Advent and How Religion Works

Religion is a funny thing. It is on the one hand about doing what comes naturally to people. And on the other hand it is about doing the very opposite.

Let me explain.

Some aspects of religion are about what comes naturally and easily to people – things like prayer and things like the way we celebrate joys and sorrows. Other aspects of religion are more hard work – they are about doing the unexpected thing ranging from the apparently trivial (wearing your hair like this rather than like that) to the extremely serious (“In the name of the Holy Spirit and of the Church of Christ we call you to serve in the order of presbyters. Do you accept this call?”).

The former are to do with the way we are wired as human beings. The latter consists of a whole range of things that can shape life profoundly and change it utterly.

I know it is a bit counter-intuitive to say that prayer is easy. In many respects, prayer belongs with the things that build up a spiritual life. But prayer comes very naturally when we are up against it in the world. When we are frightened for ourselves or even more likely frightened for others, many people find an impetus to pray, whether or not they believe in a God who meddles in the ways of this world.

It is the same when it comes to joys and sorrows. Often we do spiritual things not because that is part of a coherent spiritual life but simply because for some reason we have a need as human beings to mark significant moments in life. For some reason, human beings have evolved to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries in ways that other sentient beings have not. We buy champagne or flowers when we celebrate and we find ways of marking tragedy that are unexplained and untaught. The sea of flowers that appears when tragedy strikes tells us that people care a great deal about the well-being of others. They tell us that compassion is real. They tell us that people simply couldn’t help themselves from expressing the better part of what it means to be human.

Much religion is built from such sentiment.

The Christian calendar mostly arises from people’s need to remember significant things that people have done through the remembrance of anniversaries of one kind or another. It might be the anniversary of the death of someone special, the anniversary of a birth or even an anniversary marking the oh so human moment of actual conception. These festivals have the original character that shares something very much in common with our own desire to celebrate and mark significant moments.

But Advent is different somehow. It isn’t about the anniversary of something. For all it is a countdown to a birth, pretty much everyone who takes Advent seriously is in agreement that it isn’t really about celebrating that birth at all. We’ll get there, but only once we’ve prepared ourselves.

Advent is a bit of an effort.

We’re in the middle of Advent now. And I love it.

There was a time when Advent and Lent were regarded as much of a muchness – penitential seasons that came before a big festival.

In recent years, Advent has changed a bit I think – more about preparation now than penitence. However it is much under attack as the commercial Christmas has taken over the month of December.

Some churches have capitulated and now don’t keep Advent as anything other than proto-Christmas. Thus, plenty of churches are already festooned with decorations and carol services are going on this weekend, just two weeks since Advent began. It is hard to criticise people for this. May those who sing joyful things experience joy in their hearts. However, keeping Advent as an actual spiritual discipline has much in its favour too.

Here at St Mary’s, we keep as full and proper an Advent as we can. That means we don’t sing Christmas carols or put up decorations or anything like that until we’ve kept four Sunday Eucharists of Advent.

This year, with Christmas on a Monday, 24 December is Advent 4 (which takes precedence over Christmas Eve) and so we’ll not be keeping the big feast until later on that day. I’ve little doubt that we may have some people turning up on 24 December in the morning expecting lots of ho ho ho, but what they will get is a bit of Advent ho-ho-holiness instead.

Once that fourth advent Eucharist is done, we might go a bit Christmas crazy and I’m expecting that to be a lot of fun.

Keeping Advent like this is intentional, deliberate and yes, sometimes difficult. It puts us at odds with everyone around us including plenty of other Christians in other churches.

It is that side of religion that is about spiritual practise – holy habit forming. It is about trying to do something in life that affects the soul. The hope of the spiritual life is that it leads to deeper joys than a life not cultivating the soul. Keeping Advent these days and not caving into the tinsel is a metaphor for much in religion.

