The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
My sermons during December will be on the themes of Anticipation, Hope, Preparation and Celebration. I begin today with Anticipation. Having recently returned from annual leave, I've reminded myself again, as we approach Christmas, that the anticipation of getting away is nearly as important as the break itself.
We all know how happy we feel when we're looking forward to something, whether it's a holiday, a film or even the gripping last chapter of a book. Anticipating something can be a powerful, positive emotion that can help us live happier lives.
And in a strange way anticipation often arouses more intense energy within us than retrospection. In other words, do we enjoy looking forward to things much more than looking back on them afterwards?
I suspect that we probably tend to experience more intense emotions about future events than things that have happened in the past. Perhaps we expect that future events will make us feel more engaged than ones that have passed? On top of this, we're probably more likely to talk about how excited we are about something we have planned compared to something we've already done.
If we look beyond ourselves and raise our eyes to the world around us, we see that anticipation of world events is increasingly at the heart of urgent contemporary world affairs, from climate change, to terrorist threat, to economic uncertainty. As societies we're not as confident as we were that we can provide an effective guide to the future, with anticipatory practices increasingly coming to the foreground of political life, security, and indeed personal life.
In a similar way, just as this Advent season is marked by a spirit of anticipation, things are not absolutely clear cut. For perhaps inevitably, the way we anticipate events has shifted somewhat from what Advent is supposed to be, holy longing and searching for God's transforming grace, to a nerve-tingling countdown for presents and parties and fun.
Yet we learn from the tradition of the Church that the meaning of Advent, the build up to Christmas is less about parties, or even dare I say preparing for the incarnation, and more about anticipating the second coming; an opportunity to reflect on our need for healing and hope, and our longing for new creation.
So why did the early Church place such an emphasis upon the second coming of Jesus and why are we invited now to reflect on it, and long for it, during Advent?
Well, Jesus' birth at Bethlehem, his death and resurrection, are not yet the final victory over evil. The final conquest of evil will take place when Jesus comes again as judge. His second coming will complete what began with his birth, death and resurrection.
In other words, it will bring the fullness of salvation to the world. But the one little problem with waiting in eager anticipation for the second coming is that the Church has already been waiting for some 2,000 years now.
If it's going to occur like a thief breaking into your home at night that would seem to imply that we must be ready at all times, because we can never be sure when Christ will break into the world or even when he will break into our lives. Here lies the difficulty: it's almost impossible to be on high alert all the time.
We can only stand on tiptoe searching for the horizon for so long before we grow weary of looking towards a future that seems to be really taking its time to get here. In other words, even if we concede that no one knows for certain when Christ will come again, we're still left with the question of what to do in the meantime.
Waiting for the second coming isn't like sitting in a concert hall casually passing the time until the lights go down and the conductor takes the stage. It's more like waiting for a special guest to arrive at our home. There's much to do, everything must be ready. In this sense St Paul's prayer for the Thessalonians that their love for each other (and indeed for everybody else) should increase and grow is directly relevant. We're told to keep watching for Christ's arrival: not to stop working and to be prepared.
Herein lies the paradox: Advent anticipation points us toward the future, but the season is also about the past. Anticipating Christmas, after all, is about 'waiting' for an event that took place over two thousand years ago. We're part of a waiting, which isn't unique to Advent or even to Christianity.
In fact, it's integral to the very human act of feeling anticipation. As we come to understand that anticipation isn't just about looking forward, we see that it's also about invoking past memories. Without those memories, we would have no way of experiencing the future as 'the future'.
Anticipation in this sense turns this 'not yet' into 'the future,' and in so doing gives us a certain kind of power, a power to focus our energies for the sake of a future reality. In this double focus on past and future, Advent symbolises all our spiritual journeys as we affirm that Christ has come, that he is present in the world today, and that he will come again in power.
This provides a basis for holy living that comes from a profound sense of living 'between the times' and being called to be faithful stewards. It also brings with it a certain kind of joy—the joy that comes from the awareness that something new is on the horizon.