Waiting is something we are good at in this country. Waiting for buses, trains – queuing would be a sure-fire GB gold if it was an Olympic sport. There is a lot of it about at present, waiting for the results of this or that vote, waiting for decisions to be made in parliament, waiting to see how complex situations might unfold.
Advent is the Church New Year and begins on the Sunday nearest to the 1st December. Christians begin a period of looking ahead and preparing to celebrate with joy Christ’s coming at Christmas and His return as judge at the end of time. Both arrivals, 2,000 years ago and at some point in the future, bring an end to waiting. More than that, both “Advents” bring dramatic change, the first in our possibilities and the second in the assessment of our outcomes. Between times waiting, but acting to make the world better, to proclaim faith, if of faith, to serve the common good, as a reasonable goal for all. Then, as part of that process there are, in countries fortunate enough to have them, elections.
By convention, Archbishops and some Bishops don’t vote in UK general elections – and I will adhere to this on 12th December. But I am keenly aware that voting is a precious, profound and hard-won democratic right that we must treasure.
Elections involve waiting, especially on election night. They are different though, a kind of active waiting: we try to grasp what the truth may be amid the swirl of robust arguments and competing narratives. This period of uncertainty is also a chance to inform ourselves, and to take part in passionate conversations about what is right and what should be, not only what is.
I certainly don’t want to suggest any parallels between anticipating the coming of Christ and choosing a new government. In many ways they are very different. Yet one thing they have in common is that they express our desire for the world to be shaped in a particular way.
When we cast a vote we are saying, “this is how I want the world to be”, for ourselves and others. Advent shares some of this sense of longing for the world to change – but in a way that is radically and profoundly beyond the scope of any human system of organising society.
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The prophet Isaiah, writing some half a millennium before Christ, spoke of judgement for society’s injustices and sins. When it all happened and much of the nation was enslaved, he wrote of the hope of return, of God’s transforming power. It is some of the most beautiful and passionate poetry of the Bible – and the return happened. Isaiah’s readings accompany the Church through Advent. He paints a vivid picture of a time when all nations will be at peace, when there will be no more tears and pain, no weapons or division and justice will prevail. It can all seem removed and unreal. Something to dream of, but not a reality.
On the contrary, Isaiah the prophet was utterly realistic. He lived in a country that preferred the illusion of all being well to the reality of social sin. Reality was his stock in trade. It was in reality that he held the vision for what could be if the people co-operated with God, if a value-based nation, albeit occupied and dominated by others, could seek the common good, as we might call it. We too can see how our hope for the future may start to change the present. Hope, in the sense of purposeful expectation, motivates action. Hope inspires us to follow God where God already is: at work in the world.
That is why Christian waiting and looking forward is never passive. It empowers hope to take courage and aspire to change the world. It makes space for God to work in our lives, being open to the challenge of the Spirit.
That is the hope-filled invitation that Jesus Christ offers to each of us – and that is why we wait both by praying, and by living out this joyful call to walk with God who brings light out of darkness, and purpose out of waiting.
To receive weekly reflections throughout Advent from the Archbishop of Canterbury as part of the Church of England’s #FollowTheStar campaign, sign up here: https://www.churchofengland.org/our-faith/living-out-our-faith/advent-and-christmas/followthestar-weekly-advent-reflections