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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Be Born in us Today

One of our wedding presents we still use is a leather-bound visitors’ book. It’s much battered now, after forty five years; but it is a precious record of guests whom we have welcomed into our home – family, friends, strangers, and who knows, perhaps even angels entertained unawares. The shifting patterns of our personal relationships are traced through its pages: people we have worked with; people we were once close to; people who have died; people we have grown to love increasingly over the years. 

In our book, there are four entries from 1977 to 1983.  Those guests couldn't write their own names, so we did it for them when they crossed our threshold for the first time, long expected and already much loved. I needn’t tell you that they are our four children. The book brings it all back: the long months of waiting, the careful preparations, the sense of expectancy - joyful, but tinged with anxiety in case things should not be exactly right, or we might not be good enough parents, or we might not have enough love to give to this infinitely fragile creature who will be so dependent on us. There is nothing you would not do to welcome a child. And if that child does not arrive, or the visit is cut short, the pain would be unbearable. There is no loss like the loss of a child.

Each year in our churches and homes we prepare the crib to receive its honoured guest. It is an act of love, for there is nothing you would not do for this Child who comes to visit us. And like the preparations you make for any birth in the family, it is not just that we want everything to be outwardly right, though that matters. We want everything to be inwardly right too. The crib becomes a picture of our own lives being put back together, made beautiful for Christ.  St Teresa of Avila talked of the Interior Castle of our lives; but she might have spoken of the Interior Crib, with the heart as the manger-throne to receive the King of kings. 

How do we prepare this inward crib of ours? I said that there is no loss in life like the loss of a child. Yet our society has, in a way, lost a child, and Christmas brings it home with particular force. Who is this child we have lost?  I think it’s the child within us capable of expectation and wonder, happiness and delight.  Once upon a time, those qualities were in full flower in us.  We call it innocence, which perhaps means the capacity to be open the world in all its beauty and generosity and see into the life of things.  It’s a capacity that in many of us grown-ups tends to unripen until it is has shrivelled to a bud.  
I think I know 
Where all children come from but the puzzle
To me is, as they grow up, where they go.
Love, wonder, marvellous hope. All these can wither
With crawling years like flowers on a stalk;
Or to some piper's tune vanish for ever
As creatures murdered on a morning walk.

This year I have felt it again, the way Christmas erodes to the tired, tinselled routine, a thousand miles away from the simplicity and mystery of this wonderful festival.  Perhaps only the very young, the very poor, the very lonely and the very hurt understand Christmas: they have nothing to get in the way.  So what does it mean to say that Christmas is a time for children.  How do we acknowledge that in us all is an infant crying for the light? Don’t we yearn for that child to emerge from the dark and start playing? Don’t we ache to feel what we feel as we gaze as if for the first time on the ox and ass and shepherds and Mary and Joseph and the baby?  

If someone said, on Christmas Eve
‘Come, see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
We can hear this as nostalgia.  I see it more as a longing for meaning, the kind of meaning that children more easily grasp than adults.  Jesus says that unless we become like little children, we can never enter the kingdom of heaven.  And what is that but to rediscover not only the lost child in ourselves but the holy Child of Bethlehem.  If only we could find him again!  But Christmas says he is not far from any one of us, the one who brings truth and love into our world.  He comes as the stranger we do not recognise, yet he is the friend who cares about us.  He comes as the sovereign of the universe, yet he is the humblest of subjects.  He comes as the almighty creator, yet he is the slave who empties himself to be among us as one who serves. He is nearer to us than our own souls.  He asks for house-room in our crib.  He stands at the door and knocks, and waits to see what we will do with him.  
The fourteenth century mystical theologian Meister Eckhart said: “We must all become God’s mothers, for God desires to be born in each of us.” A poem a friend wrote a few years ago for her Christmas card captures beautifully the ‘how’, the ‘what’ and the ‘where’ of Christmas, the three life-changing questions we put to the nativity and the nativity puts to us. 

