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Advent Reflection as Christmas approaches
Rob Ferguson - 17/12/07

There is a great deal about Christmas as we experience it that sickens me. We live in a time when the church festival has been taken over by the consumer-driven myths of society. It’s become a time when presents, not gifts, are exchanged. In the shops and malls decorations have been up for weeks, and canned carols are making their reappearance. Christmas parades and Christmas in the Park put a mixture of symbols alongside each other – Father Christmas is alongside Hark the Herald Angels sing.
Other signs and symbols sit there too – car bombings in Iraq, drug busts, murders in our cities, Bangladeshis shivering after the storm. The inevitable stories of domestic violence sit alongside CWS appeals for money, radio stations calling for gifts for the needy and organisations like Barnadoes and others working for children and biting the hard stuff of poverty amid plenty. And the church year begins with the first Sunday in December – Advent. The cycle of the year starts again.

What are we to make of this mish-mash?

If we look around the world it’s not hard to get a sense of despair of ever making positive changes. Wars get bogged down in rhetoric; bombs and destruction continue amid peace talks. The disparity between rich and poor both between countries and within countries gets wider. The past year of immense natural disasters is seen by some as a sign of God’s judgement – a sign of their despair that it will never be different. We are constantly given predictions of doom – the economic confidence is down, or the ozone layer is bigger, or pollution levels are up. Part of our modern way of life is the communication of everything to us in ways that can lead to despair or to desensitising us so we no longer listen or are capable of responding. It is said that the biggest disease of the 21st century in NZ will be depression.

Into this world of ours comes advent. And the words of advent: “Watch, be alert, pray.” Into the possibility of personal, national and international despair come the four traditional words of Advent Sundays: Hope, Peace, Joy, Love. In all, four syllables which cut into the rhetoric of despair that surrounds us every day. Is it possible to make a difference? A positive difference? Hope, peace, joy and love remind us of our vision of Advent, and what we are alert to discover or uncover. It is Luke who reminds us in one small sentence, “there was no room for them in the inn,” that the Christ came into the world out the back – unnoticed by the powerful, rejected by family, but discovered by those hard men shepherds who made their living in darkness outside the city. Being alert will mean learning some new things – to read the signs and watch for where things are happening out the back, away from the news cameras.

Such signs happen every day and get missed. Some will never be seen. But some will happen in our own homes as we maybe talk to a neighbour for the first time about something important to them. Maybe we’ll share the excitement of young people leaving school and finding that the world has not rejected them. I watch some young people who are caring for one of their number that they don’t like all that much but together they are working hard to give her a sense of companionship and the hope that she can find something positive to be despite her family role models. There is nothing planned about what they are doing, but it’s a sign that compassion can be stronger than despair. Some signs are evident too in the stories we glimpse in Christian World Service reports, Volunteer Service Abroad reports and those from other organisations which work to make a difference. Hope is lit by small candles not huge flames.

That is the core of advent – the choice is made around the basic orientation of our lives – towards the small flame of the candle which flickers but offers a light of a positive difference. That means turning our backs on despair, on helplessness, and on fear. It means flying in the face of the messages of the times we live in – don’t try to make a small difference, leave it to the experts, they say. But Advent reminds us, that when we are alert, watch and pray, we see differently. And seeing differently makes all the difference to the way we live as we wait for the Christ to come.

We will light more flames as we travel towards our version of Christmas where love is packaged in human form, not in wrapped boxes under a tree. We will see the signs of the times and not despair, for our flames of hope, peace, joy and love are reminders to us of Emmanuel in whom is our hope, peace, joy and love. What a gift!