Waiting and Watching: Advent Together at St James’s

Our Associate Rector, Ayla Lepine, discusses our Advent services and events online, and the symbolism of light.

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Many of us have favourite Advent hymns. ‘Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending’ is an absolute classic, and when I mentioned it recently to Chris Davies, our Head Verger, he gave it an enthusiastic two thumbs up. At the Advent Carol Service with Churches Together in Westminster on Sunday, 130 of us joined in singing and prayer to begin this sacred season of waiting, watching, and yearning for God’s radiant dawn to shine upon us. We sang that Advent hymn, loudly and proudly. We gathered around a fire in the courtyard and gave thanks that Jesus, the Son of God, brought the fire of love so that we might be inspired and illuminated by it too.

This Advent we will be exploring the fire of love together in many ways, and not only at our Sunday Eucharist. Much of our Advent life will be online, connecting more deeply with our online community (also known as our Church Without Walls). Our Sanctuary service on Tuesdays from 6pm will continue on YouTube with Advent music and a peaceful contemplative Eucharist. This will be followed by a discussion on Zoom at 8pm about art and the Advent theme of light. Come and find out what the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms at Tate Modern can tell us about God. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 7pm on Zoom there will be a time for contemplative reflection. Advent invites us to slow down, make time for God, and prepare to meet Christ in a new way. We will remember the Hebrew Bible’s matriarchs, patriarchs and prophets. We will give thanks for John the Baptist and Mary the Mother of God. And we will find ourselves greeting Jesus in the tiny baby born in Bethlehem, as God offers God’s self to us as a human being, alive and divine.

There is a lot of imagery of light and darkness in Advent. This is not always helpful because it can set up a troubling binary: darkness bad, light good. That’s simply not the case. In the psalms we hear that for God ‘darkness and light are both alike’, and that night and day are both partners in God’s holy pattern of Creation. The metaphor of light – sun, stars, candles, even the twinkling shine of lights on our tree in the courtyard and outside the shops on Piccadilly – they are all signs of delight and hope, but they are not meant to proclaim that darkness is bad, or that light is the only way of describing God’s presence in the world. The Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, has defined hope as ‘that which holds us even when we are living in shadows.’ It is ‘an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.’
When we ‘walk in the light’, when God is a ‘light upon our path’, we should not forget that God’s reality is manifested in many, many metaphors and symbols. All of them are associated with nourishment and compassion. Jesus describes himself as the Bread of Life, and he is our Prince of Peace. The Sun of Righteousness and the Son of Righteousness too. None of this should lead us into the binary (for God is the opposite of binaries of any and every kind) territory of assuming that when we hear our Advent readings and hymns, darkness is bad and light is good. Darkness, in its gentle depths, and in its uncertainties too, can have its own unique holiness. And it can help us to appreciate the nuance of the smallest flickering light, rather than being constantly dazzled by what can sometimes be experiences of overwhelming artificial brightness of a world that can be garish and harsh. Our darkness is sometimes our reality. God waits in darkness with us, just as God is present too in life-giving light.