How should I best prepare?  Coming at you
with a running jump I might easily
just miss you altogether; land instead
where earth’s turn must face me with a shadow.

What if I lose the way, arriving late
to bend my knee; will all the food be gone,
leaving scattered embers and camel dung?

Where shall a baby safely lay his head
and not be overlooked or trampled on?

‘Within the manger of your heart,’ he said.


The first text quoted is from Charles Causley’s poem ‘School at Four O'Clock’.  The second is from Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Oxen’.  The final poem is by Sheila Bryer, ‘Advent’ (© S Bryer 2007, used with permission).

Friday, 20 December 2019

Values for Advent 4: Illumination

‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’  The seventeenth century metaphysical poet John Donne puts that question in one of his Divine Poems.  He was much exercised by thoughts about the end of the world and about death, the end of his world.  ‘This is my play’s last scene, here heavens appoint / My pilgrimage’s last mile’;  ‘Oh my black soul!  Now thou art summoned / By sickness, death’s herald, and champion’; ‘Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste, / I run to death, and death meets me as fast, / And all my pleasures are like yesterday’.  And with death come thoughts of darkness, for his was a troubled soul.  ‘To see God only, I go out of sight: / And to ’scape stormy days I choose An everlasting night’.  

For Donne, the Winter Solstice held powerful significance: the shortest day, the ‘year’s midnight’ as he calls it.  This precarious axis of the seasons when the sun’s light almost fails is for him a metaphor of his spiritual condition: wondering, hoping but not always expecting that the light will grow strong again, half believing that it might not.  Midwinter raises anxiety about the last things: solstitium: the sun stands still in the sky, the light burns low, and life is short, and nature holds out no promise that she will ever renew herself or that this pale sun whose rays barely penetrate to earth could ever warm another living thing.  

For most of us, the Solstice (at 4.19 am on the morning of Sunday 22 December) will pass unnoticed.  We are insulated from it not just by electric light and central heating and the ceaseless flow of online activity, but by the business that occupies us in the days before Christmas.  But those whose lives are tuned to the rhythms of the seasons and the rise and fall of light pay attention: Pennine farmers, market gardeners, seafarers, meteorologists, astronomers, poets.  For billions in our world, less burdened by technology than we are, these primal rhythms are close to what it means to sustain life, hold out the prospect of a tomorrow as well as a today.  ‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’ is not the private fantasy of a morbid soul.  It is the question to ask when the planet is spinning relentlessly towards an irreversible climate catastrophe.  The first victims to suffer will be the poor and voiceless of the developing world.  The world’s last night is no longer the fantasy of a fevered imagination.  The apocalypse is now.

In these days before Christmas, you may wish I’d lighten up (an apt image for the solstice if you think about it).  But while modern Anglican texts soften as Christmas approaches, the Book of Common Prayer maintains a tougher Advent focus.  Sunday’s collect is one of the most majestic in the book: ‘O Lord, raise up thy power and come among us, and with great might succour us’: we call on God as those who are helpless because he alone can rescue us.  In the Prayer Book communion rite, both the third and fourth Sundays of Advent give us gospel readings about John the Baptist, hardly comfortable reading for Advent.  The Great O antiphons of Advent are a crying for the light at this dark time of the year: ‘O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death’.  And when Advent at last utters the name ‘God with us’ in the antiphon of the final day before Christmas Eve, it is longing and desire that run through it: ‘O Emmanuel, our King and our Lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: come and save us O Lord our God’.  Come…. Come….It is futures that we fasten on in Advent: futures promised, futures glimpsed, and yes, futures feared as well.  

At the Solstice, people used to kindle fires to keep light and warmth alive and cherish them for the long year ahead.  Perhaps it is the distant origin of fairy lights and Christmas trees; perhaps we still need to echo our forebears and in ceremony and symbol act out the issues of light and dark. In many cathedrals and churches, the traditional Advent procession moves up the church from west to east: a movement towards the light, at first experienced partially, brokenly, as if it might be swallowed up again by the immense darkness in which we stand and wonder and wait.  Gradually that fragile light is established; it grows until it reaches its full strength, luminous, radiant like the heavenly Jerusalem, the city that ‘has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.’ ‘Eternity’s sunrise’ to quote Blake’s famous phrase.

