Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.
When people drown in the sea off the Kent coast, there really are people who rejoice in the loss of life, because their sense of what England has been is threatened by desperate human beings who are different from themselves.
And at a much less serious level, nostalgia can cast a golden glow around the past, which can make us all overly uncomfortable with the present and fearful of the future. When I talk to my mother about the 1970’s, for example, we both have to work hard at reminding each other of what it was really like for both of us, and remembering the huge challenges as well as the flashes of good memories which often spontaneously come to the surface.
The run-up to Christmas is a naturally rich season for looking back with a golden glow. We were not a churchy family, so for me the season began with Blue Peter Advent wreath, and I inescapably came to see the weeks before Christmas as a type of countdown period to the great day itself: a day for family and familiar TV programmes on which we could all hope for a few precious parcels under the Christmas tree and, in those days, actual snow.
The church’s season of Advent lands with a crash into such cosiness, if we are paying any attention to it! The end of the world and the uncompromising teaching of John the Baptist overshadow most of it, for a start. One of the readings set for the First Sunday of Advent is from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 51, and is a classic of the good news/bad news genre.
First the bad news.
‘Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath;
For the heavens will vanish like smoke,
And the earth will wear out like a garment,
And those who live on it will die like gnats.’
Now the good news.
‘But God’s salvation will be everlasting, and his salvation will never cease.’
And, whereas in last week’s Gospel we heard John the Baptist announcing that Christ will be coming after him and will make the crooked straight, this week we hear John the Baptist preparing Christ’s way by doing exactly that himself – putting the crooked straight: greeting those who come to him with the words ‘You brood of vipers’ and then telling everyone that real repentance demands a serious shift in the heart. The very first thing that John the Baptist demands of everyone is that if they have two coats, they must give one away to someone who has none, and if they have food they should share it with those who have none.
It is tempting to let our minds skip over these words, especially at a time of year when we might be hoping for yet another coat for ourselves and planning lavish entertainment and consumption. But we can’t unhear them.
One of the traditions of this time of the year is that some clergy and preachers get very grumpy. They complain that no one realises that Advent begins on the First Sunday of Advent and not the first of December; that Advent calendars have been replaced by countdown calendars and are more about confectionary than the nativity; and that no one, especially other churches, or other clergy, or people in the pew, really appreciate or pay any attention to the message of Advent any more, or even know the symbolism of the Advent wreath. Often this culminates in the proclamation to people who have bothered to come to church at Christmas that most of what they cherish about Christmas is beside the point.
I am not sure that any of this carping is useful or wise
The season of Advent is, I would suggest – like the entire Christian Year – a time for a particularly rich kind of nostalgia. That is, if we take nostalgia to be, not just a looking back at an edited past to make sense of the present, or a means to bring comfort and enchantment into our lives – which we so often need — but a looking back to get inspiration and encouragement to brave the present and what is to come.
Our faith is rooted in constant acts of remembering and retelling, of the story of God’s love for the whole of creation and the impact of the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ – from the Beginning to the end of all familiar things. We are remembering and bringing these things to the forefront of our minds whenever we pray or read and think about the Bible, alone or together, and whenever we celebrate the Eucharist or recite the Creed.
The Church Year is an amazingly beautiful and enriching invention; but invention it is, because, in one sense, every day is Christmas, and Easter, and Lent and Advent.
The Church’s seasons provide moments when, in different ways and with various moods, we seek to approach that great mystery of God for the world, and at loose in the world, and present in our lives, on every single day of the year.
When those of us called to preach fail to use our pulpits for wagging fingers we are still sometimes expected to tie up all the loose ends in a neat theological bow, but perhaps our main job is to point to those hanging threads and invite you to follow the one which helps.
So here are three distinctive threads of Advent.
Firstly, that John the Baptist did not just announce Jesus’ coming, nor just baptize him in the river Jordan – which are both marvellous things in themselves and therefore should never be diminished by the word ‘just’ – John was more like the opening movement of a symphony, who in turn drew on a tradition much older. When he challenged the crowd to lives of radical generosity he was re-iterating not only the insights of the Old Testament prophets, but reaching beyond that to the original intentions of God.
The second thread is that, if we were all to take forward to Christmas and into our lives the assurance that all humans have been made for kindness and love, the effect could be astounding. This is how humans were meant to be.
And thirdly and finally, Advent helps us to recall that we, like all humans before us and who will come long after us, are part of a story which has not yet unfolded.
The big misunderstanding that Advent has sometimes led to is that the world is heading towards a brick wall, that everything will unravel tomorrow. But we are for now in the middle of things. There are many reasons to be afraid, but also many things to cherish and draw hope from. That light we celebrate particularly at Christmas – Christ, the Word – is still coming into the world, over and over again, in acts of kindness, words of truth and lives of integrity and courage…the world over.