It’s a lost battle, to distinguish Advent from Christmas – except in church. Christians can keep them separate, at least in our minds: four weeks of Advent for preparation, then twelve days of Christmas running into the new year for celebration.
Advent as a word means ‘coming’: things can only get better – to coin a phrase! The prophet Isaiah reminds us of an ancient hope, anticipating Julian of Norwich’s mystical words written during the plague: ‘all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’.
But it didn’t turn out like that, you may have noticed. Isaiah’s promise of good times just around the corner was not fulfilled back then and it becomes harder and harder to sing that song with him. Much worse than our modest plague we have the impact of climate change. Who would agree with Isaiah’s positive spin over against Noel Coward who, you may recall, sang ‘there are bad times just around the corner!’? How can we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? And yet…
Christians believe that our knowledge of God is primarily derived from the phenomenon of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course we believe in God as Creator and in God as a spiritual power and presence. But our distinctive faith is very much focused on a historical episode. We believe that all God’s interventions in human affairs can be assessed by a comparison with the style set by Jesus of Nazareth.
The earliest and latest Gospels, Mark and John, have this in common: no nativity story, just the stark assertion from verse one that God has acted and this is how. Hence the crucial importance of the good news of the incarnation, which we highlight at Christmas. Advent is to prepare for nothing less than the coming of God at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. For we do not need Jesus to be physically here to realise that he is Emmanuel, God with us, as Matthew puts it.
Christians can say Emmanuel to those who point to the unfulfilled prophecies of Isaiah. Jesus is alive today. Where is hope when you need it? Right here if the authentic spirit of Christ is sustained.
So we sing ‘ubi caritas ibi deus est’ (‘where there is steadfast love, God is there’). Believers can sing the Lord’s song even in this ‘godless Babylon’.
Revd Peter Brain