Yet the hope remains future.  We don’t yet possess it.  We still pray ‘Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!’, for the kingdom is not yet present and God’s purposed not yet fulfilled.  We ask every day in Advent that we may ‘cast away the works of darkness’ and that God may put upon us ‘the armour of light now in the time of this mortal life’.  We glimpsed the light of God’s presence in that great climax of the Advent Procession, but then it was taken from us again: for it was but a glimpse of glory given for a while.  It had to subside, for at the end we have to go outside again into the night, like the winter sparrow in Bede’s parable who flies into the warm lit hall only to fly out again into the cold and dark. 

It’s in that half-light of daily existence that the prayer, ‘Come thou long-expected Jesus’ becomes most real. It breathes desire, expectancy, hope.  We know we can face the night, for this vision will sustain us, Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun who is the glory of the nations.  We know that though we walk in darkness we have seen a great light and need not be afraid.  In midwinter the darkness envelops us again, fraught with ambiguity. The bright clear long light of summer is but a memory.  For now. But darkness is not necessarily ominous and bad.  In the Bible clouds and darkness are where you find the presence of God. ‘There is in God a deep and dazzling darkness’ says the poet, drawing on a long Christian mystical tradition.  ‘Churches are best for prayer, that have least light’ says Donne.

It was on Christmas Day in Durham Cathedral ten years ago that the ‘new creation’ high altar frontal was unveiled.  It shows the rising sun, its golden rays penetrating to and animating the extremities of creation.  It rises out of a blue sea, as if to remind us of Advent and waiting for the God’s purposes to be fulfilled.  For even the birth of Jesus is not the end but the beginning of our world’s redemption, the dawning of the light.  The sun has yet to rise completely and fill the sky.  Across the frontal is a thin red arc, almost invisible until you come close to it, the thread of pain and passion stitched across glory which is the cost of it, the destiny of the Holy Child.  On Solstice day, which this year falls on the first day of the week that we call Sun-Day, we celebrate the light that is coming among us while at the same time we hold in our hearts those who in the dark places of pain and passion wait each day for deliverance.

‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’  Only when we ask John Donne’s question for our world and for ourselves can we begin to hope.  It is a clarifying question, for it tells us that there is work to do and darkness to dispel and lives to change.   There are four days of Advent left to us.  We must make the most of them, especially as after Sunday the days will start getting longer again, and the light become stronger; for ‘the night is far spent and the day is at hand’, the day of Christ whose glory fills the skies. 

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Values for Advent 3: Joy

This month I’m reflecting on some of the values that might help us keep these short precious weeks of Advent with what I suggested we might call ‘spiritual intelligence’.  You can find my previous offerings below this one on the website. The first was longing, when we looked at how Advent is meant to focus our desires on God and to nurture our hunger to see his kingdom come.  Last week’s theme was contentment, which I saw as rooted in thankfulness, the only way to cure the relentless drive to possess that is so evident before Christmas.   Today I want to look at a third value that I believe is fundamental to Advent.  That value is joy.  

‘Rejoice always’ says St Paul. In all things, let the watchword be joy.  Joy is the particular focus of this particular week. Last Sunday, the third of Advent is known as Gaudete from the opening word of the traditional introit at Mass: rejoice!  But joy is meant to mark all of Advent.  It is not a penitential season like Lent when we sing Miserere and lament the brokenness of things.  Rather, it’s a time to take up the ringing acclamations of the Hebrew scriptures that Zion’s ancient longings for God’s coming are about to come true.  ‘Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy, for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.  Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 52.8-9).  And this glad expectancy is not only for human beings, still less the religious.  The whole creation utters its inarticulate song of joy at what is coming on the world: ‘let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar and all that fills it.  Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming to judge the earth’ (Psalm 96.11-13).  And when the time comes for the forerunner to arrive, his birth brings not fear but delight: ‘you will have joy and gladness’ the angel tells his father Zechariah, ‘and many will rejoice at his birth’ (Luke 1.14).  

