When I was a child I remember looking forward with great excitement to my grandparents coming to visit. We didn’t see my grandparents – who I called Nana and Bampa (because when I was little I couldn’t pronounce grandpa) – very often, because we lived in Marlow and they lived in Blackburn; a distance of just over 200 miles. On the day when my grandparents were due to arrive I would go and sit in the lounge, by the window, and simply sit and wait; sometimes for what felt like hours on end. Of course when I saw their car turn into the drive I would then run with excitement to the front door.
This little story, vignette, in some ways illustrates the season of Advent; the season in which we are asked to learn the art of watching and waiting, in stillness and quietness, so that come Christmas day we are able to run with excitement to greet our Lord and Saviour. But, of course when we greet our Lord and Saviour it is with the intention that we will then, from henceforth, in the words of Isaiah, continue to ‘walk in the light of the Lord.’
There is, I think, a misplaced perception that the season of Advent is simply a precursor to Christmas. It is for sure the season that both kicks off the Church’s New Year and leads us into the wonder and majesty of Christmas – there is no denying this – but maybe it’s so much more than this? Maybe Advent is the season that sets us off on a journey that only ends when we see our Lord face-to- face? Maybe Advent is the season that sets us up for the encounter that is to have no end? You see when my grandparents came to visit they always left after a few days but when we invite Jesus into our midst he sticks around. My grandparents had to leave in order to return to their work – Bampa was a printer – whilst Jesus' work is to be God with us, and God for us; the God who never leaves.
In the business of life it is very easy indeed to ignore God, to fail to see or perceive God, for the very simple reason that God doesn’t force his way in. God doesn’t want to be the unwelcome house guest who arrives at an inconvenient time and leaves at an even more inconvenient time. God simply wants to be the enduring presence; the relationship and the strength that resides within our very hearts; that’s what God wants to be.
Our Advent-tide job, or vocation, is to ‘ready’ ourselves to greet God and be inhabited by God, for as the gospel makes clear our hearts are going to be captured and our desires are going to be channelled, irrespective, so the only question that remains is what is to be the orientation of our hearts and therefore the purpose and direction of our lives? Are we going to be the sort of people who, in the words of Isaiah ‘go up to the mountain of the Lord.....that he may teach us his ways,’ and where the fruit of our learning is peace, justice and reconciliation – the very things the world so badly needs - or are we going to going to follow a narrower, lazier, easier and yet ultimately less noble path? A path which begins and ends with self? These are Advent questions.
The purpose of Advent is simple and straightforward: it is to prepare and ready our hearts for the greatest, yet least glossy gift of all. The gift that doesn’t come in wrapping paper, but in flesh and blood. The gift that doesn’t depreciate in value but grows in value. The gift that can never be bought, either outright or on credit, but only ever received. The gift of the Christ-child. The gift of the one who invites us to ‘walk, walk in the light of the Lord,’ not just in this world but the world which is to come, for as the Advent Gospel reading reminds us, we are people that live under judgement; divine judgement. Advent asks us to consider whether we want to walk a path which begins and ends with self, or a path which begins and ends with God.
So how do we actually prepare ourselves so that we can see the Messiah when he comes? I can only give three answers and you probably already know what I am going to say: daily prayer (and please do take away and use the Advent prayer cards we have put together), reading the bible, and receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist. I literally know of no other way to prepare my heart to receive Christ.
This Advent we – all of us of us – need to relearn the art of watching and waiting; watching and waiting for the Lord, for the ‘Son of Man is coming.’ May he find us ready and waiting, Amen.