Sunday 3 December 2023

Wait for the Lord: why Advent really matters.

Advent brings into sharp focus the gap between the sacred world and the secular world, yet in so doing also highlights the way in which Christian principles and disciplines can have a value in the secular world.

The way in which society appears genuinely unable to wait for the true joy of Christmas is a source of sadness rather than anger to me. 

So…what are the best words for this day, Advent Sunday?

How about Happy New Year?

In the secular world, we are still four weeks away from saying that, but in the sacred world, those are the correct greetings for today. Today marks the start of the Church’s year, although among those who have no church affiliation, this fact probably passes them by entirely.

But that’s the point of what I’d like to share with you today: the glaring gulf between the sacred and the secular, which is perhaps at its most visible during the season of Advent

My theme in a word? Contrasts. My message in a word? Patience.

Bear with me….

You don’t need me to tell you that the secular world thinks it’s already Christmas, and has been for several weeks. Many houses are displaying trees in windows and lights in gardens. I saw Christmas goods in some shops whilst sweltering in that September heatwave. Christmas ads on TV started weeks ago, and I suffered a distressingly early Whamageddon when enjoying a walk in the sunshine along London’s South Bank as long ago as November 17th: I heard the unmistakeable voice of George Michael and that sleigh bell backing track coming from inside a market stall selling mulled wine. And worse than that, a week later I caught myself singing along with Maria Carey on my car radio. Father, forgive me - I should have changed the station. As a penance, perhaps I should say 20 Maranathas.

The secular world is already bedecked in golds, greens, reds and sparkly tinsel.

But in the sacred world, today we have turned purple, the colour shared with Lent, symbolising restraint and penitence.

Today we enter the beautiful season of Advent - a period in which the church is restrained, dignified and anything but celebratory, jolly and joyful. If we in the church are to be true to ourselves, then for these next four weeks we really are at odds with the secular world in a manner which can be truly challenging. But that shouldn’t stop us addressing that challenge.

Now we have to be pragmatic, and of course in reality, we can’t pretend Christmas isn’t coming. If we are to celebrate and enjoy Christmas, we obviously need to engage in some aspects of it in these weeks leading up to the festival.

Buying and wrapping gifts, sending cards, putting up decorations, planning menus, enjoying concerts, events and parties with our friends and colleagues is all part of Christmas, and clearly that can’t all be done on or after the 25th.

But do we have to completely overlook the notion of a season of preparation, of Advent? The practice of a period of preparation and abstinence in advance of a joyful feast is, after all, common to many other religions, and they are invariably rather better at it than we are - most notably Islam, with Ramadan followed by Eid.

Preparation, abstinence and reflection followed by celebration and indulgence is, surely, good for the soul. Or to put it another way, celebration and indulgence without some measure of restraint and context in advance of it is surely not good for the soul.

As a society, we have become very bad at waiting for anything, at any form of delayed gratification, and I plead as guilty as anyone to this. This sermon risks having a sense of finger pointing, so it’s a good moment to remind myself of that old Sunday School cliché from my childhood - when you point a finger at others, always remember that there are three fingers pointing back at you. I’m as impatient as anyone, and not always very good at waiting. Fast Food, seven-day opening, same-day delivery and Amazon Prime mean that many of us have forgotten what it means to wait for anything.

I grew up in the days of “allow 28 days for delivery”, which these days seems like a joke. Who would wait 28 days for anything?

Yet waiting is, surely, good for us. A bit of imposed patience never did anyone any harm. It’s a given of good parenting not to give in to children’s every “I want”, not to indulge their every wish, for fear of spoiling them, yet we as adults perhaps don’t practise what we preach.

Religion has taught us to believe some pretty daft stuff over the years, and to an extent it still sometimes does. Yet at its heart, Christianity is just love - human decency - laced with a good dose of practical common sense.  Surely we don’t need a government minister to teach us common sense - the Christian faith does it so much better. One of the things which I most appreciate about practising Christianity is the way in which it gives a pattern and a rhythm to our lives which is so in tune with the patterns and rhythms of nature itself, if that doesn’t sound too flaky.

By hijacking pre-Christian, pagan midwinter celebrations, Christianity taps into our need for some light and cheerfulness, “in the bleak midwinter”. And in the context of Advent, by encouraging us to wait patiently for the fun and festivity, it taps into a bit of useful psychology and self-discipline.

Back to Advent Sunday: I said it was the New Year, and what do we do at New Year? We make resolutions. So the Church’s New Year is surely also a good moment for a resolution, and my suggestion - again, to myself as much as to all of us - is that we get a bit better at separating the sacred from the secular, as Advent can and does teach us.

Separating the sacred from the secular is actually often about learning a bit of restraint, and learning to wait. A bit of self-discipline if you like.

Now of course, in order to remain relevant in today’s world, the church needs to embrace the secular world and in so doing to sacrifice some principles and reach some compromises.

Our great cathedrals here in the UK have proved themselves to be spectacularly good at this compromise, throwing their doors open to concerts, conferences, degree ceremonies, exhibitions and goodness knows what else, as well as staging acts of worship for the faithful. A few years ago, Norwich Cathedral had a helter-skelter in its nave for a whole summer season. Chester Cathedral has staged a fabulous model railway exhibition in its South Chancel these past three summers hosted by none other than music impresario-turned train buff Pete Waterman. A few weeks ago I was at Evensong at Newcastle Cathedral and we the congregation were hustled out with unseemly haste because they were preparing the building for that evening’s concert of - I kid you not - “Meat Loaf by Candlelight”.

That’s right, Meat Loaf performed by a rock band in a cathedral nave. I’m pretty sure some of those deans and bishops buried in that cathedral were spinning in their graves that evening to the strains of Bat out of Hell.

Yet secularisation of churches is a necessary, and often a very good thing. Frankly, it helps pay the bills! Only last week, this very  building was transformed into a bustling market place, and Santa Claus, the Patron Saint of Coca Cola, drew hundreds of children and their families into a holy place whose doors they would seldom if ever darken for the purposes of Christian witness. And I am in many ways personally responsible for the increased secular use of this building, having devised and organised concerts, lectures and exhibitions here since I took leadership of the bicentenary programme in 2022.

Yet I would be the first to urge caution and restraint. If we make greater use of our building for secular purposes, we surely need to be even more careful to distinguish between those purposes and the church’s core function as a sacred space for worship. And yes, this means perhaps being more vigilant about how we conduct ourselves within these walls on a Sunday.

I was raised on a behaviour rightly adhered to by traditional churchgoers, succinctly expressed in these words: “before the service, speak to God; during the service; let God speak to you; after the service, speak to each other”.

Simple, old-fashioned, potentially unfriendly, but I still try to adhere to it in my own conduct. In a church like this, the beauty of the place and the organ voluntary are there to help us to do so. If I could ask for one resolution from the people of churchgoers, it would be that we all agreed to prepare for our worship with a period of silent reflection. 

It's about contrast: the contrast between our often hectic and noisy everyday secular world and the sacred world within these walls. And it's also all about patience: waiting for the Lord. And that, above all, is what Advent teaches us. The value of contrasts, and the importance of waiting.

So instead of joining Noddy Holder in shouting “It’s Christmassss!” from December 1st, may I suggest that it’s better for us, and actually more fun, to enjoy Advent for what it is? A season of reflection and anticipation, with its own beautiful words and music. The carols can wait.

Then when Christmas finally comes, we can enjoy all 12 days of it, and I shall be saying "Happy Christmas" until January 6th, when much of the secular world will have long since moved on and started eating Creme Eggs.

Today’s gospel told us that the fig tree reminds us that the Lord is near. Near, but not here yet. Let’s learn to Wait for the Lord: our choir can express that better than I can with this familiar Taizé chorus: I invite you to spend these next few minutes in reflection and anticipation while we listen to them.


For the purposes of this post and its title, here's a Spotify link to that hauntingly appropriate Taizé song:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Go Your Own Way

  I developed Type One Diabetes just over 26 years ago, in December 1997. I have often said that it was a good moment to join that “club tha...