Here we are – Advent Sunday. And I wouldn’t mind betting that even though Advent is still only a few hours old you’re already, most of you, thinking about Christmas. In vicarworld we can beat that – we’re already planning Lent and Easter. So let’s just think about Easter for a moment and the words of Saint Augustine: “We are an Easter people – and Hallelujah is our song”.
But away from Easter and back to Advent. We are an Easter people, but we are also an Advent people – a people for whom the world is only temporal and which one day will end when Jesus returns. Father Charles Riepe, an American Roman Catholic, wrote this linking Easter and Advent: Advent then is dedicated to the last things, to death, judgement, heaven and hell, but above all to Jesus’ glorious coming to complete his Easter work. The church goes so far as to set aside an entire liturgical season to the end of the world and the final coming of the Lord, so important a part of the faith does she consider these truths.
An entire season to think about the end of the world! And linked I would suggest like Charles Riepe to Easter rather than Christmas, ‘dedicated to Jesus’ glorious coming to complete his Easter work.’
Advent marks the beginning of the Church’s year. The season of Advent resets the clocks and calendars of Christian worship. It’s a penitential season, though unlike Lent we can at least use the ‘A’ word – Alleluia! The problem though is that whatever may be going on in the church it is often the reality of slipper and pyjama sizes and whether Amazon can still deliver in time for Christmas that preoccupies us. It is all too easy to be dragged along with the shallow, consumerist preoccupations of the majority of society. We need to set that aside and focus on Advent. For Advent calls us to focus on Easter and its ultimate meaning. With the arrival of Advent’s first Sunday we find ourselves face to face with the mystery of Life, the Universe and Everything and how it will all end. For as Christians we desire the world to end – Jesus to return – the eternal kingdom to be fully established – and yet we fear the same event. Our tradition proclaims this ending as both an event already accomplished in human history through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and an event moving toward fulfilment in the future – our future.
As Christians we have to deal with the tension of the here and now and the yet to be – the present world with its joys and sorrows, with its disasters and its poverty and its need of redemption – and the world which Jesus has promised, the world of eternity, the world that will be ushered in when Jesus returns as unexpectedly as a thief in the night but as dramatically as a lightning flash from the east to the west. As Christians we need to come to terms with and try to understand and live out the message of Advent. It is a season of preparation – but not a season of preparation for Christmas. It is a season of preparation for the coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
I’d like to expand on this by telling you about a man that, for me at any rate, shows us what being an Advent people is all about, and how we, as ordinary Christians, can live out our lives in the expectation of Christ’s imminent return. Yesterday, December 1st, was his feast day, and I’ve put my icon of him on the altar this morning.
Charles de Foucauld was a Frenchman, born in 1858 into a rich family. Left alone at the age of six when his parents died he was brought up by his grandfather, a retired army colonel. When his grandfather died when Charles was twenty years old he inherited a large sum of money. Like many a young man with more money than he knew what to do with, spent it as fast as he could on as much as he could. But he soon found that he gained no real happiness from such a lifestyle and, over a period of time, his faith began to return, and eventually he decided that he wanted to become a monk.
Charles de Foucauld was one of those people who take things to extremes, and in his newfound Christian vocation he sought a life that was diametrically opposed to the one he had led before. He joined the Trappists, noted for being particularly severe in their way of living – but soon found that for him it was not severe enough. He sought to experience the reality of total poverty and asked to be sent to the poorest monastery in the Order, but for him it was not poor enough, and in the end he was released from the Order. He then went to be a gardener to an order of nuns in Nazareth, and it was here that he began to develop the particular spirituality for which he is now known, and which is what I want to bring before you today.
It was while he was living in Nazareth that he began to think a great deal about the years that Jesus had lived there. We know, of course, very little about the life of Jesus between his birth and his public ministry – the only exception being the visit to the Temple as a boy which Luke records for us. The rest of the life of Jesus over those years is hidden, and yet presumably during those years Jesus was preparing for his public ministry, seeking to do his Father’s will, and living as an ordinary person in an ordinary family doing an ordinary job in an ordinary house in Nazareth. Charles de Foucauld came to call this period of Jesus’ life the “hidden life of Nazareth,” and felt that he – and indeed, others, were called to lived “the hidden life of Nazareth” – simply going about the ordinary daily life to which most of us are called, seeking our Father’s will, and living it out just as Jesus must have in those hidden years.
For Charles this ultimately led him to seek to serve the poor – but not just any poor. He felt God calling him to go and live amongst the poorest people on earth, and so it was that he found himself led to live right in the middle of the Sahara in Tammenrasset in Morocco, in those days completely isolated from Europeans. He lived alongside the Touareg, befriending them, working with them. He sought to emulate the life of Jesus in all he did – but particularly through the love of and service to the poor.
I’ve always felt a sense of identification with Brother Charles, as he has come to be known. We always worry about numbers – we want more people to come to church and wonder why they don’t. Brother Charles prayed and prayed for people to come and join him. He longed to found a religious order of people devoted to the service of the poor. But no-one ever came. Unlike those great saints of church history like Francis of Assisi, or Mother Teresa of Calcutta, he lived his life alone never – in his own eyes – achieving that for which he longed. And he died – much as he had lived his life – in obscurity. In 1916 a party of Touareg from a rival tribe invaded Tammenrasset. Brother Charles was shot dead by a young tribesman on December 1st, now his feast day.
In a sense he lived – in spite of himself and yet as a result of himself – the hidden life of Nazareth that he sought – and he lived it right up to the end. And yet his ministry brought great fruit, for after his death groups of men and women came together quite independently to form religious orders known as the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus where the members live alongside the poor, doing the same work, sharing their lives, but seeking to show something of the love of Jesus for them. And now the family of Brother Charles as he is known embraces men and women; Roman Catholics and Anglicans; clergy, religious and laity, including the Lay Fraternity which I have been a part of for over 30 years.
I tell this story of Brother Charles because I believe that this “hidden life of Nazareth” that he sought to live and to which he tried to encourage others resonates with where many of us are in our own lives. Those that we think of as great religious figures – of the past, such as Wesley, Whitefield, Spurgeon – or, indeed, those of the present – are actually few and far between. Even those who are less well known but who embrace the most difficult calls of the gospel – the call of poverty, the call to the mission field – are not really all that common. For most of us living out the Christian life – being an Advent people – means living in relative obscurity in an ordinary family in an ordinary house living an ordinary everyday existence – just as Jesus did in those hidden years in Nazareth – but always in the knowledge that God is our Father. And, like Brother Charles, we may at times despair that we don’t see the great results that we hope for in terms of vast numbers of converts, perhaps, but that is not, I think, what living the Christian life is all about.
For people like us it is about simply living a life that is simply Christian – seeking the will of God, accepting what we have in terms of money and possessions but living simply, learning to love those around us and in so doing learning to love God, spending time with God in prayer and meditation and study of the Scriptures, together as a Christian community – and all because we believe that Jesus died for us and rose for us and is coming again for us. This is what it means to be an Advent people – to make the presence of Christ a reality by how we live – to be a living light in our world. To prepare our world in our own small way for his coming – not just at Christmas but throughout the year. And to do that we must always be listening for the voice of God our Father.
Father Jean Danielou, who was a Jesuit theologian, said: Since the coming of Christ goes on forever – he is always he who is to come in the world and in the church – there is always an Advent going on.
I like that thought: there is always an Advent going on. And that is the challenge of Advent – to live all year round – every minute of every day – true to our calling as his disciples because he may return at any moment.