Advent has been trivialised as the Santa-says-buy-and-buy-more season, the time for end of year parties, and exuberant feasting. It is the time when Christmas carols blare out from every shop and oxymoronic non-religious Christmas symbols festoon the streets. It is the time when children wait for presents, employees wait for holidays, and many wait for it all to be over. It is a time of stress – for some monetarily, for some in the expectation of family get-togethers, for some in the flood of powerful and grief-producing memories that come with Christmas.
If Advent is about anticipation then there is a lot it around, for good and for ill. If Advent is about preparation then there is much planning, worrying, and buying to do. If Advent is about hope, then many are hoping it will soon be over.
For me Advent has little to do with our cultural appropriation of Christmas. Rather the anticipation of Advent is the deep longing for an end to poverty, abuse, isolation, enmity and despair. It is the longing for help and hope.
The hymns and readings of Advent speak of destruction, pain, and the hope of a divine rescuer swooping in from somewhere above the clouds. This rescuer will sort out the good from the bad, the “wheat from the chaff”, rewarding the former and barbequing the latter. The super saviour has long been the hope of communities weighed down and oppressed by savage governments and their policies.
While destruction, pain, and oppression are unfortunately a part of our global reality, a spaceman saviour is not. We know that, despite our wishes and projections, hope doesn’t come from off the planet. Hope has to be found in our here and now. It has to be worked for, discovered, accepted, and developed. This does not mean that God doesn’t exist, as some would maintain, but rather that God is located within our experience, our struggles, our communities, and our hearts.
Christians believe that God is love. We believe that permeating our lives, our land, our communities, and all that is beyond us there is a powerful love that can touch our lives. That love is on our side, is for us, and can hold us. That love reaches out to us in a neighbour’s smile, the strident concerns of a protester, the smooch of a cat, and in a government handout. It comes in a myriad of ways. Just like hope.
That love called God is also within us. We are sacred, blest, and loved. The Holy Spirit of love is within us, like a seed waiting to grow and flourish. Even in the angriest person, the most arrogant businessman, or the worst murderer, there is a holy seed of love waiting. Just like hope.
Joy Cowley’s version of the Magnificat picks up this notion of the seed within us, coming to birth. ‘The light of the Holy One is within us.’ We don’t have to search in holy places around the world, or in the scriptures and traditions of faiths, or in the worship practices and prayers of believers. No, it is within us. That is the place to look. Places, books, and practices are simply aids for us in that quest.
The quest is often a lonely one though. It is good to be with others and feel their strength. It is good to worship, pray, eat, and laugh together. These things strengthen us and help us to re-focus on our quest for hope. Most helpful of all though is someone to believe in us. Someone who believes that despite all the crap that we dish out, all the screw-ups we’ve made, all the people we’ve hurt, there is within us something beautiful, something holy, and something precious.
I wrote recently: “Poverty by means of the cocktail of anxiety, violence, and depression can destroy the spiritual heart. Escaping poverty involves more than having money, though money helps. Critical to escaping is having a friend who believes in you.”
Money can be a source of hope to those in poverty. Programmes to assist people to find meaningful work and support are very important, as is practical and financial assistance. But to journey out of poverty there are two things more critical. One is having someone who believes in you. The other is believing in yourself.
Hope is not a mental exercise. We don’t in our misery sit down on a rock and decide that we are going to be hope-filled. Rather hope is the result of a combination of encounters with others, our personal receptivity, and our awareness of the spiritual power of love that infuses all of life.
I wrote sometime ago in SMACA, our online magazine, about Joe, a 14 year old who slept in a car up the street and scavenged during the day. A friend and I invited him to sleep on our couch, and thus invited him into our lives. Somehow, sometime, in those years on the couch something changed. The seed was probably always there. I remember the milestones: getting his driver’s licence, attending Outward Bound, getting his heavy truck licence, leading a youth group, and becoming a gym instructor. The physical support things made a difference – a bed, food, and the like. But more importantly it was the friendship that helped him. We believed in him and it helped him believe in himself.
Self-belief doesn’t just happen. Although there is a seed within us, divinely planted, that seed needs fertile or fertilised ground. It needs to be watered and nurtured. In a person who has been raised in an environment of anxiety, violence, and depression that seed often is so shrivelled it is as if it doesn’t exist. Indeed to find it you have to go digging. This is what Advent theme of ‘preparation’ means. It means tending the hope-filled seeds within so people can flourish.
The tending process is done in a myriad of ways. Firstly the person concerned has to be receptive. Watering a seed that has a concrete covering will not be effective. Secondly the person needs all those little moments of support and love – that environment that gives praise, honour, and thanks. Church at its best is one of those environments. Thirdly the person needs someone who knows them and believes in them. This is what a friend is. Lastly the seed will only grow to its potential if it becomes aware of the deep stream of love that interlinks all life. A stream that I call God.
I listened to a man the other day who in his early twenties came to the point of utter despair. He was ready to take his own life. He had been deeply betrayed and pain was so great he would do anything to end it. He fell asleep. In his sleep he experienced the voice of what he later called God telling him he was loved. He awoke and turned his life around.
There is love all around, yet we don’t let it nurture us. It doesn’t seem to seep through the prison in which that shrivelled seed is dying. It stays removed from us. In his sleep that man reached out subconsciously for what he needed, took hold of it, and let it transform his life. In his sleep the power of love, God, which is like a deep stream in our deserts reached out to him and gave him what he needed.
This Advent let us work for and build hope. Let us prepare for Christmas not by shopping but by tending the hope-filled seeds within each other. Let us anticipate the coming of Christ by opening our eyes to the Christ growing within everyone of us. Let us long together for the day when we will believe in each other, believe in ourselves, and justice and healing will flow in and through all communities and nations. Let us acknowledge that at the heart of our universe there is a power of love that reaches out to us, believes in us, and sustains us. And that power is God.