Today is the first Sunday of Advent – and the beginning of the next month of Simplify 7.
If you’ve read my recent posts you will know that as part of my preparation for Christmas I am fasting from seven foods: chocolate, cream & ice-cream, bread, pork, beef, lamb and alcohol. You would think I might have managed to get through at least one day…but I have to confess to failure.
Despite the best efforts of the friend I spent the day with – she helped me avoid failure during the first meal of the day! – I ended up eating a sausage roll in the middle of the afternoon. In my defence, I didn’t do it on purpose. That is, I ate the sausage roll on purpose…I just momentarily forgot (while avoiding sandwiches and soup with meat in it) that sausage is made of pork. I think I need to make sure I get a good night’s sleep tonight!
Still, I did manage to remember not to eat bacon, black pudding, pain au chocolat, toast or coco pops as part of my full English breakfast at the hotel we were staying at, so I suppose maybe I shouldn’t count the day as a complete failure. I tried, and I will try again every day of Advent – that’s the real commitment. And it’s all any of us can really promise.
I mentioned that prayer is also a focus for this month of seven – one focus for each day of the week, each linking an important aspect of the Christmas story with our story, here in 2016.
Sunday: one of the four advent themes (of which, more below)
Monday: homelessness – linked to the baby born in a shed because there was no room in the inn
Tuesday: refugees – linked to the flight of Jesus and his family into Egypt
Wednesday: women – for an unmarried young woman who said ‘yes’ to God
Thursday: nations under fire – remembering that Jesus was born into an occupied country
Friday: family – because, in its broadest sense, family is at the heart of the Christmas story
Saturday: equality – because the birth of Jesus was celebrated by rich and poor alike
The four traditional advent themes – one for each Sunday before Christmas – are hope, peace, joy and love. Many churches light a candle in the advent wreath each Sunday, marking off our journey towards Christmas and building the light towards that celebration. In some traditions, the candles represent significant people in the Christian story – those who were waiting, playing their part in getting ready for God to make himself fully known to the world. In this tradition, the first candle represents the prophets – those who spoke the truth revealed to them by God, promises of a time to come when the world would be made new.
Recently, I was at a fellowship meeting – a gathering of those who once belonged to the church where I grew up, now all scattered and worshipping regularly elsewhere, but still getting together once a month to share and sustain our faith. After we had sung some of our favourite hymns, shared our news and chatted about this and that, we were led to read a portion from the Bible. It was Micah Chapter 4 – best known for the prophesy that when everyone turns to God then nations will stop studying war and we will all know peace. The question was raised: what does this have to say to us today? My answer: we’re still a long way from the fulfilment of that prophesy. But that doesn’t mean that it will not happen.
I know that 2016 has tended to divide us further still. For some, it feels like recent political decisions might be the dawn of a new hope; for many others (including me!) I’ve tended to view these same decisions with something close to despair. And yet…God isn’t finished with us yet. The beginning of Advent seems like a really good time to remember that.
In a recent email to those who regularly read her blog, Sarah Bessey included the following thoughts. They seemed to so closely echo my own (and yet she is a much better writer!) I couldn’t resist including them here:
I know it’s easy to wonder: how could we possibly “celebrate” Advent when there is so much pain or brokenness in the world? If we are paying attention, there isn’t much celebration in our hearts these days.
That’s the thing about Advent though: it’s not as much of a celebration as it is a practice of radical faith. We practice Advent because we are paying attention.
Advent is the necessary spiritual practice for all of us whose hearts are broken or discouraged or angry or fearful or desperate or tired.
Advent is a four-Sunday wait for the coming of Jesus. It’s two-fold: we’re mirroring the ancient wait for the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem but we’re also waiting with all of creation for the second coming of Jesus, the arrival that will wipe every tear from every eye and heal every brokenness and redeem all things.
I feel like I could stand in the middle of a field these days with my arms wide open, crying out, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
That’s what Advent is to me; it’s the uniting of my grief and my hope in the longing for Jesus. I don’t know how to give life to my work without dwelling here in hope. As Thomas Merton said, “All Christian life is meant to be at the same time profoundly contemplative and rich in active work.” We can’t do one without the other. If we aren’t heart-captured by Jesus, we will grow weary in doing good. And if we are contemplating the hope and beauty of Jesus, it will of course compel us to embody that beauty! Hand in hand. Observing Advent as a spiritual discipline is contemplative and it will feed your soul for the necessary good hard work in which you will engage.
Sarah has previously published a series of Advent reflections. The first, focusing on Hope can be found here . Hope is about lighting a candle in the darkness and believing it will make a difference. I hope (and believe) that fasting and prayer throughout this Advent season will make the celebration of Christmas all the more powerful – connecting all the dots to help us see what it is really meant to be about. That’s what I’m praying about today.