Welcome to the first day of the church new year -Advent Sunday.
You may have noticed that today we change the church colours to purple instead of the more regular green. This is a special Sunday. This is ‘advent’ Sunday, from the Latin word ‘advenio’ meaning ‘coming’. This is the time of year leading up to our remembrance of Christ coming amongst us at Christmas, and this is possibly the only time of year when the ecclesiastical year and the commercial marketing year seem to be roughly in sync!
During advent we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christmas. We change our colours, select special Bible readings, and special music in the lead-up to Christmas. Likewise the department stores change their colours, play special music, announce special sales, and similarly (it might seem) gear themselves up for Christmas.
But it strikes me this morning that the fact that we are all gearing up for Christmas together, in some general sort of way, is roughly where the similarity ends.
The change in colours seems representative to me. Whereas the shops start to decorate themselves in red and green and white, we move to the one other colour in the ecclesiastical spectrum – purple – the colour of penitence and sombre reflection.
Where the shops put on display the jovial figures of Santa and his elves, the Bible readings for Advent introduce us to shadowy figures like Zechariah and Elizabeth, and to my favourite yuletide figure – John the Baptist – who waltzes his way into the Christmas pageant each year about this time with his own particular brand of Christmas cheer.
And whereas Christmas messages on Christmas cards start to mouth of gentle platitudes about peace and goodwill and how this special season brings out the best in people, the Bible readings for Advent start on an entirely different tangent – speaking about death and destruction and the end of the world as we know it.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”
For the church, it seems, the lead-up to Christmas is not part of the silly season, but part of a sombre season, and I wondered whether we shouldn’t be developing our Christmas decor with this in mind.
I brought with me a Christmas tree this morning, and for me this Christmas tree is somehow archetypal of Christmas decor as such: it’s a tree that’s not really a tree. It’s all tinsel.
What I thought we needed was some alternative symbolism, and I thought you might be able to help me out on this. My idea is to create an advent cactus.
I’ve brought something here that could become a full-blown Advent cactus. Note straight away how spiky and unapproachable it is compared to its commercial cousin.
I thought we could place some decorations here – some human figures, not peeping out of the cactus, but lying around its base at odd angles, symbolising those who have fainted with fear at the coming disaster.
I thought that instead of having baubles and candy canes adorning it, we could hang bits of lightening and other symbols representing wars and natural disasters. I didn’t come up with those, but I did bring some clouds, which can represent both the storm clouds that lead to flooding, and also the clouds upon which Jesus finally comes.
OK, my Advent cactus is a work in progress, but I feel we need something.
I know that if we haven’t put it up yet, that in a couple of weeks we will put up our own traditional tinsel Christmas tree, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. And I know that Christmas can be and should be a time of peace and goodwill, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. And I know that most of these symbols, and most of these Christmas slogans, probably found their origin in the church. Even so, I have a feeling that the commercial version of Christmas, in as much as it is endorsed by the church, reflects the middle-class captivity of the church!
Work with me here! The Spirit of Christmas is reflected, it seems, in Christmas slogans about the special season that brings out the best in people – that special season of family and goodwill , theSpirit of Christmas as reflected in Tiny Tim walking into the room saying ‘God bless you one and all’. The Spirit of Christmas is seen in the sort of hearty twaddle that used to climax in the annual John Denver Christmas special (for those old enough to remember them) with John and his family sitting around the camp-fire and the choir humming Silent Night in the background, and John giving his little soliloquy along the lines of “Good people, if we can just hold hands with one another and live the spirit of Christmas year round and just try a little bit harder next year, we can bring peace on earth.” This sort of Christmas spirituality is the spirituality of a well-healed community.
Even then I used to wonder whether those shows were broadcast over at Long Bay gaol, where prisoners would think ‘if only we all held hands and…’ I wonder if they ever screened that stuff over in Jerusalem, so that Jews and Muslims might listen together and think ‘If only we tried just a little bit harder…’
The Christmas broadcasters this year are bound to fill the airways again with this sort of good-natured twaddle passing itself of as Christianity. And indeed it may warm the hearts of well-heeled middle-class families across the country, but it doesn’t work in the kids’ cancer ward. It doesn’t work to dissolve the battle-lines drawn up around Jerusalem. It doesn’t work on most of us I suspect, and it certainly doesn’t work on most of those here that we’re trying to minister to.
There may well be a whole Christian culture growing up that would prefer to take Jesus on as their therapist rather than as their saviour – that would be happy to see Jesus changing the world, so long as it was through the gradual process of democratic social reform. But this is not Jesus’ way. Jesus insists on being Saviour and Lord, and he insists on dismantling this old world before He brings in the new one!
With my dad being in hospital, he’s reminded us more than once of a favourite old comedy sketch he remembers, where two doctors are examining an elderly patient. The senior doctor asks the junior doctor where he thinks they should begin to operate. ‘I should make an incision around here’ he indicates with a small movement of the finger. ‘Keyhole surgery man, keyhole surgery! We make the incision right across here’ says the senior doctor, drawing a broad line across the old man’s chest.
Jesus, I would suggest too, is no ‘keyhole surgeon’. I, on the other hand…
I remember when I was first running a youth group at the Chinese church in Surry Hills, I used to have a local guy come around and see me about once per week. He was a problem guy, using drugs no doubt, violent. I used to talk to him, listen to him, even quietly pray with him. Then he disappeared. About a year later I met him again, as a full-on ‘born again Christian’. He’d been contacted by neighbouring fundamentalist church – the fire baptised, Bible believing, washed-in-the-blood Pentecostals. They’d told him that he was going to hell if he didn’t change his ways… so he did. They took him in, prayed for him, taught him the Bible… The man confessed to me that he used to only really come and see me because he was gay and had taken quite a liking to me. I realised on reflection that my approach was like offering a Disprin to someone in need of major surgery.
I’m not suggesting that I do everything now the way that those guys did back then, but I did realise, from that point on, that there was really no way of ministering effectively to anybody if I wasn’t willing to go all the way with them – if I wasn’t willing to take real risks, share the whole gospel, shed some blood.
We remember Jesus discussing His ministry at that last supper. A quiet, genteel affair it was, until Jesus started breaking bread and pouring out wine, talking about his broken body, and his blood flowing out. Salvation, for Jesus, was never something that was going to be cheap and easy. It was bloody and painful. And the final salvation of the cosmos, likewise, will not be something clean and clinical, but is tied up with war and death and blood and pain.
I don’t know whether the Advent cactus is really the thing that is going to swing it for you this year. Maybe it will help us all get focused on what it’s all about. Maybe not. The point though is to get behind the tinsel, and to see that Christmas is a time for celebrating the coming of Jesus that happened at Bethlehem, and also to renew our vision of the final coming of Jesus at the end of time.
I suspect that it is true, that for most of us, our lives are more determined by the prospect of the end of our mortgage than they are by the prospect of the end of the age. If that’s true, and that’s you, then it’s time to wake up.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:34-36)
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, 2nd December, 2000.