Advent is a time of waiting; a time of waiting for a new order and a new leader. For a miracle that we are told will be sent to us by God. For a miracle that isn’t coming for the rich, for the famous, for the revered, for the powerful, but is coming for all of us. For you. For me. For the ninety-nine percent. And therein, perhaps, lies the real miracle.
Since 1981, December 1st has been devoted to commemorating World AIDS Day. In Glasgow, for many years now and certainly more years than I’ve been here, a community gathering for World AIDS Day is held, this year run by Waverley Care, Gay Mens’ Health, the Terrence Higgins Trust, and St Mary’s Cathedral. It is a non-religious event that happens to be held in a church. It is, for many of the people who come through those doors, the only day of the year that they will set foot in any religious building.
Every year, I speak to at least a few people who are surprised that a World AIDS Day gathering is held in a church. They are people who have had terrible experiences with and have bad memories of organised religion. They do not expect to be wanted by a church or welcomed by its congregation. They do not expect a man in a dog collar to open his church to them and feed them and speak to them with humanity. If they expect anything of organised religion, it is that they will be isolated and whispered about and preached against. “I didn’t know that there were churches like this,” they say to me. And sometimes: “When are the services? What do you do for Christmas? Is it all right if I come?” I’ve talked to people who are Christians but who haven’t been to church in years because they feel that a church won’t accept people like them. I’ve spoken with people who come from other faith backgrounds but are no longer welcomed by their own religious communities. I’ve met people who have no religion and no desire to regularly attend a church, but who, on this one night a year, find what they need at this church.
The Scottish Episcopal Church is in the business of welcoming people (or so we proudly proclaim). A number of churches within the Scottish Episcopal Church, not just St Mary’s, are involved with World AIDS Day. There were community gatherings on Thursday taking place in churches up and down the country. This is what we do. This is what we are called to do by God. To open our doors and our arms and our hearts. Not only to a select few and not only on a Sunday, but all the time and to everyone.
St Mary’s has been described as the church of last resort.
It is not an unworthy thing to be.
Somewhere, a couple are making a long and difficult journey from Nazareth. In a few weeks, they will arrive in Bethlehem, in the city of David, to register in a census in the place of the man’s birth. They are far from home. They are young and engaged to be married. She is pregnant. There is some scandal about this child; her betrothed’s family have heard that she is not carrying his child but the bastard of some other man. They are compelled to knock on door after door, being turned away over and over again, until, in the unlikeliest of places, they find a light and a smile and a welcome.
That is the promise of Advent.
And so we remember as we move through Advent that it isn’t about being good enough for God. It isn’t about deserving or not deserving him. The God who is coming, is coming for us. For the rich and the poor. For the disabled and for the non-disabled. For the black and the white. For the straight and the gay. For Celtic and for Rangers. For the HIV-positive and the HIV-negative. For the homeless and the voiceless and the stigmatised and the rejected. Because the God who is coming is a God who will care about us and love us, no matter what.