The season of Advent in the churches
calendar occupies the four Sundays before
Christmas, the liturgical colour is purple.
This short season is a time in which the
churches look forward to the birth of
Christ, a time full of yearning. It is
during this season that some of the great
Advent hymns are sung, perhaps the most
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here,
until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.
O come, O dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by your advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death dark shadows put to flight.
During Advent it is customary for all
churches to read some very scary and disturbing
readings from the bible. There are joyful
predictions about the coming of the Messiah,
but these are mixed with warnings of judgment
and the end of the world. For example,
the apocalypse predicted by Mark:
For nation will rise against nation,
and kingdom against kingdom; there will
be earthquakes in various places; there
will be famines. This is but the beginning
of the birth pangs. (Mark 13:8,9 NRSV)
If the reading of such texts is a preparation
for Christmas, it is an entirely different
event to that celebrated by most in our
society. Old Testament passages back up
this serious view:
A shoot shall come out from the stump
of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out
of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit
of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the
LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes
see, or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge
the poor, and decide with equity for the
meek of the earth; he shall strike the
earth with the rod of his mouth, and with
the breath of his lips he shall kill the
wicked. (Isa 11:1-4)
The readings for Advent go from bad to
worse. It seems that we are approaching
not the joyful season of children's faces,
and eating and drinking with friends,
but something more akin to a post-nuclear
nightmare. Why is the coming of Christ
framed in such terms? Why do we have to
stiffen our sinews and summon up the blood
as if a horror was approaching? Indeed,
the coming of Christ into the world, an
historical event that occurred more than
2000 years ago, and each year at Christmas,
is a joyful event.
But it is not simply unalloyed joy. It
also carries a message of danger and dread.
It presages an agonized birth, wrenching
and turmoil. It brings about the end of
a world. That is what apocalyptic is about
in the readings; God is going to come
and make a clean sweep of the world.
But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened, and the moon
will not give its light, and the stars
will be falling from heaven, and the powers
in the heavens will be shaken. (Mark
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