I have ambiguous feelings about this time of the year.
There are some famous lines in Book 11 of Augustine’s Confessions where he tries to explain the nature of time.
“What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend
this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words?
Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday conversation, more than of time?
We surely know what we mean when we speak of it.
We also know what is meant when we hear someone else taking about it.
What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know.
If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know”
(Confessions,11.14.17, p. 230)
We start a new Church year this Advent Sunday. We mark the moment and the expectancy of the season with the Advent candle stand and the ring of candles that will count us to Christmas Day. So this Sunday shows us all engaged with the great mystery of time: (1) we start a new church year and (2) we have a candlestand that counts us through the time of Advent to Christmas.
There is of course a practical problem – something that we really impose upon ourselves; perhaps something that we need to ask ourselves?
Is our countdown to Christmas really a preparation for Christmas or are we really rehearsing and waiting for something more? I hope I am not going to sound like someone who puts Christmas down – I love Christmas and the intolerable wonder of the Word made flesh. But I will admit to times on Christmas Day, after all the joy and far too much to eat and drink, that I sense that the longing of the season still lingers unsatisfied … and at the back of the mind one senses the pressure of that rather frightening and awesome prayer “your kingdom come”. Amen, ‘Come, King Jesus.”
Of course we do prepare for Christmas: in the proper sense of heart and mind and contemplating the mystery that beggars all our thought; in the proper sense of understanding the love of God toward us and all creation as the Word takes form and substance in our matter. There is enough in all of that to ponder and wonder at – and we need to do that or else the familiar stories can be reduced to the colourful but sentimental images too often associated with a children’s Christmas pageant.
But I will be frank, I think at Advent our preparation for the Christ event, the birth in Bethlehem, is really a rehearsal for the end of time and the return of the King. This means that our enthusiastic preparations for the season are also threaded with our longing for the end; for the kingdom – as dreadful and as terrifying a thought as it may be. That thought does give a certain edge to our Christmas shopping and preparations – we prepare to celebrate the day of course, but in our hearts we are looking further ahead. The mince pies, the Christmas cake, the turkey and the ham, the endless little presents, the cards: the whole vast train of things we do at Christmas start to become a little less important at the thought of Christ’s return – and whatever that may involve.
That looking ahead aspect accounts for the edginess and the warning tone of all the Advent readings. We are cautioned to be ready for the return of the King; to be ready for the end as the great purpose of God (we can put it no more clearly than that) is drawn to completion. The apocalyptic language of scripture with its talk of flood and famine, wars, disasters – and of course earthquakes, of which we know something – confronts us with our mortality, our finitude, our temporality in the vast abyss of time.
And yet, against that cosmic unease, we continue with the simple human tasks of preparation for the feast and we light our Advent candles: holding both our hopes for the day of celebration and the day of the kingdom that will come.
“This morning during Matins I had a ‘jolt of happiness, of fullness of life, and at the same time the thought: I will have to die! But in such a fleeting breath of happiness, time usually ‘gathers’ itself. In an instant, not only are all such breaths of happiness remembered but they are present and alive—that Holy Saturday in Paris when I was a young man—and many such ‘breaks.’ It seems to me that eternity might be not the stopping of time, but precisely its resurrection and gathering. The fragmentation of time, its division, is the fall of eternity. Maybe the words of Christ are about time when He said: ‘…not to destroy anything but will raise it all on the last day.’ The thirst for solitude, peace, freedom, is thirst for the liberation of time from cumbersome dead bodies, from hustle; thirst for the transformation of time into what it should be—the receptacle, the chalice of eternity. Liturgy is the conversion of time, its filling with eternity. There are two irreconcilable types of spirituality: one that strives to liberate man from time (Buddhism, Hinduism, Nirvana, etc.); the other that strives to liberate time. In genuine eternity, all is alive. The limit and the fullness: the whole of time, the whole of life is in each moment. But there is also the perpetual problem: What about the evil moments? Evil time? The terrible fear before dying of the drowning man, of the man falling from the tenth floor about to be crushed on the pavement? What about the tears of an abused child?”
(The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983, p.78)