Advent, by any contemporary experience, is a time of head-long rush. It is the sense of
running down the hillside towards one’s destination, with all too little time to wonder if
one has pressed everything necessary into one’s back-pack. The chief consolation is that
one does it in ample company, with, for example, someone hurtling down the hill beside
you, waving a calendar with chocolates inside.
Yet the season of Advent (and it is useful to think of it boundaried as a season) is not
chiefly structured for this adrenalin-rush of modernity. The word itself comes from the
Latin adventus – a coming, an arrival, usually an important one. Thus we are not talking
about the arrival of a package from Amazon. We mean the arrival of an important person,
(long signalled), someone in whose train we find all the trappings of importance, power,
and influence. Someone who changes thing, makes things happen, brings excitement, and
through whom the colours of life seem brighter, richer. The arrival of a local ruler in the
Greek east of the ancient world or even of the emperor from Rome brought about both an
enormity of preparation in the place visited and the hope of munificence from the visitor.
That was an adventus, or to use the Greek, parousia. It is said that the Queen has never
visited anywhere that hasn’t smelt strongly of fresh paint.
And so we have our word and season of Advent. As such it was well established in the
Church by the 7th century and in the West is the period of four weeks prior to Christmas.
It is a gathering time, a reflective time, a penitential season. It is a season that lends itself
to its physical environment: short days and lengthening nights, to bare trees, to dormant
earth and chill air. For most of the Christian world in which the season developed, there
would be little or no harvest. Activity did not cease, but it did slow down and move in
doors. For those in towns it was a time of wood smoke, fog and coal. Some of you
Londoners may even remember the whiff of Coalite on the air.
This gathering in, this slowing down, this moving past the time of harvest and of
remembrance was given over to the preparation of early winter: accounts, salting,
mending but also to the Church reflecting on the four last things: death, judgement,
heaven, and hell. More latterly, the focus of Advent has been on the arc of salvation,
leaping week by week through our readings an edited history of faith like a mystery cycle:
the patriarchs, the prophets, John the Baptist, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. At each step
getting closer and closer to one for whom we make preparation. The one for whom we
What is the manner of this waiting? It is not the waiting of a hiatus, not the sort of
waiting of a delayed appointment or of a cancelled train, but an eager longing, a
suppressed energy. It is something you want, even if you cannot fully comprehend the
implications of fulfilment. And you have to wait. It cannot be hurried. Like the birth of a
child, it cannot be hurried. Remembering and this sort of active waiting are good mental
Of course, what we are awaiting is the birth of Jesus at Christmas. And we do that via the
patriarchs, prophets, John the Baptist and the story of Mary. We do it by examining who
we are and where we are and what we do and we may do this in their company. It is this
that the frenzy, the shopping, the social round, the third quarter accounts threaten to
occlude. Jesus’ birth in his ancestral home, not his habitual home, because of a far-off
bureaucratic decision prompting numerous mundane decisions around the Roman Empire
to comply, sees glory unveiled in the very stuff of normality. But Advent is not only about
waiting for Jesus to come in vulnerability as an infant at Christmas. It is also about the
ongoing expectation for Jesus to come again in great glory as king and judge. The new
creation beginning with the resurrection awaits its fulfilment. The renewal of heaven and
earth is at hand and all things must be put to rights. Advent is a double expectation (some
say, triple – for Jesus in our hearts). For there will be a second advent. And we are to be
witnesses by preparing for both.
‘Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now
when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your
redemption is drawing near.’ (Luke 21:27-28)
For those of you who like to leaven your preparation with reading, there is a book to help
one through Advent by Paula Gooder, The Meaning in the Waiting (2008) published by
Canterbury Press and which you may find useful.