Advent thoughts

Assistant Rector's House, December 2001

Eileen McLean, Assistant RectorAt this time of year in the approach to Advent, the scriptural readings in church are full of biblical warnings of the end of the world as we know it. They speak of a final battle between good and evil before Christ comes into the world in judgement. This year in a more scary way than ever it has been only too easy to read into those apocalyptic words a message directly for our day.

I suppose it’s a sort of consolation that in every age, since the days when the Jews saw the destruction of the temple in AD 70, human beings have recognised these symptoms as applying to their own day. All generations have looked around at surrounding horrors and seen good reason to believe they are living at the end of time.

In New York on a wall opposite the United Nations headquarters you can read the hopes of the UN’s founders:

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation shall not lift up sword against nation
neither shall they learn war any more
(Isaiah 2: 1-6 Reading for first day in Advent)

Someone has suggested that it might have been helpful to inscribe those words on a reversible sign-board, with on the other side the much less hopeful (and less quoted) words of the prophet Joel:

Proclaim this among the nations
Prepare war…
Beat your ploughshares into swords
and your pruning hooks into spears.
Let the weakling say ‘I am a warrior’
(Joel 3: 10)

For it sometimes seems that war is an inevitability in this world, and the battle between good and evil just goes on and on. The world sometimes seems bent on a collective suicide. “Where? where? where?” we scream, is this Advent hope we are promised?

I am writing this a couple of days after the United States of America has celebrated its Thanksgiving Day. And celebrate they did, despite the trauma the nation has so recently gone through. Very determinedly people marched and danced in parades, ate turkey, enjoyed family parties. Alongside the sadness, intermeshed with the grief, the American people proclaimed that joy and happiness are still real and alive.

The problem with those who are obsessed with the end of time is that they cannot see the presence of God ‘in time’. Some Vicar has just made the headlines again by saying that the church should have a separate date to celebrate Christmas, to disassociate itself from the glitter and greed of the commercial Christmas preparations. But the point is that this is precisely why we look forward to Christmas, because then we celebrate Christ’s coming into the real, real world - of greed and grief, of happiness and horror. His coming is a sign of blessing on all that is good, and a sign of hope that all can be redeemed.

‘Be watchful… you do not know when the time will come’ is a favourite Advent text. We certainly do not know when the end of history will come - there is no point in trying to fit that into any human timetable.

For each of us, there is the serious thought that the end of history will come at the time of our death, equally unpredictable in time or manner. One writer has put it ‘At your death and mine we will taste the sacrament of the end time, as much of the end time as any mortal can comprehend’. Christ will meet us then.

But most of all as we sing ‘Come, O come Emmanuel’ we are surely praying that Christ will come into our lives now. As a community and as individuals, we are reminding ourselves yet again that we are called in Advent to look forward to a future with God - that we can expect to meet him any time in the person of Christ - in the shops, in the hospital, in the homeless hostel, in the bawdy carol-singing, in our homes, alone and in company - even possibly in church.

Eileen McLean


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Last revised 4th December 2001