When you're near
I don’t much like the celebration of New Year, with its mixture of late night, enforced jollity, and a certain nervousness about what is to come. But while I may have mixed feelings about January 1st, I have no such feelings about the church’s New Year, which begins – as you know – on Sunday.
But I probably should have mixed feelings. After all, the real themes of Advent are nothing much to do with opening doors on an Advent calendar and eating chocolate (though I gather there are some good ones now with 24 juniper-based possibilities). No: the big themes of the season are about Christ’s second coming, not his first. The so-called Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell – dominated the season to begin with (which was originally of a similar length to Lent). Over time, a tendency developed to concentrate on scriptures that spoke of the first coming of the Messiah, more than the second coming: and the rest, as they say, is (liturgical) history.
Mixed feelings on my part give way to all the things I love about Advent – which is mostly the music. The beautiful antiphons we will hear sung on Sunday evening; the glorious Advent hymns which are undoubtedly the best of the year; the liturgical texts and their unbounded richness. What makes all this stuff work, spiritually and emotionally, is the godly tension of light and dark, anticipation and resolution. Cole Porter wrote ‘there’s no love song finer, but how strange the change from major to minor’. Advent turns that on its head. This may indeed be strange, but it’s a change that goes from minor to major. Another great American lyricist wrote, ‘Could it be? Yes it could! Something’s coming. Something good’. If Sondheim and Bernstein had written ‘someone’s coming’, they would have produced the perfect Advent introit.
Some vicars get a bit grumpy about Advent, and hide the tinsel until December 24th, and mutter dark phrases when they spot the mince pies and stollen in supermarkets in August. I think life’s rather too short for that (another reality that Advent points towards). No: let’s not worry about people getting excited and happy about something to celebrate just around the corner.
What we might better spend our time doing is using the season with wisdom to meditate on those Four Last Things: to wonder, without fearfulness, about what it truly means when we say
Christ has died,
Christ is risen,
Christ will come again.
And if we’re so used to the last four words of that response that they don’t make the hairs stand up on the back of our necks, then perhaps a dose of mixed feelings may be just what we need.