Happy New Year! No, I’ve not gone mad, today is the beginning of a new year – the new Church’s new year. Today Year A of the Lectionary (readings) begins and we enter the first season of the church year: ADVENT. It is a season marked by watching and waiting….but for what? For Christmas Day? For Jesus to come back? For the pay cheque to pay off the Christmas debts?
We watch and we wait as we prepare ourselves, once again, to allow Christ to be reborn again in our hearts. Each of us has a part to play in working collaboratively with God in bearing Christ to a needy world. We wait with eager longing for the time when everything will be made complete, in Christ – and yet we also remember the reality of God’s Kingdom HERE and NOW. It is both a present reality and a future hope.
However, for our consumer society – which, despite recession, it still is – the anticipation will bring for many the reality of growing debt and disappointment. For yet others, Christmas is a painful time – Christmas in the absence of loved ones; the pain of loneliness while the world parties on; Some, perhaps many, can easily find that instead of preparing to sing “O Holy Night” they will find themselves living out one holy nightmare. The world can be a very dark place. Yet Advent, with its insistence that out of darkness light will come, and that darkness will never quench it, reminds us that, in Christ, Light and Love will come.
Beyond our church walls, Advent is already being celebrated as if it were Christmas, with the feast ending on Christmas morning. Christians, however, have learnt the discipline or waiting, watching, listening, and preparing for the arrival new hope, the birth of new realities, the revelation of God surprising earth with heaven. The feast begins on Christmas morning and urges us on into Light and Love as we greet another new year with all its new joys and new possibilities.
The Advent we celebrate in the Church – the one that has nothing at all to do with the number of shopping days left until Christmas – is altogether different. The hanging of the greens – here in St Mary’s just the presence of the undecorated Christmas tree, and the lighting of the first Advent candle – invites us to dream dreams of a better world, to allow expectant visions to dance in our heads. Advent invites us to fill the cup of today with a full measure of tomorrow. Both the passage from Isaiah and the words from the Gospel of Matthew express the Christian hope for a different, brighter future.
Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome speaks of the deep penetrating, all-revealing light of Christ.
Christ’s light shines even under our skin and into our soul. Living fully exposed in that light is what Paul urged the Roman Christians to do. Jesus’ followers are to live and work in the light of a new day, a new reality where the redemptive work of Christ illumines a dark world. Christ-light reveals everything. No compulsion is dark enough, no desire is buried deep enough, no motive is masked thick enough, to escape Christ-light. The light of Christ lays bare everything within us. Both the good and the bad.
And yet, Christ’s response to the picture that emerges in his light is not to declare judgment, pronounce doom, or dismiss laughingly. When we allow the light of Christ to scan our souls and dare to bare our faults and blemishes, Jesus offers us forgiveness, redemption, salvation – such is the warmth and radiance of His light.
If you have heard or read the news you will know about the fragile situation between North and South Korea. They haven’t yet found peace, but these countries can help us to really appreciate the contrast between darkness and light today. If you look at a nighttime satellite image of the whole Island, South Korea is bathed in light, its cities shine, while North Korea remains largely bathed only in darkness.
But it’s more than just the lack of visible light that makes North Korea a place of darkness. The North Korean government is one of the most repressive governments on earth. Radio and television sets are hardwired to receive only government propaganda. Mobile phones were banned in 2004, and there’s no access to the internet. There is another significant contrast, however, between the two: the North is officially atheist, the last remaining ‘Stalinist’ communist society. The South, on the other hand, has known Christian influence for more than a century. In fact, one of the largest Christian churches in the world is in South Korea.
Light is a powerful symbol – no wonder Isaiah, Paul and Jesus were all keen to refer to it.
The month of December, for us, is one of the darkest months of the year. When we put up our Christmas lights we are affirming that the darkness will never overcome the light. We are affirming positive values of peace and justice and love and hope. Most of all, we are affirming the presence of God in our world – and we all have a part to play in affirming that presence of God in our midst.
There is a story going round the internet about a church nativity production. The day finally arrived. Grace was so excited about her part that her parents thought she was to be one of the main characters, though she hadn’t told them her role.
One by one the children took their places. Grace’s parents could see the shepherds fidgeting in one corner of the stage which was evidently intended to be a field. Mary and Joseph stood solemnly behind the manger. In the back three young wise men waited impatiently. But little Grace sat quietly and confidently.
Then the teacher began: “A long time ago, Mary and Joseph had a baby and they named Him Jesus, when Jesus was born, a bright star appeared over the stable.”
That was Grace’s cue. She got up from her chair, picked up a huge tin-foil star, walked behind Mary and Joseph and held the star up really high for everyone to see.
When the teacher told about the shepherds coming to see the baby, the three young shepherds came forward and Grace wiggled the star up and down excitedly to show them where to come. When the wise men responded to their cue, she went forward a little to meet them and to lead the way, her face as bright as the real star might have been.
The production ended and on the way home Grace said, with great satisfaction, “I had the main part!”
“You did?” her Mum asked, wondering why she thought that.
“Yes,” she said, “because I showed everybody how to find Jesus!”
And ultimately that is what it means to walk in the light. It is to show the world how to find Jesus. It is to live in a light that people see in us all year round through the love of the Bethlehem baby where all history hangs on the hinge of that stable door. That is our part and it is the main part, just like Grace had, to show the world how to find Jesus, to bring fresh hope in the middle of all of life’s troubles, pain, loneliness and anxiety…to bring light in the middle of all the world’s darkness and hopelessness – to bring light even in the darkness of each other’s daily lives, in our church, in our homes, in our memories.
To walk in the light, and to put on Christ, as Paul would say, means shifting our focus from critiquing and offering compassion; it means shifting our gaze forward onto an horizon of hope and possibility. Instead of condemnation, we are called to help people see new and fresh vistas and visions of forgiveness.
Even though none of us is perfect in every way, or has it all together, we together constitute in our Master’s hands a powerful force for good and light in the world.
An old fable tells of trouble in a carpenter’s shop. The tools were in a bit of a dither. “Brother Hammer, you’re too noisy.”
“Me? Brother Plane’s work is all superficial. No depth.”
“Me? Brother Tape Measure is always telling others what to do, measuring us all by his own standards.”
“Me? It’s Brother Screwdriver who drives us all crazy going round in circles.”
“Me? Sister Sandpaper always rubbing the wrong way.”
“Me? Sister Saw goes back & forth endlessly.”
Suddenly the bickering ceased, for everyone heard the carpenter coming. When he entered the shop, he put on his apron, went to his bench, and began to make a table. He picked up Brother Tape Measure, then Brother Plane, then Brother Hammer and Sister Screwdriver, then Sister Saw, and lastly Sister Sandpaper, whom he used to smooth all the rough edges.
To make a table on which to spread food for a hungry world, all the tools were necessary. None was more important than the others.
When you and I put on Christ, walk in His light, and allow new horizons of possibility and hope to emerge, then all of life somehow becomes for us one enormous Advent. What will you see as this season unfolds?