Advent Sunday ~ Eschatological Escapings
One can always tell Christmas is coming when complete strangers talk to Vicars unprompted. When I got off the bus the other day another man who was getting off saw my dog collar and said, ‘Big G’s having a hard time at the moment isn’t he?’. Assuming he was referring to events in Paris, Syria and so on, I said that these were indeed difficult times. Earlier on the same journey back from the Big Smoke, I had been travelling on a very busy tube train during the rush hour, and the lady against whom I was being crushed had turned to me and said ‘It must be your busy time now’. ‘Yes’ I said, ‘but I wouldn’t have it any other way’. We talked a little and she said she was from Forest Hill in South London. Given that we were heading north on the Victoria Line towards Finsbury Park I said, ‘I think you’re going in the wrong direction’. She got off at the next stop. I shall never know whether she didn’t realize she was on the wrong train, or was planning to get off anyway. But it did make me wonder whether it is the clergyman’s lot to tell people they are going in the wrong direction as we approach Christmas!
Perhaps you, like me are reminded of the famous Alan Bennett monologue from ‘Beyond the Fringe’ in which he writes:
As I was on my way here tonight, I arrived at the station and by an oversight I happened to go out by the way one is supposed to come in. As I was going out, an employee of the railway company hailed me, 'Hey Jack!' he shouted, 'Where do you think you're going?' That, at any rate, was the gist of what he said! But you know, I was grateful to him because, you see, he put me in mind of the kind of question I felt I ought to be asking you here tonight: 'Where do you think you're going?'
Alan Bennett is very much de rigeur at the moment of course, what with the Dowager Empress of Downton Abbey – national treasure Maggi Smith - having downgraded to become ‘The Lady in the Van’. Perhaps you have seen that film.
But whether you live in a van on someone’s front drive, or in a grand country residence with servants, the question remains the same – ‘where are you heading?’ Or are we heading in the wrong direction. If one is on the Victoria Line heading north, then getting somewhere south of the river is not going to be easy. As the famous Cornish story has it – when the man is asked for directions, he replies, ‘well I wouldn’t start from here’.
Yet, spiritually speaking, this month we are on a journey – two journeys in fact, simultaneously. We are, especially since ‘Black Friday’, on the helter-skelter downward curve of the ‘run up to Christmas’. Yes – it is a paradox of going uphill on a downward journey, because it races away as we gain momentum, but it is hard work isn’t it?! And also, of course – some of us are trying hard to cling onto a different escalator gently bearing us through a more sedate journey through the reflective, flickering lights of Advent. The Christmas ski slope whizzes us past bright lights as we reach out to grab whatever we can to fill our boots and stockings with, while the Advent journey is a darker one, with unlit recesses and four candles of hope punctuating and guiding the way with a great light, not so much upon us, but drawing us closer to that great O at the end of the tunnel.
It would be odd to ask, which journey are you on?, because, even if we try to walk the calmer, spiritually atmospheric journey of Advent, we are also being hauled – even against our will - along that fast-moving downward department store escalator of Christmas escapism. So we are on two journeys at once, and we are actually travelling in opposite directions simultaneously. No wonder we are torn apart in December!
For as Advent begins, we are trying not to focus on ‘the run up to Christmas’, the First Coming of our Lord, but rather on the Second Coming of the Lord’, the Four Last Things, the end of Time, the End of the World’, however you want to put it. The Greek New Testament calls it the ‘parousia’, the study of which is very grandly called ‘eschatology’. This has nothing to do with escaping from chained up underwater cages with a few sharks gnawing through a fuse which will blow the whole thing up in 25 seconds’ time: that’s escapology! And escapology is the very opposite of eschatology. Escapism is what Christmas has become. Eschatology is about what it all really means and where it points us. And that often gets lost in the pile of mince pies and Christmas cheer. Christmas is a cheerful time – of course – with good reason. But Advent, isn’t. And Advent is about realism, rather than culturally normative platitudinous goodwill.
Advent is about the end of the world, about the darkness that nearly overwhelms our world, about what will happen now, soon and hereafter. Advent is for prophecy not party. Advent is for fear, not fun. Advent is for eschatology, not escapology.
