“The Reclaiming of Advent”
Sunday 1 December 2019
I have always found reading about the history of the way that the Church has approached worship to be a very absorbing occupation. It really is interesting to see how Christians have attempted to worship in a way that provided colour and variety for participants in each particular place and time. One of the older strategies that has been employed is the liturgical cycle.
We begin a new liturgical cycle today with the first Sunday of Advent. Advent, as we know it today, is a creation of the Western churches, those that looked to Rome as their leader. There were two main streams flowing into it. The first came out of France, during the fourth century AD, probably from Celtic monks. A period of about six weeks before “Christ’s Mass” was used as a penitential and devotional period, a lesser Lent if you like. The second stream came from Rome where there was a practice of having a three-to-six week fast during which Christians had to come to church regularly. This was a fast before the feast of Christmas time. Out of these two threads, the season of Advent eventually emerged.
And so, the season of Advent is one of the older traditions within the Church. And I think that the very ancient nature of the season of Advent is good reason for us to embrace it again in a wholehearted way.
I say that because it seems so often in the contemporary Western world that people in great measure have lost all contact with their need for spiritual nourishment. The season of Advent gets us to slow down a little and take on a sense of expectation.
Unfortunately, modern society wants to get to Christmas. There is no patience or spiritual preparation. If you listen to people about you as you go about your daily business now, how many of them are going on about all of the hassles and dramas that they have to contend with in order to prepare for Christmas? But it is all about getting the house organised for visitors, food prepared and presents bought. Nothing about coming to grips with the enormity of the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
The season of Advent calls upon us to slow down and address our spiritual health. Don’t be too quick to want to celebrate Christmas already.
In fact, in liturgical terms, Advent is about play acting a little. We are meant to be unaware of the nature of the Christmas event. Of course, in reality, we know about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but for the purpose of our worship, we play act that we know that God will visit his people, but we are unsure of what it may involve. We try to put ourselves in the place of the ordinary faithful Jews of the day before Jesus came who believed that God would visit his people, but who did not know what shape that visitation would take.
When we do that, we turn our attention from preparations for celebration to addressing our spiritual health here and now so that we will be ready for whatever might transpire. All we know is that we are being asked to address our failures, to live as we should in the expectation of some future manifestation of God to this world.
So, let’s try to reclaim Advent. Keep our vision down and concentrated on the present rather than anticipating prematurely the Christmas event.
That requires us to do something that we moderns are not very good at – an honest appraisal of our spiritual health.
That appraisal might involve a whole range of things. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides us with advice on the three, what we could call, “traditional” avenues of repentance – almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These three activities help to focus us upon the task at hand, that of reviewing our lives and addressing those aspects that pull us back from fullness in our relationship with Christ.
In the Sermon on the Mount though, what Jesus encourages us to do about these activities is to do them privately, not outwardly and ostentatiously so that we receive the praise of others.
It is this doing these things privately that gives them their ability to keep us focused on spiritual review. If we take on a form of almsgiving, then every time we do it, we remember that we are in a season of repentance. No one else realises that we have been prompted. As we put the money aside for a cause, or actually give it, it acts as an immediate prompt for us that we are engaging in a process of spiritual renewal during these weeks. The same applies each time we deny ourselves some food or drink we might otherwise have or when we increase the number of occasions when we turn our minds to prayer. These occasions act as prompts to us that we are in a season of renewal.
In simple terms, by doing things we might not always do, when we do them, we remind ourselves of our Advent task.
So, my challenge to us all is to reclaim Advent and its purpose. Let’s not let ourselves be dragged to the joy and celebration of Christmas prematurely. Let’s set ourselves a simple program of increased prayer over these weeks, of some element of self denial through fasting, and of generosity in giving to some or several particular causes. See if it doesn’t provide us with a framework for spiritual regeneration as we wait expectantly for God’s intervention in our world at the feast of Christmas.
Let us pray:
through long generations you prepared a way
for the coming of your Son,
and by your Spirit you still bring light to illumine our paths:
renew us in faith and hope
that we may welcome Christ to rule our thoughts
and claim our love;
to whom be glory for ever. Amen.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen