Thinking Anglicans

Advent Hope

Advent is the time for Hope.

Advent 2016 brings to a close a year for which the new word is – as the Oxford English Dictionary has declared – ‘post-truth’. What hope, we might ask, for a post-truth world?

We have witnessed two election campaigns where truth and fact were in short supply. Since Brexit we have learned not to trust the polls. The events of previous months have revealed an enormous disconnect between what’s in hearts and minds, and the political systems that we take for granted in Western democracy. So many who simply don’t believe, any more, the established democratic processes. What lies underneath that disaffection?

Many things, of course. A sense of unfairness, as some experience real poverty and see others growing richer: the widening inequalities of society. There’s a retreat, too, from the idea of unity across regions and nations, a retrenchment: why should we think about the needs of strangers and aliens, when we’re up against it? A sense of being overwhelmed by the immense global movements – 60 million – fleeing war, violence, famine, insecurity; seeking a new home. And no longer do people trust experts, professional politicians, those with experience and learning – they belong to a political system seen not as democratic, but as elitist and corrupt. The fears and disaffection is not difficult to understand. It’s a world of change, of disrupted stabilities. A post-truth world.

A world also increasingly dominated by fear. It swirls around, transferred and contagious. It undermines trust between people, between nations. It’s fuelled by those who want the fear, who deliberately terrorise to destabilise. Or who themselves are expansionist, ready to take advantage of weakness. We are caught up in global forces, including the serious threat of global warming and climate change which makes us all more fearful than we tend to admit. Massive global forces at play which stir deep fear and destroy trust.

Dante put those who undermine trust at the very bottom of hell. Without trust, societies can’t function. We need a basic trust between people, between nations, for stability and negotiation to happen, for politics rather than war to prevail.

The most tempting thing to do, as we feel the fear, is to fall into the same dynamic ourselves. To start to think tribally, to divide the world into us and them. To lose compassion for the other – whoever she or he might be. To fail to see the humanity and dignity of all. To distrust rather than trust. And then fear begins to have its head.

That’s when our Christian faith needs to kick in. Because if faith in Jesus Christ means anything, it must give us the resources to dig deeper than the fear, to find a bedrock that is secure and enduring.

If our Christian faith gives us anything, it is the strong assurance that the fears and terrors of this present age are not the final word.

St Paul wrote to the Colossians of Christ:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Colossians 1.20​

As Advent begins, that deep, rich, full time in which we prepare our souls to receive the Christchild at his nativity, his rebirth at the heart of the creation, we would do well to think more profoundly who Christ is. St Paul contemplates Jesus Christ, and sees in him all the fullness of God. As such Christ is the realisation of true humanity.

Karl Rahner wrote of the Eucharist as the anticipation of the eschaton – the fullness of the end and wholeness of all things. The eschaton, for Rahner, becomes not so much the chronological endpoint of time, but rather the full completion or wholeness of all things, already realised in Jesus Christ. The Eucharist becomes the Eschaton. Each time we celebrate Eucharist together, we are already there. We have arrived at the heart of fullness of God, the heart of the fulfilment of all things created by God. There is no other moment so full of God’s love and grace as that moment.

We cannot know how God’s thoughts and ways comprehend what we call evil. We know the destructive, callous, cruel evil that is passive harm, causing untold suffering; we know also how evil can take on a life of its own, and generate systems and forces that destroy, and leave survivors suffering for generations. We know how the erosion of trust, how terror destabilises nations, how evil works; how it undermines the foundations required for flourishing life.

If there is nothing more than the fullness of God, where is evil? Is evil beyond God? Surely not, for then there is something that is beyond God’s love and God is less than God.

The theologian Katherine Sonderegger asks what God knows of evil. What can God know of evil, without compromising God’s own goodness? She writes most interestingly of the way God comprehends all things – even evil.

The Divine Wisdom comprehends evil in its scope and depth and shocking negation, its utter poverty and lack. God alone comprehends evil as such. (The Doctrine of God, 2015: 373)

In this time, when we see through a glass darkly, we can know that God comprehends evil. God knows the cruelty of callous evil, and the consequences of natural disaster, creating havoc on peoples and communities, suffering beyond human imagination. God knows this; comprehends. Sonderegger’s account of Moses’ encounter with the Living God – I AM THAT I AM – in the Burning Bush, recalls the utter magnitude of the fullness of God, that consumes all that negates God. In the Fullness of Time, when all comes at last into the presence of the Fullness of God, then all dross will burn away, will be no more.

