It is one of the familiar moans of priests, that Christmas starts too early. We probably all get a bit fed up with Sainsbury’s re-doing their seasonal aisle immediately after Halloween. But there is deeper grouchiness about celebrating the 25 days of Christmas. Not only are we generally so weary of Christmas by the time we get to boxing day, that we forget there is another twelve days of Christmas to go, we also tend to neglect the great season of the church’s year that takes up the bulk of December, Advent.
Advent is the part of the Christian year where we remember the longing of God’s people, that God’s justice would be seen in all the world, and the readings and liturgy of Advent echo this. They start at the beginning of December with great Apocalyptic scenes where God breaks into the course of human history, establishing justice, equity and peace. This is the God which we picture when we cry ‘why?’ ‘Why is there so much suffering, evil, greed, oppression. God, won’t you come and do something about it.’ That cry for God to act is something which we all make, at least occasionally.
These feelings are expressed in great Advent hymns. Take ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’, for instance , a Nineteenth century translation of a Twelfth century hymn Veni Emmanuel which was itself a versified version of what are now known as the Great ‘O’ antiphons of Advent, dating back probably to the Sixth century. The Antiphons are a series of short songs traditionally sung by monks during their evening prayers over the seven nights before Christmas Eve. Unlike the well-known customs of advent wreaths and calendars (which both tend to make Advent a mere prelude to Christmas), the Advent antiphons focus our attention on the longing of God’s ancient people for the coming of the Messiah, and also the Christian longing for the second coming of Christ in majesty at the end of time. They help us remember that the Church lives in an in-between time; the gap between Christ’s coming as the baby of Bethlehem when salvation dawned, and the final victory of God over all the powers of darkness.
O Come O Come Emmanuel
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God Appear.
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
Stirring stuff. But as Advent progresses, we move from scenes of apocalyptic judgement, where God breaks in and disrupts the course of human history, to more tender scenes, of Mary offering her life to God as the means by which the ancient promise would be fulfilled. It is easy to think when we read such stories at the end of Advent that we are simply shifting gear from the apocalyptic in-breaking of God to getting ready for the homely stories of Christmas. But nothing could be further from the truth. Focussing on the Blessed Virgin reminds us that the divine in-breaking of Advent, God’s purposes of justice, mercy and peace for his world, start in our hearts, with a visitation, with a messenger who summons us to open our lives to God. God’s coming is always heralded with a humble human prayer: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”