Advent 1: Waiting In Darkness, Longing For Light

 On Advent Sunday in 2013, I wrote about beginning this season of watching and waiting and longing in a place where only a couple of days earlier a helicopter had fallen out of the night sky. The tragedy that took place in the air above the Clutha that night and then on the ground rang through the consciousness of Glasgow and her people. The cheerful decorations and the bright shop windows were out of place, in a place that was the voice crying out in the wilderness. A place that needed an Advent God more than ever.

I thought about that tonight.

I don’t think I can say this year that what we need is an Advent God.

It’s what we might want, I guess. The benevolent and twinkly man who comes down to Earth to put the world back to rights, quietly fixing all the things that we messed up. Or else a holy reset button that God can push on Christmas Eve and we all get another chance. It’s tempting. It’s not what God is about, though, and that makes Advent difficult.

And then tonight I went to the Advent Carol Service and heard it said that maybe, maybe this year, this Advent is about the voices of the people who are crying out into the wilderness. And without knowing that that would be exactly what I needed to hear, that was exactly what I needed to hear.

There is pain and anger echoing around the whole world.

We feel it ourselves. We hear it.

Indeed, it sometimes feels like this year there’s been nothing but helicopters falling out of the sky.

In these last weeks of 2016, we live in a world that is less tolerant, less giving, less loving, and scarier than the world many of us had thought we lived in, and we are less and less sure of what the future looks like. In every corner of the world, from the Middle East to the cradles of Western democracy, there are people who no longer know if they have a future of any kind.

Orlando. Nice. The outcomes of the EU referendum and the US presidential election, and the legitimacy that has been claimed by people who want to reverse the tides of social justice and global inclusion. The rise of fascism and the rise in hate crimes across the Western world. Aleppo. The role that the Church continues to play in maintaining the inequality of women and LGBT people. The lives taken by natural disasters. Brussels. The increasing difficulty of speaking truth to power in a time when the act of speaking truth at all seems more and more to be that desperate cry into the wilderness of a world that doesn’t care.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in darkness – on them light has shined.

The light looks very dim, doesn’t it?

There is no benevolent twinkly gentleman coming to set it all quietly to rights. That isn’t what God is about, nor is it what happened.

In a few weeks, a child will be born in Bethlehem, homeless and the son of a poor unmarried couple. He will live under threat of ethnic cleansing and he and his parents will become refugees. He will have a dream of changing the world. He will grow up and try to push back against oppression and injustice, working hard and under difficult circumstances. He will be persecuted and ignored and derided. His story will end with condemnation and crucifixion. But he will try to change the world anyway.

That’s our Advent God.

If we, the people crying out into the wilderness, are to be his Advent people, that is the responsibility that we take on.

It’s not to wait, not to watch, not to hope that someone else will come and fix it. It’s to accept that the world is as it is and then to get on and try to change it anyway, be that through taking political action, or giving financial support, or acting as an ally to people who have less systemic privilege than you do.

And in honestly working to change the world, that’s where we’ll find God and where we’ll find that light in the darkness.

For I can look out and see a great number marching into the great eternity, because God is working in this world, and at this moment. And God grants that we will get on board and start marching with God, because we got orders now to break down the bondage and the walls of colonialism, exploitation, and imperialism, to break them down to the point that no man will trample over another man, but that all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.

Martin Luther King, The Birth of a Nation
(extract from the Advent Carol Service, St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow)

Here Comes The Sun

Today is the Winter Solstice.

It is the mid-point of winter, the darkest and longest of these dark days and long nights. It is the time of year when all the major religions of the world celebrate, in their own way, the coming of the light into this dark world. It is the moment when everyone on Earth stops and tells each other that we have come halfway out of the darkness.

We have had some terribly dark days, these last few weeks. We have had days when I have thought that that Advent God for whom we wait must look at his church with dismay and believe us to have abandoned all that he lived and died for.

On this final Sunday of Advent, we turn our eyes to Bethlehem, to the star that has appeared in the East, and to the promise that dark days give way to light and that, yes, yes, the age of miracles is not yet past.

For from these days of darkness has emerged a new dawn of hope, in the will and testament and action of the ordinary and now extraordinary people of God. They are people who work for the promise of that Advent God; of the bravery of Mary and the compassion of Joseph and of all that that child in the manger might yet do.

It isn’t simple. It won’t be easy. It’s not anywhere near done yet.

But as we look into that light, it becomes just a little easier than it was last week to believe that we will get there in the end.

Stir up in us O long-awaited God the will to join your revolution, to change your world, and to be in word and deed your living Body and the rock on which your Church can be rebuilt.

The Greatest Stories

A very merry Christmas to you all and a reassurance that I haven’t actually fallen off the edge of the world.

