Advent has arrived and with it come the annual pleas to keep the season as a special time in the life of the Church and to resist the creeping advances of Christmas. Clergy try to hold a line by keeping christmas trees in churches at bay and resist the too early singing of carols. Christmas we are reminded begins on 25th December and can then be celebrated for twelve, if not for forty days; that is the real Christmas season.
There is no doubting that Advent is an important season in its own right. A time of proper preparation, reflection and penitence. We recall how the patriarchs and matriarchs longed for the coming of God’s Saviour. We hear again the words of the prophets spoken to people feeling abandoned in exile. We think of John the Baptist seeking to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. And we honour Mary as she in a unique and personal way responds to the call of God. This at least is the acceptable face of Advent and with Advent wreaths makes the Church appear to joining in the count down to the BIG DAY although really the themes here are more significant than can be captured in the evermore commercial offering of Advent Calendars
As we prepare to meek God in the Christ-child we are also encouraged to consider when we will meet God at the end of our life and to contemplate the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell – although any preacher deciding to major on these themes is usually regarded as a bit of a party pooper.
Then of course is the theme of the Second Coming, when Christ will return again and complete the work of Salvation begun in his earthly ministry two thousand. Although from the first a key part of the Christian message (Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again), the Church is shy of being associated with the doom-mongers and end-of-the-worlders – safer to stay with keeping the focus on the babe in Bethlehem.
Each of these important Advent themes is linked by the theme of waiting which in itself is a fundamental human experience and with which all too many can identify. But in an impatient world, and where taking the waiting out of wanting is seen as a virtue, these rich Advent themes are always going to struggle to make traction beyond the faithful few.
The dilemma for the Church is whether to stand out against the crowd and in so doing appear grumpy and out of touch. Or does the Church go with the flow and risk lessening its message to the lowest common denominator. Some will always want the Church to stand out for truth, for the purity of its message, seeing its difference as a virtue and a sign of its success.
Jesus himself recognises this same dilemma – John the Baptist comes neither eating nor drinking and is thought to have a demon whilst Jesus eats and drinks and is thought a glutton and a drunkard. But what matters is Jesus is there amidst the mix and mess of people’s ordinary lives and from that comes the natural chances to speak of other (and deeper) things.
Trying to keep a good Advent is yet another reminder that to be Church is always to be in some way compromised. Whatever path we take will will always in some way be less than we wanted to be. Thankfully the salvation which the Church preaches is not about goodness and perfection but about grace.
The Christmas message begins not by being stand-offish and remote but by getting down amidst the muck and chaos – to join in where other people are already gathering and celebrating. The real skill is then discerning the stepping stones and bridges that in quiet, affirming and unthreatening ways then enable us to shift the gaze from the sausage roll in the manger to Love hidden in the straw.
It is only a compromised Church that can make that connection; only a broken Church that can heal.