Bishop George Stack, Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, unpacks the true meaning of Christmas.
During the darkening days of November which mark the closing of the Church’s year, it is not surprising that our thoughts and prayers as well as the readings of the Sunday Lectionary should take on an eschatological theme. This is summarized briefly in the language of the ‘Four Last Things’ – Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.
Whatever my Advent prayer I still don’t want the sermon to go on too long, and I really wish Mass could be over in just under the hour!The first Sunday of Advent, which marks the beginning of a new year in the life of the Church takes on a whole new dimension. Advent is a time of expectation and hope. It is a time of reconciliation and forgiveness. Advent is a time for faith. Ultimately, Advent is a time for love when we celebrate the presence amongst us of the Word of God. That Word is not merely spoken, or written, but in the flesh. God becomes human in order that we might share in the divine.
‘Come thou long expected Jesus.’ ‘When is he coming, when oh when is he coming?’ are just two hymnic expressions of the anticipated arrival of the Saviour. We unpack that expectation in our preaching by explaining that during Advent we are preparing to celebrate the coming of Jesus in history two thousand years ago. We also proclaim our faith that Jesus will come ‘at the end of time’ to draw all things to himself in fulfillment of creation. The key to this longing, of course, is the reality that the end of time is now. Every moment of every day is the end of that particular time. Each word, every action, all prayer is an invitation and response to allow Jesus to be present to ourselves in what is called the grace of the present moment.
But what is more frustrating, humanly speaking, than waiting an indeterminate time for something to happen or someone to appear in a way and at a time I cannot predict? I personally wouldn’t wait for anything unless I had to. I would like trains to depart, and taxis to arrive, exactly on time and according to my schedule.
I don’t like having to wait to be served and the lack of punctuality of some people causes me great displeasure! When I phone any company for anything at all, I resent being told by a disembodied voice ‘Your call is important to us. Thank you for waiting’. Most of us, I suggest, consider waiting a waste of time, and there should be less of it so that we can get on with our productive lives.
The previous paragraph gives just one illustration of how we use, or perhaps misuse, religious language and wonder why it doesn’t connect with the ordinary circumstances of life. Why should I suddenly think that my all too human experience of frustration in waiting will be transformed when I project it onto the things of God and pray for ‘..the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ’. Whatever my Advent prayer I still don’t want the sermon to go on too long, and I really wish Mass could be over in just under the hour!
And when in suffering and in silence, in pain and perplexity, I wait on God for some indication that there is comfort, or security, or a meaning and a purpose to the pain I am enduring, so much still seems to be a waste of time particularly when the silence is deafening. It is spelt out powerfully in ‘Silence’ by Shusaku Endo. A spiritual classic on the significance of waiting in the life of the believer is ‘The Stature of Waiting’ by W.H. Vanstone. He describes the Gospel account of the life and ministry of Jesus as falling into two distinct phases: One of dynamic, inexhaustible activity interspersed with silence and prayer. The second, a contrasting period of passivity. The turning point comes in Gethsemane where Jesus is handed over to forces beyond his control. Now his hands are tied and he is at the disposal of others. He is the one who endures, not the one who does but is done unto. He cannot even carry his own cross, but is waited on, supported by one who happens to be passing by.
The baby in the manger is God from God, light from Light True God and True ManVanstone takes this pattern of the active and passive side of the life of Jesus and relates it to the pattern of our own lives. Particularly as we grow older we have to learn to accept that things are done for us and to us, not least because of illness or advancing years.
He argues powerfully for the importance of being and receiving, of learning to endure patiently yet creatively. He describes this in what he calls ‘the stature of waiting’, and illustrates it by exploring the fact that God himself has put himself into our hands.
It is no accident that the gospel writers, and the early Church, only began to understand the birth in the wooden cradle at Bethlehem when they caught a glimpse of the divinity which hung on the wood of the cross. Through the eyes of faith, standing metaphorically by the wood of the cross on the hill of Calvary, they could look back down the thirty three years of history and the thirty miles which separated Jerusalem from Bethlehem. They could see in their mind’s eye, and through the heart of faith, the Christ child in the wood of the crib who was the fulfilment of Old Testament expectation, the fulfilment of all the prophets had foretold. The theologians and mystics, the hymn writers and poets could now get to work and shine a light on the darkest corners of human existence and proclaim that a light has indeed shone upon and for those who walked in darkness.
During this Advent we need go no further than our own well loved English poet T.S. Eliot when he wrote in East Coker:
I said to my soul, be still,
and wait without hope.
For hope would be hope
for the wrong thing.
Wait without love,
for love would be love
of the wrong thing.
There is yet faith.
But the faith, and the love,
and the hope
are all in the waiting.