Bishop's Letter: Is there any hope for Advent?

First published 28th November 2012

In his message for Advent Bishop Lee highlights the challenge of the season for our discipleship.

This is the time of the year I find most challenging to be a follower of Jesus. Advent feels to me the season in which the clash between modern life and Christian discipleship feels most acute.

According to tradition, Advent is a season for Christians to dwell upon the four great themes of heaven, hell, death and judgement. It is a period for restraint, self-reflection and penitence as we prepare to celebrate God's coming among us in Jesus and contemplate the future completion of God's purposes.

All of this sits rather awkwardly beside how society blows through Advent and indeed how I normally experience the season. As my wife Liz has just reminded me (not knowing I am composing this message) I now have about a month to write the annual Christmas letter. We shall be buying and sending cards, deciding what gifts we would like to give to family, friends and colleagues, getting out the Christmas decorations and wondering whether any need replacing.

There will be invitations to attend parties or special events, some of them personal and others related to our roles and work. Having hosted Christmas celebrations for the wider family for almost 30 years there will be the usual need for liaison and logistics (after all having 12-16 people stay for between 3-7 days requires some advance planning!)

All the above are significant and worthwhile activities and we enjoy most of them. Yet I cant help feeling I am forever in danger of going off at a tangent from what Advent is meant to provide. For as long as I can remember Advent has felt like one of the busiest periods of the year.

That may be exacerbated by being in a clergy household but I hear others expressing similar feelings, including those who have little connection with the Church. The lead up to Christmas feels stressful and pressurised for many if not the majority of people, even if those pressures come from differing quarters: inducements to over-spend, tensions in family relationships, an increased sense of loneliness or isolation, worrying about what the coming year might hold.

In the midst of this I want to ensure that being a follower of Jesus enables me to subvert these cultural realities rather than the reverse. One year my parents went so far as to reject Christmas as being too pagan, somewhat in the manner of the Jehovahs Witnesses, but that has never felt appropriate to me. And I dont believe reclaiming Advent is best done by refusing to sing Christmas Carols before midnight on 24 December or by banging on about how rampant commercialisation has highjacked Advent. What I believe we shall be best doing is to refocus on the Advent keynote of hope.

For Christians hope is not about wishful thinking but the conviction that an alternative future is being birthed, playing our part by a commitment to see it realised. This Advent I will be asking myself how I can be a more effective sign and instrument of that hope. I will be reminding myself it does not have to be about grand gestures small ones count and can gather momentum. Look at Matthew 25: 34-40: what Jesus commends does not involve heroic acts of faith or self- denial.

If like me you have become increasingly aware of the gap between what Advent is and what it might be perhaps you will join me in endeavouring to close it. With the Holy Spirits help the gap can be narrowed and hope ignited.


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