The second of my Advent reflections for Love Blooms Bright was posted this morning:

The Great Stories

And they said: That wasn’t the end of the story. And it is because that wasn’t the end of the story that we gather and we tell it again and again and again. The most ancient and the newest of stories. An old tale and a living Gospel.

If you should be in Glasgow today and looking for somewhere to share in the telling of that story, there are four services at St Mary’s Cathedral in the next 24 hours and all are welcome at all of them. We are having a crib service at 4pm (bring a torch), a service of Nine Lessons and Carols at 6.30pm, Midnight Mass beginning at 11.15pm, and a Choral Eucharist at 10.30am tomorrow morning. There will be a warm welcome, stunning music, words old and new, and all the holy razzmatazz of the day.

I hope that whoever you are and wherever you are, with special prayers for the staff and patients and families for whom that will be in hospital, you have a peaceful and joyous Christmas.

EDIT: Note that the Crib Service is 4pm, not 4.30pm as previously stated.

Advent 4: Veni Creator

Come, Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow
covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.
I am only a man: I need visible signs.
I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
Many a time I asked you, you know it well, that the statue in church
lifts its hand, only once, just once, for me.
But I understand that signs must be human,
therefore call one man, anywhere on Earth,
not me — after all, I have some decency —
and allow me, when I look at him, to marvel at you.

Csezlaw Milosz, translated by Csezlaw Milosz and Robert Pinsky

Advent 3: Halfway Out Of The Darkness

“On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of winter, at the exact midpoint, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, “Well done. Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark.”
Kazran Sardick, Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

In some Christian traditions, the third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday.

It means ‘rejoice’.

I wrote on Advent Sunday about the beginnings of a rumour, a dangerous and wonderful muttering that then was just the smallest whisper of a thing that the world barely dared to dream of. The rumour has spread. It’s on the buses and in the shopping malls, in the libraries and the supermarkets, in the pubs and in the train station, in the smallest churches and the biggest cathedrals. It’s in New York and Israel and Rome and Glasgow. The mutters are getting louder. It could be true.

This year, as does happen in those years when Jesus decides to be born on a Sunday, Gaudete Sunday falls in the very middle of this season of penitence and preparation, at the exact midpoint of Advent.

And so it is on Gaudete Sunday that we take a risk. After all, Advent is all about taking risks. The one that Mary took when she said yes and that Joseph took when he trusted her. The risk of the shepherds who had no idea what they might find in that stable and of travellers from the East who embarked on a long and dangerous journey guided only by a star. And the chance that God took on us, willingly risking the life of his Son to save ours because he thought, just maybe, that we might be worth it.

The risk that we take today is to believe that and to hope and rejoice in it. For one moment, to stop and turn and hug, because, today, we have come halfway out of the dark.

In the online service of Evening Prayer that I joined in last night with a small group of people from across Scotland, we said this prayer:

Lord God Almighty,
come and dispel the darkness from our hearts,
that in the radiance of your brightness we may know you,
the only unfading light,
glorious in all eternity.

Tomorrow, we go on through Advent and on with our preparations and our journey. Because we know now that it isn’t a rumour. It’s a promise. A promise that we will make it through the darkness and on the other side of it we will find the light of the world.

Image of the Swedish Ljusbarare that stands in St Mary’s, by GlasgowAmateur.

Advent 2: For The Other 99

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.

Advent 1: A Rumour

In the north, we are fast approaching the gloomiest and coldest part of the year. The days are a twilight grey and the darkness comes early. Outside, people hurry home in the dim light of streetlamps, through the puddles and with their faces turned away from the rain and the wind. The long bright days of summer seem almost unimaginably far away.

But in the midst of all that dark and gloom, there’s a rumour. It’s just a whisper, but it’s gaining speed and power. I’ve heard people talking about it.

The word on the street is that something’s coming.

A Saviour, they say. A Saviour who will be Christ the Lord.

I don’t know if it’s true. It’s an awe-inspiring thing to think about, though, isn’t it? I look out on this city that I love, and I see its poverty and its sectarianism and its drug and alcohol problems. I look at this country that I love, and I see the people who are voiceless and the ones who would deny their right to a voice. I look at this world that I love, and I see war and injustice. I look at our brokenness and I find it difficult to imagine what sort of person such a Saviour might be.  A King or a Queen? A great political leader, a President or a Prime Minister? A person of great wealth or of great parentage? A person with education and charisma and intellect, someone who will make us all sit up and take notice?

But haven’t we already tried all those things?

I don’t know. I don’t.

I think, though, that if this Saviour really does come, whomever he or she is, we might all be taken by surprise.

Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the Earth to the ends of heaven. But about that hour and day no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert. For you do not know when the time will come.