The word in Greek is chara, close to charis, grace, and eucharistia, thanksgiving.  So joy belongs both with God’s generosity (which is what grace means) and our response to him of gratitude.  The capacity to be joyful, then, flows from the capacity to recognise, celebrate and embrace God’s acts as our creator and saviour.  We are what we are, a people of joy, because of what he is, a God who is all-justice and all-goodness.  Augustine says that ‘the authentic life is to set our joy on you, grounded in you, caused by you’ (Confessions 10, 32).  For God has made room for us in his world.  He has given us all that is lovely to enjoy.  He has come among us as our Saviour Immanuel.  We find ourselves re-orientated towards his own life and love, like a sunflower being turned towards the sun and opened up by its light and warmth.  In all this, our wellbeing, our shalom, is secured.  What we call gladness, joy, happiness, delight well up within us because we know that ultimately all shall be well.  

St Augustine is a great theologian of joy because he is not afraid to explore his own human experience of pain and pleasure.  Here, you feel, is a man who has truly lived, who knows his own hungers and drives, satisfaction and disappointment, has tasted both sensuality and emptiness. In his Confessions, he lays bear a soul discovering how the experiences of human life and relationships both point to the secret of lasting happiness while at the same time withholding it.  He learns how to see into the life of the things so as to discern the God who beckons us there to know and love him.  He glimpses how our ordinary joys point to a larger, enduring joy.  ‘When I love you, what is it that I love?  It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odour of flowers and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh: it is not these I love when I love my God.  Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God - a light, voice, odour, food, embrace, of my inner man, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satisfaction can part.  That is what I love when I love my God.’ (Confessions 10, 6)  Was ever delight more movingly or sensually expressed?

But Augustine knows, as we do, that even the best we enjoy of God in this world is partial and fragmented: fugitive pieces of a larger picture that still eludes us. In the Confessions he recalls his habit of looking for happiness in the wrong place, how he has had to learn that joy has a future tense that keeps waiting and longing alive: ‘Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new, late have I loved you. You were within and I was living outside and looked for you there, and plunged into the lovely things you had made. You were with me but I was not with you. Those things kept me far from you…. But you called aloud and shattered my deafness.  You were radiant and beautiful.  I drew in my breath and now I long for you.  I tasted you, and now I feel hunger and thirst only for you.  You touched me, and now I am on fire for the peace which is yours’.  The paradox of Advent is that its joy is both now and not yet: both with us but still to come.  Only the future brings with it a joy that is without end.  

This is why, when Jesus came proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, ‘the common people heard him gladly’ as the gospel puts it.  They knew that only God’s future could bring what they longed for, only his kingdom of righteousness and peace could usher in true and lasting happiness as the Sermon on the Mount makes so clear.  So it’s right to come back to the last things which ought to be our focus in this season.  What we look for in Advent is nothing less than a new world, God’s final word of judgment on all that is evil and wrong and the establishment forever of the kingdom of Immanuel in righteousness, joy and peace.  ‘God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes; death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away’ (Revelation 21.4).  

This is the faith we confess in the climactic words of the Nicene Creed that ought to make our spirits dance and summon up a rush of joy every time we say them: ‘I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’.  Expecto in Latin – not just hope for but look for, which is what New Testament hope is.  At the eucharist, we celebrate the risen life of Jesus in our midst and proclaim his death ‘until he comes’.  And that reminds us, even in the midst of so much that makes us afraid, to hold in our hearts and our hopes the consummation of all things at the end of the age, when hope is emptied in delight, and we know him as he is.  It is the source of the joy that sustains us.  It’s the joy that no-one can ever take away.     

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Values for Advent 2: Contentment

I am offering a series of reflections in Advent in which I am suggesting some spiritual values we might cultivate during this precious but demanding season.  Last week I spoke about Advent as a time to of longing and desire.  Today I want to explore the value of contentment.  

