Advent Fire and the Ballot-Box


The second Sunday of Advent’s Mass readings are anything but cosy. We are confronted with fire — the fire of the prophet Isaiah with his yearning for integrity and justice, and the fire of John the Baptist with his passionate call for repentance and conversion of heart (cf Isaiah 11. 1–10; Matthew 3. 1–12). As the U.K. General Election draws near, it is impossible not to reflect whether/how that fire informs our own decision about voting.

There are those who have told me in no uncertain terms that I should avoid all mention of politics in my blog. If, by that, they mean that I should never voice an opinion with which they disagree, they will be sorely disappointed. I regularly disagree with myself! If, however, they mean that some subjects are not suitable material for reflection, I can only urge them to read the scriptures more thoroughly and consider whether our conduct is meant to be influenced by what we read. For the truth is, the texts put before us today are an unmistakable call to action. They demand a response, just as the person of Jesus Christ demands a response. Are we going to seek justice and integrity or not? Are we going to try to produce good fruit or are we not? When we vote, will we vote in what we think are our own interests or will we heed the warnings of John the Baptist and of the prophet?

This Sunday may be the last day many of us have leisure to think through and pray about the choice we must make on Thursday. For some there is the temptation to opt out of voting, on the grounds that no candidate or party seems to measure up to the situation facing us. While that is understandable it has the effect of placing a heavier burden on those who do vote. What no one can deny is that the outcome of Thursday’s vote is going to have long-lasting consequences.

Fire destroys, but it also cleanses. Perhaps this Sunday we each need to allow the fire of the Holy Spirit to burn away whatever is selfish or self-serving in ourselves that we may play our part in bringing about the age of peace and goodwill we shall sing about at Christmas. The ballot-box, too, can be a vehicle of grace — if we consent to make it so.


Living Advent When Everyone Else is Celebrating Xmas

This is the time of year when many clergy remind their congregations that Christmas does not begin until Christmas Day. We are celebrating Advent, they say, a time of waiting and preparation. Beware the tinsel and tawdry of the commercial Xmas being celebrated all around; defy those who would wish us ‘Happy Holidays’; be glum, O citizens of heaven to come. In other words, either retreat to a monastery or a desert island, or show yourself to be exactly what non-Christians tend to think of us as being: party-poopers, bubble-busters, withered old prunes. It’s difficult to square that with the joy that informs every moment of Advent. We are waiting, but with a glad knowledge that our hope will be fulfilled. Our silence is luminous, our darkness shot through with diamond-points of light. How can a ‘bah humbug’ response to those who don’t quite ‘get’ what Advent is lead anyone to want to discover for him/herself what we mean by the coming of salvation?

Today the Church sets before us Isaiah 11. 1–10. Every year I find something new in it to ponder. This morning I was struck by how often the prophet refers to wisdom, insight, and right judgement. That, surely, is the clue to living Advent while everyone around us appears to be celebrating the strange feast of Xmas. We don’t need to decry the commercialism or the shallowness. They should act as a spur to our prayer that all may come to know and love the Lord. We can, and should, continue to ponder the scriptures and prepare ourselves for the coming of the great King. Nothing that happens outside us can really affect what goes on within. So, accept the mulled wine and mince pies, out of season though they be, smile at the fake snow and the hideous jazzed up rhythms of piped carols; be anything but a moaner and a grumblepot. No one will know that we live by a different calendar; but they will know that we are joyful, with a joy that cannot be taken from us. In the words of today’s gospel, Luke 10.21-24, ‘Happy the eyes that see what you see, for I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see, and never saw it; to hear what you hear, and never heard it.’ Happy — blessed — indeed!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

As the Waters Swell the Sea

The Second Sunday of Advent pulls us up short. No time now for any more dithering. We have Isaiah warning that the word of the Lord is ‘a rod to strike the ruthless’ and John the Baptist baptising with water but threatening fire to those who prove to be no more than chaff. Meanwhile we sit comfortably with our commentaries and talk complacently about the end times and the eschatalogical hope expressed in the Advent liturgy. We forget that ‘the end times’ are now, as everything the liturgy celebrates is now. We already tread the holy mountain that is the privileged meeting-place between God and human beings, for all the earth has been sanctified and every step we take is on holy ground. The winnowing-fan is already applied to us, to sift through the secret motives of our hearts and minds, and John’s urgent call to repentance has resounded again and again in our ears. But what is our response?

I think many of us would admit that our response is, at best, a little half-hearted. We read Isaiah and are enthusiastic about its messianic vision, but we are not quite so enthusiastic about doing what is necessary to realise it. When we pray for peace, we pray for the wolf to change, as though he could cease to be a meat-eater and somehow become a grass-nibbler; or, we’ll pray for the lamb to change, as though she could become a predator and instil fear in other animals. We forget that both must learn to live together, in mutual trust and respect. We like the idea of being ‘filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea’ but we shy away from too close a contact with this strange and terrible God who dwells in fire and flame and whose holiness is utterly other; and yet . . . and yet we are drawn by his tenderness and compassion and end up as confused as John’s hearers, whom he called a brood of vipers but who, far from turning an adder’s deaf ear, longed to hear more. We must prepare a way for the Lord in our hearts, but how?

The answer to that question is very simple. We answer it every night at Compline when we look back on the day’s doings and ask ourselves, ‘What have I wanted today? Where has my desire  been?’ The haunting beauty of the Advent liturgy, all its fine phrases, its plangent music, avails us nothing if it does not lead to that moment of choice, when we choose to be converted, to seek Christ — as he is, and not as we would like him to be. The reality of God must burst in upon us as the sea rushes into a cove. That is what it means to be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea, to be God’s pure wheat safely gathered into his barn.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail