Yesterday we learned that the number of people in Britain identifying themselves as Christian has fallen, that the most popular search on Google is ‘what is love?’ and that David Cameron has done yet another spectacular fudge on the question of gay marriage. Is there any connection between these and Advent? You won’t be surprised that I think there is.
First, let me say that the Census figures have merely confirmed what we already knew anecdotally, but the way in which the question was framed and its context do not allow one to draw any very helpful conclusions. There is often a mismatch between religious practice and religious identity. There will be some fluttering in church dovecotes and much self-scrutiny about ‘how we get the message across’ but, by and large, we shall not take the advice being so freely handed out to us to modernise — whatever that means in a church context — because we believe that faith draws on different sources. As to Google, we know that religious questions feature quite prominently in its searches, but is ‘what is love?’ any more than a digital doodle, the kind of question one taps into the search panel when bored? As to David Cameron, words fail me: the Erastian idea that politicians set the agenda for the Church would have more force if politicians led more obviously virtuous lives and had more understanding of what they are dealing with. But Advent, how does that fit in?
There is a clue in the first reading at Mass today, Isaiah 40. 25–31. The prophet puts into the mouth of the Holy One a huge question, one to make us stop short: ‘To whom could you liken me and who could be my equal?’ Sometimes, I think we are guilty of thinking of God as no more than super-human, like ourselves only more so. If we could see God as he is in himself for even a moment, I think we would be shocked out of our complacency. Our idea of God is too little! We need to take on board the infinite transcendence of God, the holiness that so affected Isaiah. ‘His understanding is beyond fathoming,’ he says. In other words, we can never know more than God chooses to reveal. Instead, we are called to trust, and trust is an essential element of love. All the statistics in the world cannot measure love. Though Census figures and Google searches may tell us how we think and talk about love, they cannot tell us about love itself. For that reason, I’d say there is simply no way of knowing how many Christians there are in Britain, nor how well they live their faith; there is no way of answering Google’s question, for love must be experienced rather than defined; no way of settling questions of faith by means of law. We are challenged, yes, but not crushed. Our hope comes from elsewhere.
Advent is a time when we reassess our place in the world and the coming reign of God. It is good to remember that we are waiting for a Saviour, since we cannot save ourselves; we are waiting for love to come to the loveless, for it cannot be forced; and for the blessing of justice and peace to be showered on those who know the shortcomings and failures of earthly law. That is the hope that informs our Advent waiting and is the substance of our Advent prayer.