Canon Charlotte Methuen, Lecturer in Ecclesiastical History at the University of Oxford, preached at the Sung Mass for Advent Sunday:
In the Name of God, who creates, redeems and sanctifies us.
What I say to you, I say to all: “Keep awake.”
Advent, as we all know, is a time of waiting. Waiting wakefully, waiting expectantly, waiting actively. Of watchful waking. Advent is a time of preparation – for the coming of the incarnation, which is already with us – for the coming of God into the world, where he already is. It is a time of waiting for the unexpected moment when God breaks into the world anew; a time of joyful expectation of the coming of Christ. But the purple that we put on for Advent reminds us that this time of preparation, of waiting, is also, and importantly, a time of preparation for the end of time, in which Christ comes again in judgement. This time of preparation, of joy at God’s coming, of rejoicing as the God who has been hidden is revealed, points us not only to the incarnation but also to the second coming of Christ at the end of time. And so Advent is a season in which, as we do in Lent, we ponder on what it means to be ready for God’s coming; in which we open ourselves to be enriched by the knowledge of God. Like Lent, Advent is – or should be – a time of prayer and repentance.Advent then is a season poised in the midst of time, a time of past made present and present made future, a time which reminds us that the Kingdom of God is amongst us but is not yet fully here. Margaret Hebblethwaite writes of Advent as a time of “exquisite balance”: “a time of exquisite balance between the sadness of the mess we live in, and the bliss of the world we would like to live in. … Advent is when we acknowledge that bliss is not the blotting out of pain with port and plum pudding, but a process, a pilgrimage, a pregnancy, and—amidst the chaos of the world’s governing—a cry for the coming of the reign of God.”
So much of what we hope for in Advent has been covered with some kind of schmaltz. That is not how it should be. Our readings today – and throughout this season – remind us that what we are waiting and longing for in this season is not sweet or trivial. This is not about the dawning of some kind of romantic idyll; not about some sweet, idealised image of peace. The visions of the prophets which we read through Advent—the lion lying down with the lamb, the beating of the swords into ploughshares—may sometimes sound that way, but to read them so is to misunderstand them. The prophetic vision of peace is a vision of a radical reordering of the world: lions have always killed lambs – now they will not. The foundations of the mountains quake; mountains become valleys and valleys become mountains. Rivers wash into the dry places, and the desert breaks into flower. Mark’s small apocalypse sees it this way too: The sun and moon will go dark; the stars fall from heaven. The coming of God’s peace is on one level not at all peaceful; rather, it is accomplished to the accompaniment of dramatic upheaval.
That upheaval is not just about the behaviour of animals or the natural world, but about the whole of creation, and that means also about the order – or reordering – of society. In a text which is set this year for Advent 3 [Isaiah 61], Isaiah describes the coming of the Messiah in terms of justice: the oppressed are brought good news; the broken-hearted comforted; captives and prisoners released. This is a conviction that the coming of the Messiah, the coming of the kingdom, will bring radical change in the structures of the world. That vision of the coming of the kingdom is echoed in Mary’s exultation in the Magnificat, as she responds to the news that she is bearing God’s Word within her: the mighty are fallen; the humble and poor are raised up. God’s coming will bring radical upheaval; it will change all the givens of how we expect the world to work: war is no more, but neither is poverty. The blind see; the lame walk; the deaf hear. The visions of the prophets are visions of a time in which what has been secure and ordered is no longer—in nature, in society, in human lives. A time in which the landscape of how we have perceived the world is radically altered. The coming of God, we are told, brings healing through upheaval, peace through radical change, salvation through the judgement of what has gone before.
So how do we respond to that? It might make Advent a lot more scary, awe-full, awe-inspiring, than we are used to thinking of it. In this passage from 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about the need to be strengthened by the spiritual gifts which God offers us, that support us to live in faithfulness; surely part of our Advent discipline is not only about being awake, watchful, but also about praying for eyes to see God when he breaks into the world, and strength to bear what that expects of us.
The prophetic accounts of the shifts in nature and society that are predicted with the coming of God’s kingdom into the world surely suggest that this is not a faithfulness that can be satisfied on a purely individual basis. “Turn, turn, turn to the Lord; you who have two suits, give to the naked; if you eat well, share with the hungry; in business and authority, deal with compassion—and be ready for the One who comes with fire,” advises the Australian Bruce Prewer. That is, the call of the kingdom takes us to the edge of what is possible for us. And they remind us that what we do matters. Be awake, be ready to be taken beyond what is comfortable to you. That is, be aware—beware—for the choices we make now shape our relationship to God for all eternity. God shapes the world—and will shape us, even unto to eternal life—according to what we choose, how we live, the choices we make now. “Give me grace to live now, in the hour of your Advent, in such a way that I may merit to live in you forever, in the blissful hour of your eternity,” prays Karl Rahner. But as we contemplate that bliss, be aware—beware—of the huge demands of God, of the divine, the awe-fullness and the terror of what we proclaim in Advent.
Part of our preparation in Advent may be facing up honestly to the terror of the demands of a relationship to the living God and the way, sometimes, we would rather not. “The Holy not only gives humans an overwhelming feeling of being loved but also makes demands on them just by appearing to them,” writes Morton Kelsey in his book The Drama of Christmas. “I knew of one man who started a practice of praying and keeping a journal and was making great progress, and then he stopped; he told me he had seen some light, and he didn’t like it.”
He had seen some light and he didn’t like it. Perhaps it had shown him up for something he didn’t want to be. Or his actions as something he didn’t want them to be. Placed him before a judgement that he couldn’t bear. Advent is the preparation for the coming of God into the world. It is a time in which we prepare for the light of God which shines in the darkness – of the world, and that means also into the darkest corners of our lives, our souls. It is a time in which we may catch a glimpse of God’s glory, and see ourselves revealed in it. Will we like it?
Advent calls us to prepare for God’s coming into the world. To prepare for the coming of the kingdom. But the message of Advent is also a warning: a warning that to enter into the vision of God’s peace is to have all our expectations turned upside down, to be prepared to be judged, to allow ourselves to be set straight. Yes, be awake. Be prepared. Be ready to recognise the Lord whenever he chooses to come, to enter into his clear light, to enter freely into the encounter with God, who judges us for what we are and what we have been. And may God give us the strength and the wisdom we need to enter into the Advent of the Lord. Amen.