December always feels a bit frantic to me. And this year the unusual timing of a General Election only adds to that. Whatever else we might think of this election, perhaps its timing during Advent will encourage us to take a wider perspective and longer view.
We try to make Advent visible in our household: we decorate the house, but gently (we change decoration on Christmas Eve in celebration); each Sunday we light a candle on an Advent wreath; we put up the traditional pine or spruce, but until Christmas Eve it is a Jesse Tree, softly lit, hung daily with simple olive wood images depicting salvation history through the stories of God’s people in the Bible. These are outward reminders to us that the season of Advent is not simply a countdown to turkey and tinsel.
It’s not that I think we just ought to replace one kind of outward display with another more pious. And I’m not a grinch. I enjoy the hospitality of the run up to Christmas. I admire the ways people find time and resource to focus on family and friends – I’m not very good at present finding, but my (now grown up) children have the knack of identifying often small, inexpensive or home-made gifts that are just right and show an attentiveness that’s not just turned on for Christmas. These things can also be outward reminders of important and precious things – of love and hope and desire.
And Advent should be full of desire: ‘come, Lord Jesus … even so, come’.
That desire is, I think, wonderfully subversive. This season, if taken seriously, strips away all self-reliance. If we allow it to, the eternal hopeful themes of the season can reveal the lack of substance in the relentless consumerism of the public face of the approach to Christmas – and this year, perhaps, undercut the hubris of political manoeuvring.
Amid all the noise and activity of December, Advent is the thundering silence of God, putting all our striving to shame, reminding us that we cannot save ourselves nor, in the end, hide from God.
Advent offers a perspective that reverses and upturns the views we too easily accept. It takes courage to journey through Advent. There is no hiding, no wrapping the truth up with ribbon and baubles, or indeed with election promises and campaign spending.
The extraordinary, outrageous mercy of Advent is the discovery that, as we yearn for Christ’s coming – in both humility and glory – we discover that God has always risked trusting the outworking of salvation to the stuff of creation and to human flesh.
‘Annunciation’ by Bishop Stephen Cottrell
There is only one thing that prevents
The gentle movement, heaven into earth:
Not the fear that godly greeting brings,
Nor cold presumption (God could never speak),
Nor empty tomb, nor barren heart,
Nor eyes searching, voices how long blaze,
Nor the silence where there should be praise,
Nor the bitter taste of human failing:
But the lack of trust that what was promised
Might in human flesh be born, achieved,
How happy she who for us all believed,
Strength of God in human weakness blending,
Tenderly the humble servant lifted,
From foetal cry the fatal mending.
The Rt Revd Libby Lane
Bishop of Derby