Sunday, 20 December 2015

Advent Jottings: fear, tenderness and hope

It's been a strange Advent for us here in Haydon Bridge. Our first Advent in retirement was always going to be a bit different after 40 years of ministry. Factor in the birth of a grandchild and a deluge that flooded our home within a few days and the season has become something of a drama.

Our village and personal crises have made me think in fresh ways about what Advent means. A 'crisis', literally, is a 'judgment'. Along with death, hell and heaven, judgment is one of Advent's great words, the second of the traditional four last things. It's easy to think of it as meaning that challenges and ordeals are sent as a judgment upon us. Well, maybe they are. I don't mean in the simplistic sense that they are somehow deserved: Storm Desmond and the floods it caused are not about punishment or retribution. Absolutely not, any more than Job's ordeals or Jesus's suffering were the result of any wrong they had committed. 

But any crisis that hurts is a judgment on us in that it puts us under scrutiny, at least to ourselves and before God. It questions our attitude to life, our resilience, the strength of our hope. How will we respond? With self-pity and self-absorption: 'why has this happened to me?' Or with patience and perseverance: 'life is tough, and yes, unfair, but we are going to remain expectant and endure to the end by the grace of God'? The sheer volume of kindness and generosity the floods have released in this village have to me been wonderful signs of this gift of expectancy and endurance. They may not always have been linked to explicit faith in God's purpose. But they have been there. 

These clues about 'crisis' and how we respond to it belong to the heart of Advent. This season tests our belief in the grace of God and the ultimate goodness of things by offering to us the possibility of hope. I have often said in a lifetime of preaching that hope is the gift Christianity brings to an often despairing world. If we can only stay with the season long enough, it has a way of lifting our sights and stretching our horizons from the dismal prospect of endless human calamity to the larger vision of God's eternal heart of love. It does this, not by escaping the reality of crisis (as Christmas commercials want us to do) but by setting it within the big story of God's wise and loving purposes. 

This is where the birth of our granddaughter has been a glimpse of light in dark times. Madeleine was born in the first week of Advent and a few days later we had gone to meet her for the first time. That was the day before the flood. I always think that a newborn child recreates the image of the holy family. She was lying peacefully in her mother's arms, her exquisite face conveying a quality I can only describe as a kind of radiance. Her father and brother Isaac were proud and happy, and so were her grandparents. (Sorry about the descent into cliché: it would need a Thomas Traherne to do it justice.) 

Her memory was an important stabilising presence in the difficult days of flood that followed. But in conversation with my wife, and with our parish priest, I now see how it has helped illuminate Advent and Christmas, at least for me. In the middle of 'crisis', beset by fear and anxiety, this 'little tiny child' has been able to evoke tenderness and love. Her birth has been quietly redemptive. It has spoken of a present and a future that are full of the kind of trustful hope that puts human dread in its proper place. In the end, nothing could matter more than this miracle happening in human hearts and lives, our capacity to love and be loved and to glimpse in a baby's face something of that fourth and last Advent word, 'heaven'.

For me, the flood and the baby have seamlessly linked Advent to Christmas. It's not a case of lurching from the last things to the nativity, from crisis to consolation at the winter solstice. Rather, it's about seeing each in the light of the other. In asking us to prepare spiritually for Christmas, Advent, with its desire and longing is telling us about how love lies at the very centre of our destiny which is the focus of the last things. At Christmas we behold this holy Child as the ground of our being who moves the sun and the stars, the Alpha and the Omega, 'immensity contracted in a span'. He is the centre of all our hungers and hopes, and not only ours but the world's. 

Perhaps we wouldn't have recognised these hungers and hopes for what they are but for this precious birth. His coming, in answer to our Advent cry Veni Immanuel brings to our race the good news that we are loved. And it also evokes from us our own capacity to feel pity for a helpless infant, and because of that, to be tender towards God and love him in return. Is this why he had to come to us as a vulnerable baby? Pity, tenderness and love have a way of lighting up how we are with our fellow human beings, as our village has shown so abundantly in recent days. In humanity's capacity to be tender, in our ability to feel and to care lies the world's future. And in our human crisis, in the all too familiar world of cruelty and pain into which Jesus was born, that's the best discovery we could make. 

Happy Christmas (when it comes)!

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