Monday, December 5, 2016

Ahab in Advent

It is nearly always a bit of a problem quite how to tie Evensong (or Matins) readings with the liturgical season and to do so within the very limited scope of a brief reflection (approximately 400 words).  It may be argued that such linking is unnecessary, and even an imposition, but if a congregation has to endure the readings - then there seems to be some obligation to try and make sense of them.  What do you think?

Choral Evensong Advent 2 2016

Readings:  1 Kings 18:17-39;
John 1:19-28.

We are frequently told that Advent is a time of waiting; of expectancy; of getting ready for the coming of Christ.   As children some of us understood that only too well: Christmas never seemed to come.  We had waited and watched: we had seen presents carefully smuggled into the house; we knew the favourite places of concealment; we might even have shaken the box on the top of the tall wardrobe in the spare room and guessed at the contents.  But none of this made the great day come any sooner and there was always some uncertainty about what we hoped for.

Uncertainty prevails in the readings for this evening.  Each reading has elements that resonate between the texts.  So, for instance, Ahab sees Elijah and appears to check that it really is Elijah he is dealing with, though his words are more rhetorical gesture than a genuine inquiry: “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”  Elijah makes it plain that the boot is on the other foot and the troubler is Ahab himself.  All of Elijah’s actions that follow show him appearing to act against his own cause: the pouring of the water is to douse any possibility of fire; and yet conversely, any fire will have to be the action of God and the irrefutable confirmation of Elijah’s status.

John the Baptist has impressed Jerusalem and the officials about the Jerusalem temple.  His character and style have stirred old cultural memories and legends of Elijah: has Elijah come again?  Who are you?  The questions are real, not rhetorical.  John flatly denies that he is in any way the one they are waiting for.  Yet his actions recall Elijah: as Elijah doused the sacrifice with water so John baptizes with water in the Jordan River: different actions but using the same element - water always being used for cleansing and to signify commitment. 

Both Ahab and the Pharisees had to manage uncertainty; had to clarify who they were dealing with; had to recognise the activity and agency of God.  Those are typically Advent questions and issues.  Similarly our preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas demands our attention and our discernment.  We see Ahab as reluctant and fearful; the Pharisees as unsure who they look for; or quite what they look for;  and we ourselves may feel puzzled at the prospect of Advent – a confusion and hope that Archbishop Rowan Williams voices in his poem ‘Advent Calendar’.

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

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