by David Pattinson
The introduction in Common Worship describes Advent as “a season of expectation and preparation”. John proclaims to the expectant crowds “The one who is more powerful than I is coming”. In the words of the well known advent hymn:-
On Jordan’s bank the Baptist cry
announces that The Lord is nigh
Awake and Hearken….
The rhyme Margaret’s mother quoted for remembering the church seasons begins
“Advent tells us Christ is near.
Christmas tells Christ is here.”
Perhaps there is a sense in which Advent and Christmas are one event. Inevitably, the season joins hands with giving and gifts, not least because we are spending time choosing Christmas presents for loved ones . I just wanted to reflect on two gifts – the gift of the presence of God and the gift of the presence of God’s people.
I can remember when I was at primary school there was a daily register, and when your name was read out the required response was “present miss”. (I’m not sure what the response was when you were absent). The expectation of Advent is not only about our remembering and looking forward to the birth of Jesus but also being awake to His second coming in glory, when God’s kingdom will fill the earth. We might be tempted to think that in the space in between the first and second coming Jesus is a distant figure; not present.
However, we hold in tension together the reality that we wait expectantly for Jesus’ coming, and the reality that Jesus is indeed always present. Jesus’ final words to his disciples are “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” And perhaps what has been reinforced for me is just how close that presence is. As Psalm 139 expresses, there is nowhere that we can be, where God is not. “where can I flee from your presence?” asks the psalmist. And Paul goes further. He expands on the reality that in each human being is the image of God. In a wonderful passage in Colossians, he describes his commission as “to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints,….. which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1;25-27) Note the very small word in, small but massive in meaning.
Two things flow from this closeness of presence. We can sometimes feel that we have to work hard to “come into the presence of God”. That it takes years of practice and dedication. And then we can be beset with times when we feel God has deserted us. But if we acknowledge the reality that Christ is ever present then our emphasis changes. It’s not about what we do, but about our being still – “Be still and know” Psalm 46). I recently read these words “When our consciousness becomes a still mirror, a still lake, a silent reservoir of energy, God is reflected in it.” And even in the difficult times we grasp that God has not left the room, but is still very much – present.
And the second thing is that if the image of God is in every human being, and if the presence of Christ in God’s people is making the transformation to glory, then that reality surely influences the way we conduct all our relations. I think it’s the essence of the parable of the sheep and the goats – the way we relate to each other should be a reflection of how we relate to God, and how God relates to us. It’s hugely challenging. But we are not alone. God is ever present to empower us in His Spirit.
Which brings me to the second gift- the presence of God’s people. Increasingly I realise the obvious – that the Christian faith is about community, not about the individual. You would think this is blindingly obvious. Isaiah opens up this morning’s reading with
“Comfort, O comfort my people says your God.”
We are not 11 verses into Mark’s gospel before God, The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit are introduced into the story. God himself exists in relationship, in community. In my defence, I was brought up with sayings like “God helps those who help themselves”. And the apostles creed in the book of common prayer starts with “I believe”. Common Worship changes that to “We believe”. (One of the most memorable sermons I ever heard was on the way we use personal pronouns – I, We, My, Our., especially in relation to the word church.) I count myself extremely fortunate to have been born into a Christian family; to marry a Christian; to meet some truly lovely Christian people and to experience their support and encouragement. There is great comfort and strength in knowing that as a Christian you are never alone – but challenge too, lest we become self-centred, focused on our own wishes and preferences.
The covid pandemic has been testing. We may well have found ourselves asking “Where is God in all this?” He is present; present in the pain and the grief; present with comfort and joy. To quote the former Archbishop of York in his 2019 advent book “Wake up to Advent”, he suggests we should be “Watching, not with binoculars scanning the horizon, but delighting in the contemplation of the Christ who is forever nearer to us than our breath.”
And lockdown has deprived us of being able to share fully with God’s people. The support and energy of weekly fellowship has been sorely missed. Self isolation has been underscored. But even in solitude we are part of God’s people, members of he body of Christ.
The presence of God and the presence of God’s people – these are gifts for every day and all day.