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The great contradiction of Advent

The great contradiction of Advent

Hannah Rich reflects on why Advent serves as a good reminder to take the busyness of a modern Christmas ‘one step at a time’.

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As a child, my family was fond of a book called The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder. It is the tale of Elisabet, a Norwegian girl who runs away following a lamb one day and finds herself travelling through time and space on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem and the first Christmas Day. This is interwoven with the life of a young boy in contemporary Norway who is given an Advent calendar. Behind each of the windows is a tiny piece of paper with a fragment of Elisabet’s story, which is pieced together as the book unfolds over 24 chapters – one for each day of Advent.

Skipping to the next chapter was always as forbidden as eating tomorrow’s chocolate from the advent calendar, however tempting it was. The one day at a time nature of The Christmas Mystery is somewhat at odds with the military precision of a consumer Christmas. You can’t take Christmas one day at a time, we’re told, you have to see it through the lens of forward planning – whether it’s ordering the turkey or ticking presents off a shopping list. It is not just the busyness of a modern Christmas which clashes with the spirit of Advent, but the everything–at–once rush ahead to the twenty–fifth of December.

In some ways, Advent seems like a great contradiction. A season of waiting patiently, hoping for what we know is coming but have not yet seen, in the midst of the busiest time of the year. As the nights draw in, it feels like there is less incentive to go out, more reason to stay in and be still, and yet the calendar of parties, church services and places to go is heavier than ever. It is a bit like the final weeks of pregnancy, where the to–do list of preparations grows ever longer at the same time as energy levels are dwindling. (My sister is expecting her first child just after Christmas and so the chatter about waiting for a baby feels a little more real this year.)

This year the world has seen a lot; a lot of politics, a lot of conflict, a lot of everything–at–once. As Nick Spencer put it in introducing the recent Theos annual lecture, half an hour is currently a very long time in politics. To draw the much used analogy of this year’s national and international political drama, it has seemed like a whole series’ worth of storylines has sometimes been crammed into a single week or even a day, rather than life pacing itself one episode at a time. No sooner had one cabinet minister resigned than the clamour began as to who might be next.

For me, this is the first year for over a decade where I haven’t found the countdown to Christmas coinciding with the run up to an annual medical check–up. Hospital schedules have usually conspired to mark the week before Christmas with an excuse to lie very still for a precious hour while a scanner checks the state of my heart. There’s a lot of patiently waiting in the midst of chaos shiny lights and tinsel to be done on a cardiology ward too, which has often served as a good reminder of Advent.

 In his poem Lead Kindly Light, John Henry Newman wrote: “Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see / The distant scene; one step enough for me.”

Advent isn’t about not asking to see the distant scene of Christmas – we know that well. It is one which has been reinvented in hundreds of Nativity plays and graced the front of countless Christmas cards. But after a year like 2018, perhaps it is a good reminder that sometimes one window, one chapter, one step at a time might be enough.

 Image by jan j. photography available under a Shutterstock licence 

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a Researcher exploring the relationship between church growth, social action and discipleship, together with Church Urban Fund. She has previously worked for a social innovation think tank and a learning disability charity. @hannahmerich

Posted 30 November 2018

Christianity, Christmas, Politics

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