Advent is the time when we wait in joyful hope for the Christ child to be born. It is not just a time of waiting about for something to happen – it is meant to be a time of preparation. Yet I don’t think I’m the only one who often feels distinctly unprepared at this time of the year. Maybe, like me, you haven’t finished your Christmas shopping, haven’t got a meal plan together that will meet everyone’s special needs, and don’t feel quite prepared emotionally for big family events? Perhaps it is accentuated in the southern hemisphere where it is the end of the year and most of us are more than ready for a summer holiday? Some years it can feel like Christmas is rushing towards me, ready or not. Or it may not feel like Christmas is coming at all.
Recently Pope Francis said, “We are close to Christmas: there will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war. The world has not understood the way of peace” (Homily 19 November 2015). He said our celebration was like a charade, prompting one publication to ask if the Pope was “calling off Christmas”. Social media has not been slow either in pointing to the irony of celebrating the birth of Jesus while many thousands of desperate families from the Middle East are finding that there is no room at the inn for them either. We are turning Jesus away today. I think this was my favourite meme
It is not lights, and trees and parties that we need to prepare, but our hearts. The first week of Advent is a time to nurture hope. Are we ready for hope to be born in us and through us into our world? In the wake of acts of terror we can feel impatient to impose ‘solutions’ – which are perhaps really revenge – by force. Sometimes it is hard to wait on and place hope in the slower, deeper ways of nonviolence. Confronted with massive suffering it can be hard to hope. We can feel so overwhelmed and powerless – hopeless – that we withdraw into indifference. We can even question the existence of a good God.
Writing about pastoral responses to evil in Raging with Compassion, John Swinton suggests that our response, like that of the Early Christian community, should be Christological and eschatological. Our response should be focused on the path of Jesus, and accept that God’s work of redemption is in progress and will not be complete until the fullness of time. He highlights the redemptive practices of lament, forgiveness, thoughtfulness and friendship as ways of resisting evil. All of these ways of participating in the redemptive mission of God express hope.
Our lament, gives voice to pain and suffering, declares that things are not right, and calls us to actively build up the Reign of God. Our efforts to turn away from revenge and the demonization of wrong doers are an expression of trust in God’s redemptive love. By our thoughtfulness and constant attention to what is good in the world, we help to build it up. When we offer friendship we recognise one another as children of God, and build right relationships. Through hope we place our trust in God’s promises – Jesus came that we should have life to the full. Hope stops us from becoming discouraged, it directs our efforts to the Reign of God, which is already and not yet, and it opens our hearts to the goodness of God in the face of evil.
As we reflect on our lives and our world during Advent, can we see small signs of hope? Can we name and give thanks for the people and events in the world that show us that suffering and evil are not the only reality and will not have the last word? We wait in hope for Christ to enter our lives each day. We prepare by being attentive to God’s presence, to the Reign of God already begun, and to working towards its fulfilment.