Mother Anne-Marie was preaching at St John’s this week for the third Sunday of Advent. She chose to preach on the epistle. Here’s what she said.
A few years back I bought the most beautiful, religious Advent Calendar I had ever had. It was a crib scene in the style of the old masters – no Santa Claus and elves and definitely no chocolate. This Advent Calendar would, I was sure, keep me focused on what Advent was really about.
But when I opened the first window, I was dismayed to see on the inside of the window the words 24 days to go. My lovely religious Advent Calendar was to be my count down, moving relentlessly on, not quite saying 24 shopping days to Christmas, but certainly reminding me daily of those words we hear so often. It ended up being the most depressing Advent Calendar I had ever had – 12 days to go, 11 days to go, 10 days to go – it was just a relentless reminder of how many days I had left to do everything on my list. As a child this count down to Christmas was so exciting and it went so slowly. Now the count down just whizzes by and the 24 days fly past in a whirl. Such is the effect of ageing.
Time is a strange thing. Scientists tells us that time really does go faster as you get older. Christmas, Lent, Easter, Summer Holidays, Harvest, Remembrance Sunday, Advent, Christmas again, just seem to come one after the other as you get on in life. As a child the time from Christmas presents to Easter eggs seemed like an eternity.
And there are times in our lives when we are time rich and times when we are time poor. Childhood can be a time rich time, if it is not crammed with too many activities. I remember being time rich in the long school holidays and in the vacations when I was at University. There were generous grants then, and I didn’t have to get a job to make ends meet, so I had time to read novels, to travel and just to be. Since then I have largely felt time poor, demanding jobs, children, and the church have swallowed time and I look back almost with longing on times like that spring 30 odd years ago when I had a hysterectomy and could do very little in the following 6 weeks. While the children were at school I read and knitted and sat in the sunshine. That only happens now on holiday. I did wonder if I would be time rich again in retirement, but after 6 years of no paid employment I find it is not so, and like many retired people I still rush around from one activity to another. But I do accept that I now have choice and I choose to be busy.
In this run up to Christmas some of us are extremely busy – the cards to write, the presents to buy, the social do’s to go to, and even if you are organised or do very little in preparation, you pick up the frenzy around you in the shops and the impatient traffic. For me about now it begins to get scary with things to prepare for church, with family coming to stay and 8 grandchildren to buy the right things for! The relentless passing of time, 10 days to go, 9 days to go – and how many things can I cross off my list.
The irony is that in Advent we should be focused on a different sort of time. Yes, we are meant to be thinking of being ready and that implies some sense of hurry, urgency. The letter of James we heard this morning tells us “the coming of the Lord is near” and we are meant to think in Advent of this second coming of the Lord – which could be this afternoon or another two thousand years. “See the judge is standing at the door” says James.
Be ready and waiting. Much of the New Testament is written in expectation that the second coming of Jesus is immanent. It is especially noticeable in St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, written only twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and twenty years before the first gospel, that of Mark, was written. If you read that letter you will find that the expectation was that Jesus would return before the believers had died.
Our New Testament reading this morning, this letter of James, is very much later – some scholars think that it could have been written as late as 150 A.D. – 100 years after Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians; and so the expectation of the second coming of Jesus has changed. The coming of the Lord is still near, so we must be ready, but also, James says, we must be patient. The early Christians had to adjust their theology as Jesus didn’t return when expected. And that theology developed into a paradoxical mind set – Jesus could return at any time and so we must be ready, but at the same time we are to develop patience, to almost embrace suffering, and learn to wait as the farmer waits for the rains which will help his seeds to grow. This passage of James has the seeds of the Christian concept of journey. For those of us who watch Strictly Come Dancing and especially “It Take Two” during the week – we know a lot about the J word – journey – don’t worry if this means nothing to you!. But journey is not just for celebrity contestants in a dance contest, it is a significant spiritual theme for all who call themselves Christians. And we set aside particular times in the church’s year to reflect more closely on our spiritual journey – those times are Lent and Advent. But Advent has become swamped by Christmas. The relentless count down of days. The getting ready becomes not about our eternal souls but whether the presents are bought and wrapped. And that is incredibly sad.
I remember some years ago hearing the Dean of Chester Cathedral talking on the radio – he painted a picture that I have never forgotten. He talked of the Cathedral having to live out parallel lives and liturgies in Advent. He said they had their first Carol service before the end of November and the Christmas Tree had to be in the Cathedral for that. On one level the Cathedral served the city where Christmas began at the end of November and different organisations had one carol service after another. But in the routine of morning and evening prayer the Cathedral staff were on a parallel journey, faithfully keeping Advent in their readings and prayers, remembering it as a penitential and reflective season. In one life it was Christmas hustle and bustle, and in the other, they deliberately pursued a slower course with time for thinking and prayer.
Traditionally Advent has been a time to reflect on the four last things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. It has become less fashionable now to preach on these in Advent – part of the Christmas take-over of Advent – it hardly seems appropriate on the Sunday before Christmas to be preaching about Hell when people have come for Carols and the baby Jesus! But Advent is very much about seeing our lives in the divine perspective, to long for the day when Jesus will come again and to live as if that could be this afternoon, and at the same time to reflect on that time when all looking forward will cease, the time of our own demise, or the time when the world as we know it will end, and time itself will be no more.
So as we count off the days and inevitably become part of the consumerist Christmas rush, putting the gin and the Baileys, the stuffing and the cranberry sauce in our shopping trolleys – as we inevitably become part of that; as Christian people, we need a parallel life – one which allows space for reflection, allows the first coming of Jesus, and the second coming, to give meaning to our lives. So that eternal time, God’s time, time that one day will cease altogether, invades our being and influences our living.
If it is not already part of our Christian practice, perhaps in these last days of Advent, we can slow down time by taking up a rhythm of morning and evening prayer, just look up the Church of England app on your phone. Or perhaps take ten minutes each day to sit in silence and think; or take advantage of the last Advent Holy Hour here in church next Saturday. Holding back time to reflect will help us live the paradox, which the letter of James highlights. “Strengthen your hearts for the coming of the Lord is near.” But be patient like the farmer waiting for his precious crop. We have a spiritual journey ahead of us, in this life and in eternity, and the urgency and “not yet” of Advent holds that reality. This is the time when Christians in a sense are most at odds with the world around them. We hold back Christmas. Think we say. Think. There is this time, rushing on and there is God’s time where Jesus may come this afternoon or in two thousand years and we are both ready and patient, because one day all will be perfected in heaven and time as we know it will cease.