I have always been rather odd in that I am passionate about both Advent and Lent; it may have something to do with my misspent youth in the church choir and singing both the litany and different settings for the Eucharist during these two seasons.
Although I have no fondness for queuing or line-ups (always choosing the wrong one in supermarkets) somehow it is seems that watching and waiting is at the heart of the Christian pilgrimage.
Advent of course marks the beginning of the Church year for Anglicans, as we set our focus towards the coming of the Christ-child, but also focus on the end times in the gospel passages for the four Advent Sundays.
In the northern hemisphere Advent comes in the dark days of November into December, when it rains and on some days never really seems to get light. This year of course is different again as our churches have again closed for onsite worship as we are about to begin this special season.
In Advent we are often busy with shopping, card sending and gathering with friends and family; it can be a very hectic and busy time. This year will have a different dynamic as gathering with friends and family is off the table at this point to prevent further spread of COVID-19. Although this has led to loss, it also presents opportunities to gather in other ways especially in the life of the church.
Advent is partly about watching and waiting, preparing to receive the great gift of all, the Christ-child. We wait in this season for the light of the world to come to us once again, and perhaps with increased poignancy this year as we hope for falling transmissions and hospital admissions. We have heard that three vaccines are close to being ready, but we also know that this pandemic is far from over.
In different traditions the four Sundays have themes for each Sunday in Advent. This year we are using Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. We are using these four at Epiphany as themes for our kids who are each receiving a kit to make their Advent Wreath at home. At a time when churches are closed and we are limited in our connections we hope our young people will make up their kits and share the prayers (from the Diocese post) which we are having translated into Arabic, so that families may share together in the wonder of Advent.
One of the books I treasure in this season includes extracts from the writing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which focuses on the seasons of Advent and Christmas. In one extract Bonhoeffer says this:
‘The only ones who can wait are people who carry restlessness around with them and people who look up with reverence to the greatest in the world. Thus Advent can only be celebrated by those whose souls give them no peace, who know that they are poor and incomplete, and who sense something of the greatness that is supposed to come, before which they can only bow in humble timidity, waiting until he inclines himself towards us – the Holy One himself, God in the child in the manger. God is coming; the Lord Jesus is coming; Christmas is coming.’ *
In a letter to his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer, written from prison in December 1943 he says:
‘I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift of God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious …’**
Elsewhere in the same book, Bonhoeffer speaks about waiting for God’s word, throughout the year, but perhaps specifically during the season of Advent. He says:
‘We are silent in the early hours of each day, because God is supposed to have the first word, and we are silent at the end the day because to God also belongs the last word. We are silent solely for the sake of the word, not in order to show dishonour to the word but in order to honour and receive it properly. Silence ultimately means nothing but waiting for God’s word and coming away blessed by God’s word …. Silence before the word, however, will have its effect on the whole day. If we have learned to be silent before the word, we will also learn to be economical with silence and speech through the day …. The silence of the Christian is a listening silence, a humble silence that for the sake of humility can also be broken at any time …. In being quiet there is a miraculous power of clarification, of purification, of bringing together what is important.’***
Perhaps it is as well to reflect on Bonhoeffer’s words in this Advent 2020, and think more about what we have been given and will be given by God in this time. Not because people haven’t lost a lot, some have been bereaved, others separated from families and friends; many have stressful and challenging work places. Rather because we can all receive the gift of Christ, we can all look for the light, and be expectant for hope, peace, joy and love in our lives, in the lives of our communities, and in the life of the world. Perhaps in spite of all the busy-ness we can find time for silence so that God may have the first word and the last word, and we might honour it properly.
Let us renew our joy in the hope that Christ brings us every day, but especially at Advent and Christmas, a joy that has no beginning or end, that brings peace which the world cannot give and the joy of the light of better times to come.
* and ** are taken from ‘God in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas’ published by Westminster John Knox Press, page 6
*** is from page 12
Stephen Rowe is the the Rector of the Anglican Parish of the Church of the Epiphany (aka 'Epiphany'), Surrey, BC