Countdown to Advent

You read that right: countdown to Advent, not Christmas. On Saturday evening, when we sing or say First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent, we shall enter upon what is, for many of us, the best-loved season of the liturgical year, shot through with silence and mystery and Old Testament prophecy as we await the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. The haunting chants of Advent are unforgettable, and as we sing them out into the darkness, hope is reaffirmed. Whatever difficulty we face, whatever loss we experience, we know that God’s love embraces us all. We may not feel it; we may indeed doubt it; but it is there.

Advent allows us to trace the lineaments of his love through what scripture scholars call, a little glibly I sometimes think, salvation history. This year, with Advent beginning in lockdown and several cautions in place about what we may or may not do once the severest restrictions are eased, may I suggest that a good way of preparing for Christmas would be to reflect on our own personal ‘salvation history’? Often we are so busy that we do not have time to note how God has been at work in our lives, or we feel so battered and bruised by negative events that we choose not to dwell on them. The unusual circumstances in which we find ourselves this year may give us a little more time, certainly a different kind of time, in which to do some thinking and praying.

Regular readers know I am no great fan of setting oneself an elaborate programme for Advent. If you can read the daily Mass lessons and find time to say part of the Divine Office to connect with the prayer of the Church throughout the world, you are doing well. If you do a search on this blog, you will find various posts about Advent; and if you go over to our main website, you will find something on the history and traditions of Advent here: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/advent.html
You will also find great riches available to you on the web — more than ever this year.

The important thing to grasp is that Advent is a time of preparation, a precious time leading to Christmas but not yet Christmas itself. We have only a few short weeks and we do not need to cram them with activity, no matter how good that activity may seem. I myself draw inspiration from the darkness of our Herefordshire skies. It is the blackness that enables us to see the beauty of the moon and stars. Without that large emptiness, we would barely register the dazzling pin-pricks of light in the night sky. Without Advent, and its own special emptiness, we might barely register the glory of the Incarnation at Christmas. Let’s try to make the most of it.

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The Advent Call to Integrity

We begin the Church’s new year at a time when the earth is dark, quiet, strangely still, and we are asked to open our hearts and minds to embrace a silence that stretches beyond the furthest star — the silence in which the Word of God takes flesh and comes to live among us.

On this first Sunday of Advent the Mass readings put before us the pre-conditions that the incarnation of the Word in our lives requires: they can be summed up as living with integrity. Jeremiah makes clear, however, that this integrity is not something we attain by our own efforts. It comes to us as sheer gift: the Lord is our integrity (Jeremiah 33.16). In 1 Thessalonians 3, Paul spells out what the practical effect of this integrity must be, and his prayer is that we may be not merely loving but that the Lord may be generous in increasing our love. That is something to trip over. Our love mirrors that of God — what a privilege — but it is God who is the generous one! How else are we to be blameless in his sight? What can we give that we haven’t already received? The gospel, taken from Luke 21, reminds us that Advent is a time of anticipation. It is easy to forget that we have an eschatalogical hope, that we are indeed awaiting the end of the world as we know it and the coming reign of God. What makes sense if life is for this world only — self-indulgence, planning for a future which may never come (‘the cares of life’) — makes no sense at all once we are plunged into eternity.

St Benedict lived at a time when the old order was visibly dissolving. That is one reason why his Rule is concerned with establishing a pattern of living which is what we might call today counter-cultural. He demands the utmost integrity of his disciples at both the personal and the institutional level. A good exercise for Advent is to read through the Rule noting this theme and seeing how it corresponds to our own lives. For those who would like to know a little more about Advent itself, there are a few notes on our main website, http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/advent.html (smartphone users, see here).Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail