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In the past, in the days before Judaism and Christianity, for many history was going nowhere. It seemed to be mostly just an endless sequence of days, months and years. The Old Testament prophets discerned the purpose for life in Israel, and eventually for the whole world. Life was not just endless cyclical seasons. We know that our typical winters are unromantically grey and melancholy and all nature seems to withdraw its antennae and shut itself up protectively against the ‘foul rages’ of hurricanes and blizzards. Yet the Church really is the contrast society. Today is the first day of the springtime of the Church’s year the world over. It is a way of saying that history is going somewhere. Christians come to prayer this morning in our western world with a more lively step..the light is not just fading in a secluded chapel on a winter’s afternoon- we are entrusting ourselves to the future. The Bible teaches that life in paradise was blissful until it was destroyed for all by free created human beings- ridiculous as that seems. But by analogy we experience how some people can spoil any party. Someone is not happy; someone ruins it. “Not a happy camper” as the American saying goes. The rest pay the price. But God has made everyone in his own image and likeness, made for love and happiness.
Thinking of Happiness
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, where there is loneliness, and suffering and despair, believers and non-believers alike share an air of happy expectation at this time of the year: How many more shopping days to Christmas? Like Thanksgiving Day in America, all associate the forthcoming celebrations with love and joy, and freedom….humanity at its best. Surely this is one of the major contributions of Christianity to the world. Christians have been portrayed often as negative unhappy people, proclaiming that here in this world we have no abiding city. But Christ was totally involved with the world and all its vicissitudes, taking care of the sick, the lonely, the poor and bringing them happiness here on earth as a sign of eternal happiness in heaven. Is not the promise of resurrection the greatest hope ever offered to the world? Hope is foundational for our existence, saved by hope as Pope Benedict XVI put it (Spe salvi-November 2007). It is hard to live without it. But it is a specifically Judeo-Christian reality. The French Nobel prize winner for literature, Albert Camus wrote with great frankness: As far as I am concerned I shall not try to present myself to you (Christians) as a Christian. I share with you the same horror of evil. But I do not have your hope and I shall continue to fight - against the universe in which children suffer and die…” This death of children he called “the divine reign of terror.” At the beginning of the Church’s New Year we can ask ourselves whether more could be done to relieve him of his despair and enkindle hope in his world. He was killed in a car crash in 1960.
Advent is a time of hope. Looking back on the history of the Church it is not clear when the Advent season was introduced. Late and it began in the East. It was rather like Lent. Fasting was involved- forty days of it in the Oriental tradition. Only three times weekly in the Latin west. And the colours were chosen too, mauve for mourning, with rose for the middle Sunday-Gaudete Sunday- matching the Lenten Laetare Sunday…both Latin words meaning ‘rejoice’. The music was often hauntingly beautiful. We find a helpful explanation from Wikipedia on the meaning of the Advent wreath: Advent wreaths are circular, representing God's infinite love, and are usually made of evergreen leaves, which "represent the hope of eternal life brought by Jesus Christ." Within the Advent wreath are candles that generally represent the four weeks of the Advent season as well as "the light of God coming into the world through the birth of Jesus Christ" although each of the candles has its own significance as well; individually, the candles specifically symbolize the Christian concepts of hope (week one), peace (week two), joy (week three) and love (week four)- in many traditions.
The Faith that God Loves Best
The faith that God loves best is hope, said another Frenchman-Charles Peguy. Hope springs eternal in the human breast-Alexander Pope (An Essay on Man,I,1732). We can make of Advent a time to think of the place that hope plays in our lives. Some people are probably hoping that this sermon will not go on too long!
Do we lurch from hope to hope? Most of us probably spend our lives between memory and hope. We are always looking back, on what we have experienced and looking forward to what we might experience. That is the fascination of history. We just want to know what went before us. As very young students we probably hated history because it was all about politics and wars and economics, but then as we got older we saw that it was all about ourselves. How often in the life of Jesus we heard him say: ‘You have heard it said’. He was constantly reminding his listeners of the tradition they belonged to. But he was also a prophet, and that meant he was always looking forward to what was to come. There is an intrinsic connection between the two dispositions.
Pope Francis has been visiting the worlds of Buddhism and of Islam this last week. He has gone in the name of Christ to preach the doctrine of love and hope for a happier world. What is hope for people suffering every kind of deprivation? The pope sees for himself the dreadful plight of exploited people, and he assures them that they are loved and that they must not give up hope. Happily the Church is massively involved through its members bringing medicine and education wherever it can. It is not just a question of material aid; it is more. Love transcends that. Despair, sadness, joy, loneliness and the sense of exile affect everyone at some time. Only concrete personal encounters help people to believe that present suffering will not go on forever. We all have a part in mediating this message.
A happy Advent to you all. Amen.
Rev Richard J. Taylor.
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK