This year has left me feeling a little hopeless. It has been a difficult year for us Westerners. It began with a series of deaths of cultural and celebrity icons to the point we were saddened and bewildered asking ourselves, 'who's next?'
I am appalled and fearful of post-truth politics and a future shaped by Brexit and a Trump presidency. Whichever side of those campaigns you were on it is impossible to have missed the political upheaval, the unrest and divisions that have been made evident through the course of those campaigns.
I find myself clinging on to a faith-informed hope in an almost desperate way. I am not alone.
It comes as no surprise to me that people have been putting up their Christmas decorations and wearing their Christmas jumpers much earlier than usual - I spotted the first ones on November 5th! It easy to dismiss this as the ever increasing power of commercialism, as some of the shops began to display their festive wares as early as August, but I think there is something deeper going on here. For many people the seasons of Advent and Christmas are symbols of hope and joy and they mark time to a new year and a new start.
Moltmann, the great theologian of hope, states: ‘It is not in our dominion that the coming God is present through his life-giving Spirit, it is in our hope. It is not in our power that the grace that raises us up is made perfect, it is in our weakness.’ These words give me courage in my weak state that I am right to cling on to hope, hope in Jesus.
Advent is all about hope. About looking forward in anticipation of the feast to come. We look forward to celebrating the Incarnation of Christ and we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ when he returns in glory.
John the Baptist is our dominant figure in early Advent. Each of the four Gospels announce John and his message in a similar way:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
His message is indeed full of hope. His first call to repentance reminds us that there is even more intimacy with God available to us. We can be restored and drawn back into God's loving embrace by the power of his mercy. Our weaknesses can be transformed and our hope in the Lord grows strong. Rudolph Bultmann said, “If we believe in him, this means that we believe that these occurrences of everyday life, these doings and sufferings, these givings and receivings, in which we stand as human beings, can and should be stamped with the mark of love.” Advent, therefore, is a great time to make your Confession.
To come close to God, to repent and have a change of heart is a central message of Advent, to prepare ourselves to be most ready for Christ’s return. Making our confession and receiving the sacrament of reconciliation is a truly joyful way to come close to Christ. From my own experience there is a certain level of dread and foreboding in the moments before actually confessing my sins. I always feel like an idiot and embarrassed to admit out loud the parts of my life I would rather leave hidden away. It is because it is so awkward to admit to my sinfulness that the experience of receiving absolution is unmatched. There is a peaceful, joyful, lightness of being that is unparalleled. Coming into the light of Christ is without question a hope-filled experience for me.
John the Baptist reminds us of the closeness of the Kingdom, the closeness of Christ. And as Isaiah prophesied he calls us to prepare the way and make straight paths. Preparation takes time and things like Advent calendars and Advent wreaths can help us mark that time and make the waiting, that is also a strong element of Advent, that little bit easier. Advent is from the Latin word adventus and means “coming” or “visit”. So our waiting is not just an arbitrary thing but we wait, in joyful hope, for Christ to ‘come’ and ‘visit’ us again.