At first sight, contentment seems to be incompatible with longing; after all, if we desire because we do not yet possess, it follows that we must be discontented in some way because of something we lack.  There is certainly a paradox here, for we know that we should be content with what we have and are, yet we hear the gospel promising us something that in St Paul’s words is ‘even better’.  We know that everything in this life is provisional, here only for a time.  At the Lord’s coming, it will be changed and we with it. It will become God’s new world; and we are taught to long for that day and to pray for it.  This is the focus of all God-given desire.  And because our condition falls so far short of what God would it to be, there should indeed be a divine discontent in us that throws us back on his mercy and recalls us to depend completely on his help and grace.  

At the same time, we are taught to recognise the goodness of things and to see in them God’s generosity and kindness.  We know we must learn how not to crave what we do not really need, nor to invest more than we should in what we are given.  Immanuel Kant’s insight helps here: ‘we are not rich because of what we possess but because of what we can do without’.  And by riches I don’t simply mean material things.  I mean any gift that promotes wellbeing and gives us pleasure or fulfilment, whether in the body, the intellect, the emotions or in our faculty for spiritual awareness that we call the soul.  Perhaps we can’t be content unless we could renounce even the best that God has given us.  

We need to lay alongside each other these two strands that run through the Bible.  This means learning how to desire God himself in all things and above all things.  We know that nothing less can ever ultimately satisfy.  So contentment and longing are held together when we see how it’s as much about appreciating the Giver as the gift, and that being content is to glimpse how every gift is a kind of sacrament of God’s loving generosity, not an end in itself but another means to knowing and loving him.  To turn it round, as St Paul does in the early chapters of his Letter to the Romans, the cravings and sins that lead human beings into depravity and destructiveness have the effect precisely of making the creature the ultimate end of our concern rather than the Creator.  The Bible consistently calls this idolatry.  Augustine describes sin as being ‘curved in upon oneself’, the ‘worth-ship’ that properly belongs to God our ultimate Source and End being deflected instead into the penultimate, the created, the transient.  Perhaps idolatry is surrender to a perverted kind of discontent that can never rest in the goodness and worth-ship of another.  And when we give our lives to these ends, we are, says St Paul, as good as dead already.   In an image of St Francis de Sales, we are like a bride who pays so much attention to her wedding-ring that she never even notices the bridegroom who gave it to her. 

What is the secret of contentment?  How do we achieve it in our western society that is so hungry to possess, whose besetting sins are so blatantly laid bare and played upon in this run-up to Christmas, the sins of avarice and its close relative, envy?  

St Paul has a key passage about this in his Letter to the Philippians.  It comes just after the well-known Advent exhortation to ‘rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice’.  He has spoken of his joy in the Christ whose coming is near and then says: ‘I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed, and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need’ (Philippians 4:11-12).  This owes more than a little to the Stoic philosophers whose ideal was to reach an inward contemplative stability by becoming more and more indifferent to outward circumstances.  The soul’s health, they said, did not depend either on prosperity or adversity, and to allow good fortune or bad to influence it would be to regress to a childish, even infantile state.  St Paul gives Christian meaning to this by saying that Christian stability is found not within but beyond himself.  ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me’ he says.  ‘My God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4.14, 19).  Like everything else, it is given.  We cannot achieve it on our own.

We can, however, cultivate a mentality that makes it more possible.  The clue, I believe, is thankfulness.  This means more than merely saying thank-you, though the words are important.  It is about being thankful at the core of ourselves, as when the psalmist begins his praises by saying ‘I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth’ (Psalm 34.1).  This is a worshipper for whom thankfulness and praise are a habit.  For him it is as natural to bless God as it is to sleep, eat and breathe.  This is fundamental to Jewish spirituality.  Everything in life is made holy, not by blessing it but by blessing God for it: ‘Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the Universe: you make this new day to dawn.  Blessed are you for the sleep I have enjoyed; for this food and drink, for the sabbath, for our homes and those who love us, for our lives and the hope that sustains us’.  