On this Advent Sunday, our gospel reading – indeed all three readings today, focus on these Advent values. Jeremiah tells his fellows that in spite of the disasters that have befallen them at the hands of their enemies, there is hope. Jerusalem shall be safe and a saviour, a Messiah will come: that’s Jesus. Here is the Old Testament predicting – prophesying the New Testament. It’s no party, but there is hope.
And then Paul, writing to the people of Thessaloniki, still a city in Northern Greece, prays for his friends there, and draws on a shared hope, that the Lord Jesus is coming back. Did you know that you can buy a T Shirt with the slogan on it: ‘Jesus is coming, look busy’. Well, that is sort of what Paul is saying to the Thessalonians. But this is not just a bit of fun, there is a fear built in.
And then Jesus gives us a good bit of doom-mongering to chew on: ‘Look! the Son of Man will come with clouds descending’, to paraphrase what we sang. Be afraid, be very afraid. Or as the scouts might put it: ‘Be prepared, be very prepared’. And Jesus tells the story of the fig tree, a tree which, like many others then and now, tells us what the season is simply by what happens to it. Leaves fall - it is Autumn or even, ‘Fall’, as the Black Friday folk might call it on the other side of the Atlantic. Or when the shoots appear, summer is I-cummen in.
But let’s not overlook what Jesus means. He means that just as these are signs that prefigure what follows, so are the terrible signs in the world around us, prefigurings of what is to come. In a week when decisions are to be made about whether we effectively go to war again in the middle east, the whole issue is grounded on observation of the signs around, readings of the present time, and an attempt to decide what the implications and consequences of any particular action might or will be. Internationally we live on a huge chessboard in a game that has no ending. Except it does have an ending, and its ending is actually what eschatology is all about. For not only will our earthly lives end, inevitably, the earth’s life will end too. And we have no idea when. We assume it will not be this week or even next year. But the fact is we do not know. We are in the realm of supposing and prophecy, and so Jesus’ words are not as wacky as they may seem. For just as we read the leaves on the trees, we need to read our times. Of course we have no or very little control, so the important thing is to be prepared – to be very prepared – to meet our maker. And to be afraid, to be very afraid – of the shaking of the earth. Who wouldn’t be? And to be afraid of the shaking of the earth is not something alien and weird, for there are many people still alive who can remember what it is like to live in constant fear of nuclear conflagration – to live almost with the view that it would happen, wondering not if, but when.
This is perhaps why Christmas has become our escapist season, and why that is so ironic, as its being so, neatly avoids the realities of deep, dark, menacing Advent. No surprise then that many are are whizzing off in the wrong direction as we approach Christmas, and in fact, escapology is what we crave instead of eschatology. Because Christmas does give us an opportunity to be escapist – to pretend the world is other than it is, to promote ‘goodwill and peace’, to pretend that all is well when it isn’t. And when it is a full tilt race to the finishing line of Christmas Day, eating as many mince pies, singing as many carols and buying as many presents as one can’t really afford on the way, it really is, ‘Ready, Steady… Christmas!!!’
It sounds like a race, and for some of us, it is! One might be forgiven for behaving like a car waiting at a set of traffic lights ready to zoom off into the distance. That’s December! And those three colours carry, as any driver will know, a set of meaningful instructions: Ignore them at your peril!
Yet it’s no bad thing to slow down at this time of year to plan and pace oneself for the time to come. And to reflect on the traffic lights ahead, and to maybe impose one’s own speed limit, even if everyone else is rushing forward on the late autumnal autobahn.
For those same three colours are quite significant at Christmas and can be viewed in a very different way. You will see them a lot: the combination of the three adorning many a Christmas tree for they are the basic colours of many decorations.
They are the traditional colours of the Christmas season: Red for the blood of Jesus who died on the cross to save us from our sins. Amber for Jesus the light of the world, our guide, hope and power. Green, a reminder that through Jesus we have (evergreen) hope of resurrection to eternal life.
It is this hope that Advent lays before us, glimmering like one, two or three or even four candles in the darkness of this passing age, forming a great ‘O’ prefiguring and surrounding the one that will be lit as our journey arrives at the white, Christmas Candle which proclaims in its perfect, pure white light: Emmanuel - God is with us – Jesus is here!
So may your journey through December not be too hectic, may it be fruitful and reflective, and may you have time to consider the direction in which you are travelling, such that whether you are involved in eschatology or escapology, it is all lit by the enduring and loving light of Christ. Amen.
The Reverend Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 29/11/15