For shopping malls throughout our towns, the countdown to Christmas is well advanced. The high street measures the weeks before Christmas in things to be done: the money to be spent, the food and drink to be consumed, the debt to be incurred. For Christians Advent is a sacred season. It is a time to step back, to change attitudes, to bring hope to a world starved of hope.
Advent, like Isaiah’s vision of the Mountain of the Lord, is rooted in the world that we inhabit. Isaiah lived in a Jerusalem of moral collapse. The King and ruling classes had embarked on a cynical policy of self-aggrandisement at the expense of the poorer citizens. The city leaders were oblivious to the storm clouds gathering among the surrounding powers. Salvation, were it to come, would not come from Jerusalem’s bankrupt society. It would come only when the people as a whole raised their expectation to what God would bring about in their midst. The image of the Mountain of the Temple of the Lord, lifted higher than the surrounding hills, was but a figure for the inner journey that would raise despair to joyful expectation. At the beginning of Advent we are called to the same expectation.
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, that he may teach us his ways, so that we might walk in his paths.”
Advent calls us to a change of attitude. Now is the time to raise our expectations above the disappointments and anxieties of a sinful world. As swords were hammered into ploughshares, so God longs to transform selfishness into generosity, violence into peace, sin into virtue. God longs to be the fulfilment of lives that have long ceased to satisfy. It is in this sense that Advent calls us to changed attitudes of hope. The hope to which we are called rests not only in what God can bring about, but also in ourselves. Let us confidently trust that, in the days ahead, God can become the light at the heart of our darkness.
“O House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
An invitation ignored bears no fruit. For this reason St Paul brings a note of urgency to Advent’s call. The time has come, he said, the night is almost over. There is no escaping the choices that Advent presents to our lives. Paul does not sentimentalise Christmases past, but invites us to wake up to the Christ who, even now, lives in our midst, who is nearer than when we were first baptised.
Advent is more than a season of hope. It is also a season for choice, the choice to acknowledge and abandon to the darkness of our sin, to welcome the light of Christ’s presence.
Sadly the secularisation of the Christmas season easily becomes a distraction from important choices. In the Gospel Jesus reminded his disciples of choices to be made, not to threaten them but to remind them how easily the invitations to grace can be overlooked. He spoke of the days before the flood, when people continued eating and drinking with little attention to God’s call. His invitation was to stay awake, because you do not know the day when your master is coming.
Let us approach Advent in a spirit of confident expectation. Let us be awake to the Christ whose presence is revealed as forgiveness in our repentance, whose peace reconciles our differences, whose hope raises our hearts.