This is what Jesus did at the Last Supper.  He blessed God for the bread and the wine and commanded us to do this in memory of him.  His command was much more than an instruction to celebrate the eucharist.  It was a summons to be eucharistic in our own selves, to develop the habitus of always and everywhere blessing God for the goodness and mercy shown to us and to all living things.  The word eucharistia simply means thanksgiving.  It defines the man or woman or faith.  To be eucharistic people, men and women for whom thankfulness is a way of life, is to be on the path of true contentment.  

I have met a few people in whom I have glimpsed this.  When I became an incumbent in the early 1980s, I followed a priest who had died of a brain tumour without warning.  He was not even the age I am now, and had only been in the parish for a few months, yet in that short time he had earned a good deal of respect and affection.  When my wife and I went to the vicarage to measure up for carpets and curtains, we met his widow who was on the point of moving out.  We stumbled around as you do, trying to say something appropriate, but the words wouldn’t come.  But she said to us: ‘when John was alive, he taught me that the only real way of living well is to be thankful for everything.  And when we are, we find that sense of gratitude sustaining us even in the darkest of times.  I have so much to be thankful for in a lifetime of memories together.  It doesn’t take away the pain or the loss, but it does carry me through it.’  I have never forgotten it.  

As the General Thanksgiving says in its incomparable poetry, we are to bless God ‘for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life, and above all for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory’.  We could hardly do better than to pray that prayer every day in Advent, as retailers try to ratchet up our hungers.  It will help us keep Christmas with integrity, for we shall have begun to learn both the virtue of contentment, and with what gratitude to receive the greatest of all gifts when he comes. 

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Values for Advent 1: Longing

Each year, Advent puts a question to us.  It asks us what our values truly are.  This is because at no other time of year does liturgical time seem so dislocated from secular time.  Even against the backdrop of political turmoil when the future is uncertain, this is not a time of year when reflection is easy.  The traditional Advent focus on the Last Things, death, judgment, hell and heaven sits uneasily alongside Christmas fayres and lights and shop windows.  We wish we could sustain for these brief weeks what Philip Larkin called the ‘hunger to be more serious’, for then what a joy Christmas Eve would be.  Will we achieve it this year?

It’s easy for preachers in Advent to rally to the cry against consumerism and the plea for a less materialist and a more charitable, frugal, spiritually aware way of celebrating Christmas.  But we need to be careful, because we are all implicated in the values of our society and its febrile, often superficial approach to this season that prefers frippery and feel-good to real depth of challenge and possibly some pain.  So without pretending that I have any easy answers about how to observe a good Advent, I should like in these coming weeks to suggest values that could focus on its deeper meaning for us as Christian people and help us on the path towards spiritual intelligence. 

My first value is longing.  Longing, hunger, desire, is basic to the human condition.  We would not be human if we did not long for what we do not have to enjoy.  I am not speaking of selfish gratification here – I trust we have moved beyond that.  Globally, we long for a safer, more peaceful world, an end to human cruelty and the kind of terror we have seen in India in recent days.  We want to see the endemic needs that diminish the lives of so many met in a lasting way: poverty, hunger, disease.  In our nation we long for wholesome communities where neighbours care for one another, where there is a more developed instinct for what is right and just in our midst.  More personally we long for fulfilled intimate relationships, satisfaction in our work, the healing of what is broken within us, the feeling that our lives make some kind of sense.  

We long for these things.  And when I say we ‘long’ for them, I mean more than that we merely wish for them or sigh for them.  True longing engages our passions and our wills.  It involves the commitment of our entire being.  It does this because we know that human life is marred and flawed without the things we long for.  More than that, our very longings themselves are signs that we still have the capacity to envisage a better future for others and for ourselves.  Not to long for a better tomorrow would mean to settle for the compromises and shortcomings of today.  

