The Revd Dr Ivan Khovacs reflects on the challenges of finding hope and seasonal cheer amid widespread suffering, injustice, and climate anxiety, emphasizing Advent as a space for reflection.
It’s hard to know how to have hope, let alone stoke up seasonal cheer, as we step into Advent, with Christmas then not far round the corner. So much suffering, injustice, and war everywhere we look. Google searches show that the term “climate anxiety” has been trending, and not in a good way: it is twenty-seven times more frequently searched in 2023 than it was in 2017. We worry about the future, the planet, and ourselves. And that’s before we begin to take stock of our own lives and where we’ve been this past year. Each of us has a story to tell: how many people could do with an invitation into a bit of space where their story can be heard?
Advent is that space. Christ’s coming means that God came down from heaven, and as C.S. Lewis pointed out, that is the same as saying that “Heaven drew earth up into it.” Advent space hosts the divine eternal and our temporal now, it is heaven and earth—air above and soil below—coming together and drawing us into a place where we hold still and pray. We are made for wholeness of life. So we pray for all life, all wholeness of body, mind, and spirit in a world made for Christ’s justice, as a humanity rooted and limbed firmly into God’s reign of peace. Advent is a space of holding still, and holding together, as a church drawing life from Christ, our tree of Hope.
Iken Oak (2020), oil on board, by Roger Wagner. Heaven and earth draw near.
Advent is a space. And Avent is time. The word Advent (from the Latin adventus) means ‘coming’; it speaks of our waiting for Christ’s coming at Christmas. Advent means the quality of our time of waiting. Holding together these forty-days of Advent does something to us. A 15th century Advent carol tells us that Advent waiting brings us into a kind of solidarity with all humanity, all who died in hope going back to the time of Adam, at the beginning of the Creation:
Adam lay ybounden,
Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter
Thought he not too long.
So rather than delivering us out of our longing for Christ’s coming, Advent extends it, it distends our waiting back in time. How often at this time of year do we bring to mind family and friends we have lost and won’t have this season to share with? Advent prolongs our desire to surge forward on the healing wings of time.
But in Advent there is yet another kind of coming for which we wait. For Advent does time in two ways: it announces Christ’s first coming as a new-born in Bethlehem. And it also points to Christ’s return, when all the world shall come under his mercy and rule of peace.
Snapshot of Cambridge Oak (September 2023).
Long ago, in the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Isaiah announced his vision of God coming into the world: “the Lord rideth upon a swift cloud,” he said. Thousands of years later, we read in Revelation, the final writings in the Bible, “Look, he is coming with the clouds!” The language of prophecy turns to the language of expectation; our present moment is borne by someone else’s future tense. Likewise in our churches, the language of waiting for Christ’s coming with justice—to put evil in its place, and to bring an end to war and all manner of human strife—turns into the language of tangible expectation in daily acts of penance, fasting, and prayer. Contrary to how it sounds, however, ‘holding still’, ‘expectation’, and ‘waiting’, are not passive options. Faith and hope are not bywords for ‘opting out’ or the tough realities of the world. On the contrary, Advent is space where making time to wait is the way we embrace the world in its pain. Advent reflection is action, prayer is a snapshot of Christ’s future coming confronting suffering now.
Sycamore Tree at the Sycamore Gap, along Hadrian’s Wall, felled earlier this year (Northumberland National Park).
Traditional readings and Advent carols are confident in helping us to step into this time of hope. They weave our thoughts with God’s thoughts when they speak of Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. These themes help us in this start of Advent to see out through eyes hazed by the world’s brokenness. They help us turn our eyes towards heaven and ask God to soften our hearts to the world so that we might receive Christ who is wholeness of Life. We sing about this Advent preparation for God’s just future in the 17th century Advent carol which says
How shall I fitly meet thee
And give thee welcome due?
The nations long to greet thee
And I would greet thee too.
O fount of light, shine brightly
Upon my darken’d heart,
That I may serve thee rightly,
And know thee as thou art.
The work of justice is hard going. And that is why Advent is a time in which standing with our suffering fellow humanity is saying yes to God’s justice. Like that tree near Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, at the Sycamore Gap, senselessly felled earlier this year, in Advent, we long to see evidence of healing and restoration yet to come. We long for glimmers of the promise that all that is broken or has been cut down before its time already has its place in God’s future. That indeed at Christ’s coming, “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4.2).