Advent waiting is a purposeful activity combined with real dialogue
Posted on November 27th 2011 in Weekly messages
Last week a head teacher was pleased to explain that the school’s unannounced Ofsted inspection went well, and that the inspectors had found a happy but purposeful school been run diligently by the staff. The head teacher explained, to my surprise, that it was much better to have instant inspection than being given many months notice, since the intervening period just fostered an increasingly fevered environment where the teaching of children came a distant second to making sure the school was ready to be inspected. Advent is the season of waiting for the coming, not of some terrestrial inspector, but of the infant king, the Word made flesh. But what sort of waiting is being asked of us in the season of Advent? The answer is certainly more of the first sort identified above, but not without the second, since there is always need for spiritual and charitable ‘improvement’.
This Sunday’s Gospel describes the Christian life in terms of ‘waiting’, not in the sense of doing nothing but of being engaged in purposeful activity, of being attentive to one’s vocation as a follower of Christ, wherever this may be, at home, at work, in the community, or the country at large. Christian life is therefore never to be identified with frenetic activity. It is never to allow oneself to become submerged by the maelstrom of human business. Such a path quickly comes to an impasse when confronted with failure, frustration and confusion. The command to ‘stay awake’ implies that much of life can be described as the ‘dream world of sleep’ – a vivid, pleasant, well-padded, and active dream world certainly but still a dream world. The believer has answered the call from Jesus Christ and made the conscious step from sleep to wakefulness, from dream to reality, without in any way passing judgement on those who have not yet done so. The life of ‘wakefulness’ may be described as the life of the Holy Spirit, the spark of divine fire within, given to us out of love, a completely un-coerced gift from God.
The gift of the Holy Spirit brings to a provisional conclusion 1,500 years of religious history, the promises made to Abraham, to Moses, and through the prophets. The objects of the Old Testament promises of people and land have become real in the Kingdom of God, of which the Church is a visible anticipation and embodiment. Until the birth of Jesus Christ the hopes of the Israelites were disappointed, but are now being answered in a way only achievable by God. The prophet Isaiah gives a beautiful description: ‘we are the clay, you are the potter.’ God through Christ has come to remould us in His own image.
The question is how to accept this into our hearts. What form should the second type of waiting take? It is more a spiritual journey. It requires an intense dialogue with God. To say that faith is simply to say OK is not sufficient as such a response fails to develop any self knowledge. Last Sunday’s prophecy from Isaiah shows subtle psychological insight. The prophet knows that without God he and others have become withered leaves. He knows that God must be rightly angry. Yet his first response is to blame God, ‘You hid your face and gave us up’ (Isaiah 64:7). He is angry with God, a perfectly acceptable sentiment as part of a wider dialogue but not as the final conclusion of a relationship with God. The prophet passes through this anger to admit that God is Father, someone beyond humanly perceived right and wrong. An analogy may be seen in relation to one’s own parents. Any argument starts on the back foot, whatever the merits, since parents gave life to children, something that precedes the rights and wrongs of a particular case.
This is the utter mystery of God, but from this God has entered human life. The Word was made flesh, the mystery of God has taken human form, and embraced us through the gift of Himself in the Holy Spirit. The season of Advent then is a restoration of the quiet purposeful activity of life through a renewed and real dialogue with God that does not fail to embrace all our disappointed hopes and failures.