Advent presents us with the prospect of the future.  It is, as theologians say, eschatological.  Its thrust is tomorrow, what is coming upon us and upon the world, and how tomorrow influences and shapes how we think about today.  But ‘tomorrow’, for Christianity, is not what blindly evolves out of today as events unfold.  If we thought we were at the mercy of the relentless chain of causes and effects, we would be better not to dwell on the future too much, for we would be overwhelmed with hopelessness and possibly despair.  But to focus on God’s tomorrow is to ponder how he intends to shape the world and us with it in order to bring about his good purpose.  So Advent challenges our habit of thinking about the future as somehow inevitable, whether it is the march of progress towards an ideal utopian future as much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries assumed, or whether it is the collapse of civilisation into the dystopian abyss of anarchy and chaos.  The optimists and pessimists are both wrong: neither the best nor the worst will happen come what may.  Instead, the Bible gives us the vision of a re-imagined God-shaped future and invites us to begin to craft our present in the light of it.

When Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, this is what he meant.  He believed, as his contemporaries did, that God would shortly bring history to an end and usher in the new era of righteousness and peace.  Some of you standing here will not taste death until you see the kingdom of God come’ he said.  So is our New Testament reading, Jesus finds a donkey and comes riding into Jerusalem on it, deliberately fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah that this is how Zion’s king would arrive in his city.  And the crowd’s hosannas, culled from an acclamation in one of the royal psalms, tell us that the people knew exactly what they were seeing and celebrating.  ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’.  The kingdom is upon us.  The old is about to be swept away and with it, all that depraves and corrupts human life.  Behold, the new is here.

I said that the people knew what they were caught up in.  The truth is that they did and they didn’t.  This is the critical point.  They thought that this messianic act was nothing less than the inauguration of the eschaton.  The last days had arrived, and with them, the overthrow of Roman political power and the reinstatement of Israel as the kingdom of the saints, ruled over by one like the Son of Man coming on the clouds in power and glory.  And when the man on the donkey wreaks havoc in the temple precinct, and goes on to speak about how not one stone of the temple would be left standing upon another, his messiahship seems assured.  How could anyone doubt that their ancient longings were about to be fulfilled before their very eyes?

But we know, as they did not, that less than a week later this messianic hero would be nailed to a tree.  And for those with eyes to see, this gave a wholly new meaning to words like ‘messiah’, ‘king’, ‘Son of Man’.  It radically re-defined what it meant to pray ‘thy kingdom come!’.  And if so, then it inevitably put a question against what the people had shouted for on the roadside into Jerusalem.  ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’ – indeed; but not like the great stone of the apocalyptic writings hurled from heaven to crush to dust the great world empires.  Rather, to confront humanity with the truth and for the sake of that truth to die.  The crowd thought it knew what wanted.  But the passion unfolded a more excellent way.  This was to do with altogether more profound hungers and desires, deeper than the crowd could ever glimpse or dream of.  It exposed the shallowness of what they shouted for.  The very fact that it took just days for the cry of hosanna to be poisoned into crucify tells us this.

I am saying that it is good to have longings and hungers, but by itself it is not enough.  We must educate our desires, learn to hunger accurately, so that they become aligned to God’s own longing for the world and the redemption of the human race.  It would take a Saint Augustine to explain what this means.  But we could meditate in Advent on his profound insight that all our desires are fundamentally desire for God.  It’s only that sin has twisted and distorted them so that they become focused not on the Creator but on the creature with all the self-absorbed disordering consequences that idolatry always leads to.  Advent, I think, comes as an invitation to look at what we really want out of life, and what we want for the world, and to set it alongside and allow it to be interpreted by what Christian faith tells us is the source of true and lasting joy.  Advent can help us not only to understand and befriend our desires, but to try once again to focus them on God and his good purposes.  

This is how we shall learn how to cry hosanna to the king and to welcome him when he comes.  This is how our hearts, so restless at this edgy time of year, will find their rest in him who is the hope of creation and the Desire of Nations.

Matthew 21.1-13