Bishop Martin’s Advent Reflection 1
1st Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 2.1-5; Romans 13.11-end; Matthew 24.36-44
Here is an indicator of deprivation that I suspect is rarely noted in school inspections. A primary school teacher asked the pupils in her year 6 class what they would like to be and do when they grow up. There was silence. They had little or no idea because the thought that they had any say over their future was totally alien to them.The teacher persisted, however. What about if they came top in their class and did really well at school, what then would they want? This produced a bit of response: a place in the Big Brother House; a go on The X Factor; to win the National Lottery; to star in Britain’s Got Talent.
It is not appropriate for us to criticise these responses. But it is essential we note how, in a school that has a huge number of statemented children with special needs, and where allocation of free school meals is the norm, the only vision of the future is one generated by celebrity status.There is something here that is not real. This is what the future feels like for children from a community where there is no work or prospect of work. They sense that achievement is not for them; it happens on the television, to other people.These children have an understanding of achievement generated by the media. It typically means having unimaginable amounts of money and living in the glare of the camera. This lacks recognition of the struggle and pain of failure that characterise the determination of people who achieve these ends. It also lacks any sense of what constitutes human and social well-being.
In a similar way the notion of cult status attained overnight omits any narrative about the capacity to form relationships, build a home and family life, value and be valued by friends, neighbours and colleagues. These are goals that give an outline to some sense of the future in which we have a part to play, enabling us to flourish and contribute to the flourishing of others.
As we begin a new Christian year, the readings for Advent Sunday turn our attention to the often uncomfortable recognition of what the future actually holds for all of us. The discomfort lies in the indissoluble links between this world and the life of the world to come and the tone is set by Isaiah’s vision of global peace.In this vision the habits of war are unlearned, swords are beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. But the vision claims our immediate response because its fulfilment begins today: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”(Isaiah 2.1-5). A similar sense of continuity runs through Paul’s comments in his letter to the Christians in Rome: “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light” (Romans 13.12).
The words Jesus speaks in the gospel ratchet up the sense of urgency that lies within the bonds linking the present to the future. He calls his disciples to live today in the awareness of divine judgement, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24.42).
This is the context in which the four last things, death, judgement, heaven and hell, emerge as elements of the sobering message of Advent. They are not simply statements of doom, as might often appear. Indeed, these last things contain within them a message of hope for children and young people in our towns and cities who have no sense of the future as theirs.This message of hope lies in the Christian conviction that heaven, the environment in which our assertion of human dignity and worth is vindicated, does not exist simply as some remote, theoretical place. Heaven is an account of the future that conditions and transforms what we do today, while hell is a serious proposition about the destruction of the destroyers, the consuming of all evil in the blazing fire of divine love.
Our assertion, therefore, to children and young people today is that they certainly do have a future. Above all, that is what the gospel of Jesus Christ tells us about the nature and reality of every human being. Moreover, the claims of this future, which is the kingdom of God, on our present, commit us to ensuring that every child and young person has a place in our time-limited, earthly society. We also assert that we can shape experience and life in this imperfect, human society that opens up to us the possibility of faith in God.
In 1941 William Temple wrote that “it would strike many people as absurd to say that the cure for unemployment is to be found through worship; but it would be true”. Temple was speaking about the role that worship plays in properly forming our vision of temporal society.Seventy years later, his words still ring true. Worship, the environment in which earth and heaven meet, is also the activity by which we nurture the intention of making “natural communities [into] provinces of the Kingdom of God”.
Welcome to the future, young and old alike!