Advent: ‘Tis (NOT) the season to be jolly… tra, la, la, la, la, la, la la’

If you are currently lacking in ‘Tra la, la’, allow me to bring you some ‘comfort and joy’.

Yesterday I shouted at the man on the radio  (there will be a fair amount of shouting in this post, indicated by capital letters, do feel free to join in).

The DJ said,  ‘Advent is about waiting for Christmas’

‘NO, IT IS NOT!’ I shouted.

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The season of advent is NOT about waiting to celebrate his first coming but all about waiting with longing for his second coming.  What’s more, Advent is traditionally a time of lament. In other words it is a time in the church year when we are allowed, nay, even encouraged to sit down and say ‘Well this is rubbish, isn’t it?’. Once we get to Christmas we celebrate that God did indeed come and lived with us and we are comforted by the way that changes everything but on the way there we allowed to acknowledge that life at the moment isn’t all that it could be.

Most weeks in the communion service most Anglicans recite the story that frames our faith:

Christ has died,

Christ is risen,

Christ will come again’

It’s a statement of faith, we believe that Christ died, we have accepted by faith that he rose again but we wait with eager hope for the last part of that statement. And while he hasn’t yet returned to put everything right, it’s perfectly okay to say that life is often a long way off being perfect, in fact more often than not, it’s really rather grim:

‘I’m sick/my teeth hurt/ I can’t sleep/my friends are ignoring me/ my enemies hate me without cause/I’m worn out with crying/God doesn’t appear to be listening/all this praying and being faithful doesn’t seem to have got me anywhere’

Tick any of the above that apply to you!

Is that my personal list of moans? No, not entirely, although I will  sign up to the first three but the rest are all paraphrases taken from the Psalms. In other words, good and Godly people have come to God and said this kind of stuff.  They are all from the psalms of lament and more than half of all the Psalms are Psalms of lament.

The very presence of these Psalms give us permission to come to God and say ‘WHERE ARE YOU GOD? THINGS ARE A BIT PANTS FOR ME RIGHT NOW’. And we call that…? what?

Complaining? Well, yes, maybe.

Letting the side down? No, I don’t think so.

Worship? Yes DEFINITELY.   It IS definitely worship to come honestly to God and tell him how it is with you. (There’s not really a lot of point coming any other way, because he knows anyway). But how can it be worship? Because the very act of coming to God to complain is an act of faith.  It’s okay to come to God and say ‘I’m not despairing, I’m not giving up but yes, I am having a hard time clinging on just now, but even so I AM coming to you God because somewhere inside of me there is seed of faith that says you are there and you are listening and you are the only one who can really answer’.

So don’t get all hung up about having to be happy at this time of year, if you’re not. (If you are happy, you probably haven’t read this post, you’ve probably gone off to dig out your CD of 100 Christmas Carols and Hymns and don’t let me stop you…I’m happy for you, believe me)

But God is better pleased by an honest lament that life is not how it should be than by us putting on a false and jolly gloss over the painful realities of life.

‘From the depths of despair, O Lord, I call for your help… I long for the Lord, more than sentries long for the dawn, yes, more than sentries long for the dawn’ (Psalm 130)

So ‘Come, Lord Jesus, Come’.

Alarming Advent Experiences

Anyone else struggling to get up in these dark mornings?

I suffer from the ‘day off’ rule: when it’s my (one) day off a week, I’m awake at 5 am, the rest of the time I can barely heave myself out of bed 10 minutes after the alarm has gone off.  But this morning wasn’t my ‘day’ off,  it was  just a morning off so I thought I’d trick myself into enjoying a sneaky lie in. Even better, David was away over night, so I had one chance not to be disturbed by his morning routine.

Not a hope!

He’d left his alarm set for 6.30am.  It went off, not once, not twice but THREE times. And by the third time, because it is a fiendishly difficult device with very small buttons, it was no longer playing Radio 4, it was sending out a piercing electronic siren.