To affirm this is to affirm the ultimate goodness and truth of the Fullness of God.

As we gather for Eucharist, we know that in him all evil is embraced by God, comprehended by a power that is greater than anything evil can do, for that power is love.

All our mundane time revolves around this Eucharist moment. This moment that takes us to the heart of everything, where we are embraced within the heart of God. At that moment we enter the fullness of God, we are held in everlasting arms, surrounded, comprehended in love, our dross and sin judged and burned away.

In that moment of fullness we know the fullness of time, which is realised once and for all in Jesus Christ. It was realised in his birth, life, death and resurrection. It is realised again, and again, in Eucharist. All life revolves around this reality.

And because we know the fullness of God’s superabundant grace and love at that moment, we can also know that all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

This Advent – as we contemplate the post-liberal, post-truth world in which we now live – let us hold fast that central Advent hope that the truth and reality of the fullness of God is realised in Jesus Christ. We are caught up into that truth and reality whenever we gather in Eucharist, whenever we are the Church worshipping, and receiving the real presence of Christ, in word and sacrament. This is the true reality, the ultimate truth. This is the reality that is God’s love, in which all things, all time is redeemed and finds fulfilment. This is the fullness of time, already realised in Christ, and God’s gift to us, now in this moment, and for evermore.

Frances Ward is Dean of St Edmunsbury, in the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.

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  • Nicholas Henderson says:

    A nice traditional try at Advent but she’s a bit late. The post-truth, truth is that the Church has engaged in inculturation and Advent is now the new Christmas. These days Christmas is celebrated in the anticipation, which occupies most of the season in carol services by candlelight, Christingle services, pre Christmas Nine Lessons and Carols and so on. There’s not much penitential about Advent any more.

    Dean Frances would have done better to have written this piece for the Kingdom Season, which to my way of thinking is far more penitential and in effect the new Advent. That’s the truth.

  • Pam says:

    Before post-truth became a word in the Oxford Dictionary, John Henry Newman noted in an Advent sermon that this time is “a season for chastened hearts and religious eyes; for severe thoughts, and austere resolves, and charitable deeds; a season for remembering what we are and what we shall be. Let us go out to meet him with contrite and expectant hearts” Do times really change?

  • John Bunyan says:

    I am not unintelligent but with all due respect to the Dean, I find most of this unintelligible and suspect that the man and woman in the pew, let alone the man and woman in the street, would find it the same, and those who experience evil or pain or suffering would hardly find it of any comfort.

  • Jeremy says:

    “we can also know that all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”


    I try to have faith; I try to hope.

    But faith and hope are not knowledge.

    Certainly not knowledge that things in this world will be well. Too often in history, they have quite verifiably not been.

  • Steve says:

    I thought Frances Ward’s comments on evil were interesting. Incidentally, I’ve never heard a convincing explanation for the presence of evil along with the existence of a benevolent God. Perhaps that’s why I remain an agnostic.

  • Daniel Lamont says:

    Wow, John Bunyan, your comment strikes me as both unfair and excessive. I had little difficulty in following Dean Frances’ post which I found illuminating and helpful. Surely what she has written takes into account the particular readership of ‘Thinking Anglicans’ and can reasonably assume a reasonable level of theological sophistication. It isn’t aimed at the person in the street or the average churchgoer. Dean Frances’ post is no more obscure than some of the blog entries elsewhere that we are linked into. I would hate entries on this site to be dumbed down.

  • James Byron says:

    John, “the man and woman in the pew” (in those churches that haven’t ripped ’em out) are diverse. I doubt most would have any trouble with this.

    Not believing in the personal god of ancient theism, I don’t agree with it, but Ward puts her POV over clearly and plainly.

  • rjb says:

    I actually thought this was excellent and very well-written. If I have a niggle it might be the use of ‘post-liberal’ in the last paragraph, but perhaps I’m still a bit vexed by Linda Woodhead’s recent (and rather baffling) volley against “angry post-liberal side-swipes” in Anglican theology. Me-ow.

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