helps us to understand what each other means. It’s as if we sub consciously pick up the word love, look at it in the context of our conversation, and get a good idea what we mean. Most of the time, we get it right.

You see, I can use the word love when I mean like. I can use the word love when I mean sex. It can mean affection. It can mean passion. I can use the word love sarcastically (I love Donald Trump) (spoiler alert – I don’t). I use the word carefully in social media messages (that’s my culture), although younger people than me will use it much more freely (that’s theirs).

In the Christmas story we see the love of a mother for a newborn child. We recognise in a heartbeat that the love of a mother for their new born child is a world apart from my affection for my wife’s cheese pie or your experience of an iPhone. It’s not the same thing at all. That kind of parental, especially maternal love is just about the top end of our continuum. It’s deep. It’s selfless. It’s passionate. It’s profound. The fact that Mary is in some sense a refugee, and the birth takes place in the most difficult of circumstances, adds depth, poignancy and richness to the love narrative. This is a story of really deep love.

But what if our understanding of the word love is incomplete. What if that continuum, which we think we’ve got sussed, goes much, much further than we ever knew or imagined. The idea isn’t as crazy as it might look. If you’ve been fortunate to experience a really good and fulfilling relationship, you’ll know that you can suddenly discover new depths of love that you never knew were there. You’d simply never experienced them before. It’s awesome. Your mind is blown.

What if there are levels of love beyond our experience or understanding? What if there are depths of love which go further than our culture can explain, or our minds can explain. What if the fact of this birth was itself an expression of love far greater than the unquestioned love which Mary felt for the baby?

What if there is a God sized love which is indescribably profound and yet somehow expressed in the birth of a small boy in a backwater of Bethlehem on a winters night. A love which goes far beyond our experience and the constraints of our culture. The kind of love which would break through the boundaries of our worldly perceptions and cause legions of angels to visibly sing praises to God and blow the minds of shepherds and wise men alike.

Pick up your concept of love, look at the context of the Christmas story, and recognise that there is something here more powerful and profound than you have ever noticed before. Just imagine. A love even deeper. Even more selfless. Even more passionate. Even more profound.

In the Christmas story, Jesus is called Immanuel. Immanuel means God with us. A God of love, whose love is for you.

Continuum re-evaluated.

Mind blown.

Advent 3: Joy

 

The traditional theme of the third week of Advent is joy.

Some Churches have traditions relating to this week. In some traditions, the third candle in the advent ring is coloured pink, and clergy wear rose coloured robes. Historically, the colour pink has been symbolic of joy.

I learned this year that the third Sunday of advent is sometimes called Gaudete Sunday. The introit for the Catholic mass is “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete”. This is a Latin translation of Philipians 4:4.  ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!’.  The word ‘rejoice’ is interesting. We don’t often use it in modern English, and I want us to reflect on what it really means. Of course it is an exhortation to be joyful. Be filled with joy. Experience joy.

Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). This joy is not the excited, enthusiastic kind of emotion we might feel when our favourite football team scores a goal. Something different is going on here.

The Greek word is ‘chairete’ (Χαίρετε). It’s another one of those words which doesn’t translate easily into English. The meaning is far deeper than just being excited about something. It is a deep, strong emotion of gladness. It has a strong, spiritual element. It is the emotion we are to feel as we look forward to the reward which awaits us in Heaven (Matthew 5:18). It is the joy which we are to feel that our names are written in Heaven (Luke 10:20).

Advent is about anticipation of the arrival of the Messiah. The joy of advent is a deep, heartfelt emotion. It is the joy of anticipation. Anticipation of something so indescribably special that it defies description.

Yes, Christ has died. But of course, Christ is risen. So rejoice. Be joyful. Christ will come again.

Advent 1: Hope

Advent 2: Peace

Advent 2: Peace

The traditional theme of the second week of advent is peace.

The angels welcomed the birth of Jesus with a message of peace and goodwill (Luke 2:14). A true reading of this verse tells you that it is not the simple expression of goodwill to all mankind, but rather a blessing on those who men (and women) of goodwill.

In his 2003 book ‘What Every Person Should Know About War’, Chris Hedges suggests that during the last 3400 years of human history, no more than 268 days had been days of global peace.

In the past twelve months, many hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result of conflict. In the West, the war in Ukraine has reminded us just how fragile peace is. The continuing horrific events in Israel and Gaza leave us feeling helpless and desperate. For much of the rest of the world, violence has been a fact of life for generations. The world is sadly short of people of goodwill. Now, as on the other 1.24 million other days in the last 3400 years, our world is not at peace.

Here’s the thing. The Greek word which we translate here at ‘peace’ is εἰρήνη (pronounced ei–ray–nay)which is very similar in meaning to the Hebrew word which we know as Shalom (בְּשָׁל֑וֹם). We translate the word as ‘peace’, but is has a much richer meaning than simply the ‘absence of war’. It means a deep, inward sense of completeness and wholeness. It is the ‘peace’ which passes all understanding ‘(Philippians 4:7). It is the ‘peace’ which Jesus gives and leaves with us (John 14:27). When you greet or bid farewell to a friend, or as you enter or leave a home, you use the word ‘shalom’. It expresses a deep sense of blessing – a heartfelt, enriching, supernatural peace. Shalom, ‘real’ peace, permeates Scripture.

Then I was young, I used to carry a sticker on my guitar which read ‘Real Peace is Jesus’. And that is the ‘peace’ which I am wishing you in this second week of Advent.

Shalom.

Advent 1: Hope

The first week of Advent is traditionally about hope. Talking about hope, right now, feels like a bit of a challenge.

The cost of living crisis is biting. Russia continues its war in Ukraine. Violence against Israel in October was outrageous. The ongoing retribution visited on the people of Gaza is obscene. The COP 28 climate conference is taking place in the United Arab Emirates, a key supplier of  fossil fuel. Political relationships are increasingly toxic. Refugees are crossing continents. People around us, and across the world, are discouraged. Hope, if it can be found at all, is in short supply right now.

Advent is about looking forward. It is about living in anticipation of the arrival of something. If we feel that we’re short of hope we need to lift our sights and remind ourselves what it is that we are supposed to be looking forward to. It’s not about looking forward to Christmas food or drink. It’s not about the parties, the presents, the bright lights – these might make us feel a bit better for a day, but they have little to do with the true meaning of Christmas. As Christians we are looking forward to a gift which is infinitely more important than any of that. We are celebrating the fulfilment of prophecy in the birth of the Christ child, the Messiah. And we are looking forward to the fulfilment of prophecy in the return of the Messiah and the restoration of the Kingdom of God. It’s about encouragement. It’s about hope.

Take Jesus out of the picture and it’s not surprising everyone feels discouraged. Put Jesus in the picture and there’s one major difference. Hope.

Of course we’re praying for peace across the world and for the restoration of hope in our communities. But the true hope for us all in this first week of Advent is Jesus.

Romans 15: 13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

Advent 2: Peace

Advent 3: Joy