Pressing everything in sight (which involved finding my glasses and turning the light on) I eventually had to get out of bed and tediously trace the power lead to the socket at which point I wrenched it into submission… and silence. David should be glad that I didn’t actually put his clock on the floor and jump and down on it.

Slumping back into bed and realising it was all of 6.45 AM, I groaned and tried to go back to sleep.

‘Well at least you’ve got a story for your blog now’ a little voice said (inside my head).

‘No I have NOT! You know I like my stories to come in three’s (pedantic I know) and so far I have only TWO alarm stories so GO AWAY, I’m trying to sleep.

Anyway, it didn’t go away, the thought that is.

So I got up and wrote the first draft of this blog. It began with the words   ‘Alarms are never welcome, unless you are stuck in a stuffy classroom on a hot sunny day no-one ever hears the fire alarm and says ‘marvellous, now I have to go outside’ and continued into my second (true)  alarm story: last week an alarm went off in our son Matt’s student house just as they were all going to bed. Not an alarm clock, not a smoke alarm… it was their carbon monoxide alarm.  And what a good thing it was working!

No, it wasn’t very convenient being evacuated from their house at midnight. Nor was it so great looking for spare bed in another student house at 2 am but both of these scenarios were an improvement on silently slipping from sleep into a sudden and unexpected experience of eternity.

The fire in the front room had been leaking deadly gas for at least a day, judging from the headaches the boys had had.

Snuggling under the duvet this morning, unwillingly awake, I thought about how we don’t like alarms but sometimes our lives depend on them.

The season of Advent is meant to sound out like a very loud ‘can’t-possibly-ignore-it’  fire alarm.  Sadly, it’s got disguised by all those jingle bells that sound so jolly. We have been lulled into thinking it is a season for us to prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus at Christmas, when it’s about something much more robust and bracing than that: being ready for his Second Coming, not just remembering his first.  The Christ who came into the world to be ‘God with us’ and show us what God is like, asks us several uncomfortable questions: do we  believe in him? have we received him? have we responded to his invitation to life?

Advent is a season of invitations and decisions. Hopefully you have lots of invitations but you don’t get to go to any of the parties without first deciding to accept the invitation. And Advent calls us to make a decision about the invitation we have been given. God has invited everyone. There is no cap on God’s guest list, everyone is invited but the sadly not all will respond. ‘Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts’ says a verse in Hebrews, ‘Now is the accepted time: behold now is the day of salvation’ says St Paul. We live in the NOW, the door stands open, the invitation still stands, Advent challenges us to reply, it sounds an alarm warning us that the door won’t always be open and that we do not know when might be unexpectedly transferred to eternity.

Vincent Donovan said ‘the acceptance of Christianity would be meaningless if rejection were not possible’. He admitted the shocking fact that people could choose to reject God.  As Catholics usually tend toward the idea that God will ultimately save everyone (universalism), this was quite a shocking thing for him to say.  While I’d really like universalism to be true, I can’t square it with all the stuff about choice in the Bible. God does desire all to know him but the fact is that he honours the decisions of those who choose to reject his invitation, whether they do that in a one life-changing moment of decision or simply through a series of steps that take them further and further away from the God who calls them home.  Sadly if we ignore God long enough, we lose our ability to hear him.

So I nearly didn’t type up this post. Knowing it might come out a bit morbid (I lost someone very dear to me many years ago at Christmas and I always find myself thinking more about death in December than any other month), I was holding out for a third alarm story.   I should have known God better.  Rebelling against writing up my thoughts and trying to salvage my morning off,  I went off for a swim. After which, at the very moment of being the only person soaking wet and stark naked in the changing room… the fire alarm went off!

Standing in a cold car park with a load of strangers,  wearing only your undies and big coat for decency, one is starkly reminded of judgement day. Lord, when that trumpet sounds, make me ready!