Would it matter much if we just gave in and sang While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night before the event? On the one hand, of course it wouldn’t. But on the other hand…? Does it matter if you keep a kosher kitchen? Does it matter if you pray five times a day? Does it matter if you turn up to join in receiving communion with others or would receiving it by post do just as well instead? Does it matter if you say morning and evening prayer every day? Does it matter if you practise honesty at work? Does it matter if that child is baptised or not? Does it matter if you fast on a Friday or if you don’t?

The root that people are trying to get to with any spiritual practice is a life filled with joy and overflowing with compassion for others. The habits of religion are a funny mixture. A very great many of them don’t matter that much at all in absolute terms. But it remains the case that religious people believe that adjusting life and doing deliberate things that are counter-cultural and which must seem just plain odd to many, can help someone find a life of greater happiness, empathy and care. That’s what spiritual practise is about, whether or not it is learned within or outwith the confines of any organised religion.

Keeping Advent in the determined, deliberate way that we keep it here is a signpost, a symbol, a marker that at our deepest level we need not dance to the tune that the rest of the world might be singing. Humming along to the Fairytale of New York as I may do in a shop on a Saturday, I know that I belong to a way of life that sometimes chooses to sing from quite another hymn sheet from that of the world around me.

Advent is hard work if you keep it these days.

Hard and holy work.

And I love it.

You’ll have had your apocalypse

So, Mr Harold Camping has died. Do you remember him?  Sure you do. He was one of the most prominent predictors of the end of the world in recent years. There was quite a worldwide sensation in May 2011 when he predicted that all the true believers in the world would  be taken up to heaven Рraptured in other words. This would be followed by a pretty grim time for all those left on earth who would have fire, and plague to deal with on their own without the true believers. This would be followed by the end of the world which was scheduled for October 2011. This was the first apocalypse of the twitter generation. The rapture quickly became the #rapture and Mr Camping was mocked, relentlessly mocked all around the world, not least when the end times did not appear. Mr Camping had the media on his side. Well, he had his own media empire on his own side anyway. He appears to have genuinely believed his folly and committed his radio network (Family Radio) to spread the word.

Well apocalypses and their prophets come and go. One of the things that was interesting about the whole affair was how interested the world suddenly became in eschatology (that’s talking about the end of the world to those who don’t like theological words). With twitter going full pelt, all of a sudden, pretty technical theological words were being bandied about in jokes by the most surprising people.

Of course, some used the whole thing to mock Christianity. For many detractors we are never going to be seen as anything other than an amalgam of the nutters and Mr Camping became symptomatic of all that seemed silly about religious faith in general and about Christianity in particular.

It is worth pausing though as Advent makes its tumultuous way into the feast that follows, thinking about what Christians do really believe about all this.

Firstly – most Christians would say that anyone claiming to know the exact date and time of the end of the world is neither to be believed nor indulged. Jesus himself led the way here saying that no-one knew the day or the hour. However, there is a great presumption in that – which is that there is a date and time for the eschaton in the first place.

For me, it seems a shame for eschatology to be mixed up in all the cartoon buffoonery of mocking Mr Camping and his followers.

Talk about the end times in Christianity is not, for me, all about some spooky day and hour that is just around the corner like a great cosmic bogey man. Some Christians, from voices in the new testament like Saul/Paul of Tarsus to Larry Norman appear to have believed precisely that. However, I think that is to miss the point. The apocalypse has failed to materialise often enough for Christians to make their peace with it and use it to inform the life of today.

Here’s what I think the great stories and images of the bible have to teach people today:

  • Firstly, live as though you’ve not much time left. How much generosity, love, compassion and justice can you build into what you do today.
  • Secondly, life is fragile. Live with gratitude and thanksgiving for what you have.
  • Thirdly, learn the lesson that some sincere, devout, often holy people have got things wrong – even voices that appear in the bible.

There are building blocks for a great experience of the world in that little list. Building blocks that make faith work and can help one to connect to a God worth knowing.