In his advent letter to the Primates of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams offers his advent hopes for individuals, societies and the Church. For the last of these he gives us just two themes – reconciliation and renewal. Being a sucker for alliteration, I would like to add a third – readiness – to make a new version of the “3 R’s”. I have been trying to reflect on these hopes through the season.
I rather regret that in recent times it has become unfashionable in Advent to preach on the “Last Things” (Death, Judgement, Hell and Heaven). Indeed, instead of looking forward to eternity, we are now asked by our lectionaries to look back (to the patriarchs, prophets, John the Baptist and Mary). To be frank, I don‘t think looking at the past is much help in terms of any of these three “R’s”. So let me suggest an Advent alternative.
From this perspective, reconciliation is about recognising that those we are in dispute with on Earth are also those with whom we hope to spend eternity. Despite the old joke (told at some point against most Christian denominations) there is no walled-off enclosure in heaven reserved for those who don’t think that anyone else is up there. In eternity, those with whom I have fallen out now, and to whom I may have behaved uncharitably, will be closer to me than the nearest human being in this present life. The Advent call to the Churches for reconciliation is therefore not so much “unity in diversity”, as “unity in eternity”.
Renewal also has its Advent dimension. We are to breath new life into our earthbound church so that we anticipate something of eternity. Taking just one example, it’s a call to make sure that the heavenly dimension is not absent from our liturgy and worship. And if that seems a rather too obvious thing to say, it is not that uncommon in my experience to find church services that appear to value matey-ness above mystery. A worship that is anticipatory of eternity will speak powerfully to our emotions, to our intellects and to our aesthetic senses. All too often we settle for being gently entertained.
Finally in Advent we are called to readiness. We are invited to prepare ourselves for a God who acts, not capriciously as did the Greek and Roman deities, but with a consistent and loving purpose moving ever towards the ultimate and complete fulfilment of his will. To be ready means to be prepared to wait. To wait for a God who may act sooner or later than we expect. It means to travel light so that, at any point, we are prepared to drop anything that holds us back from responding to where God is. As Archbishop Rowan has said elsewhere, the task of the Church is to notice what God is doing and join in with it.
In the final days of Advent maybe we can move beyond the remembrance of things past, so beloved of our current lectionaries, and begin to look forward. And as we do so, may we look forward both to that great breaking of God into the world that we call the incarnation, and that even greater breaking in of the world into God that we call eternity.