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What's So Hard About Advent?

00:00 / 13:58

6 Dec 2023

Advent Carol Service

Advent Carol Service

In this sermon audio podcast, Fr Jamie Franklin asks us to consider what it is about the soul of modern man that he cannot bear to observe the season of Advent but must always rush on to Christmas. Have we lost the ability to face the difficult challenges and significant questions of life? And what hope does the Christian faith really offer in the midst of a chaotic and turbulent world?

Now may I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


Well, I don't know how it seems to you, but it seems to me that Christmas seems to start earlier every year.

That might sound like somewhat of a curmudgeonly thing to say, but it's true.

The Christmas lights go up in November.

Classic FM starts playing Christmas carols in what seems like October.

Christmas markets are erected, people go crazy and Christmas just seems to be here all at once.

And yet the church remains bare and we clothe ourselves in purple, a gloomy though fantastic colour.

And this is because, friends, the liturgical season is Advent and it will remain so until Midnight Mass

On Christmas Eve, when all will be changed to white and gold and rejoicing.

Advent is a time of waiting, of longing for the presence of God to deliver us from sin and for the emptiness and torpor of our souls.

This is reflected in that beautiful Advent hymn, possibly the most well-known Advent hymn, O Come, O Come,

Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.

Mourn over sin, mourn over being disconnected from God and meaning and life.

And this reminds us of the words from Matthew chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount, when Christ says, Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Comforted by God Himself.

But why has Advent been so eclipsed by Christmas?

Why do we just want to rush into Christmas and skip over Advent?

Well, it could be just because we like presents and joy and family and fun and all of that is understandable.

But is there a deeper reason in the human soul?

Advent is a time of waiting.

and longing.

It is, if you like, a quiet season, a silent season.

And silence can be difficult.

You may, at some point in your life, have tried to stay in a monastery to get some quiet time, perhaps some spiritual time.

If you've done that, perhaps you've had the experience of finding that difficult.

Many people do.

When they try and take some time in a quiet place such as a monastery or somewhere else, they find that very hard.

Because when you do take time to be quiet, when you do take time to be still, you have to reckon with what's really inside and you can't run away from it.

That is, unless you enter the world of noise and busyness again.

And maybe Advent is like that for us.

We find it hard to be still, to look at what's truly inside, to think about what life is really all about.

It's far easier to just buy things and have a good time, to drink nice drinks and to eat fine foods.

We're restless, distracted by phones and the internet, streaming services, and to stop all of this and to be still and to consider is a very hard thing indeed.

It reminds me of the saying of the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal who said, all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

And yet what would happen?

What would happen if we stopped?

What would we or could we find?

There's an ancient book of the Bible

called Ecclesiastes, which was written by the king of Israel, King Solomon.

And he did just that.

He had an experiment.

He stopped and he considered life under the sun, which essentially means life without God.

What is life like if we just observe it without reference to God?

Now, Solomon, he had riches and power and women and education and erudition and freedom to do whatever he liked.

And he tried all these things out.

He indulged himself in them to see what they would be like, to see if he could find some kind of deeper meaning to life through them.

And yet he found that even with all of these things, life seemed to be characterized by what he called vanity.

What we might call emptiness.

And he observed five particular vanities.

Firstly, the indifference of things.

The fact that the universe seems simply not to care about us and our plights and our suffering.

Things appear to just be indifferent.

He observed death as the certain and final end of life.

Whatever meaning we can find in this life, whatever achievements we can attain, these things will ultimately be swallowed up by death and the benefits that we have accrued to ourselves will just be taken by another.

Our names will be forgotten and so will our words.

The Catholic philosopher Peter Kreef said, death is the most inconvenient thing in life, but it is also the most obvious.

Solomon observed time as an endless cycle of repetition.

One generation succeeds another.

The seasons go round and round.

Nothing seems to change.

Technology may progress.

Some types of knowledge may progress, but do we progress?

Do we change as people?

Does the world go anywhere?

Just seems that time leads us from one thing to another, endlessly repeating itself, same thing happening over and over again.

Solomon saw evil

as the unsolvable problem of human life?

Why do people suffer so much?

Why do bad people get away with the things that they do?

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Why do bad things, terrible things, happen to children?

Why are there, despite all the efforts of humanity, still so many who are poor and hungry?

All that is good

in our lives.

All that has been achieved through years and decades and even centuries can be taken away in a single moment through a bad decision or an evil action.

And this too is vanity.

The final thing that Solomon observed was that God, without some kind of revelation from above, without some kind of parting of the skies is an unknowable mystery.

It may seem that there is a God, but without that parting of the clouds, all that we can know about Him is that maybe He exists, maybe He's powerful, maybe He's artistic, maybe He's intelligent, but we cannot know that He is good, that He loves us, or that He is just.

We cannot know, and He cares about us and about our plights.

Yes, Solomon saw that life under the sun is characterised by these vanities and yet in this same book he said something else.

He said that even with all of these things God has put eternity into man's heart.

God has put eternity into man's heart.

Even with all this vanity we still long

to transcend.

We still long for meaning.

We still long for a life beyond this one, with all of its suffering, with all of its vanity.

And perhaps this longing is just an illusion.

Perhaps this is just a fantasy.

Perhaps this is just wishful thinking.

But what, what if it's not?

What if the longing that we feel for meaning, for eternity, for God, is a longing for something that is truly real?

And this, friends, I believe, is where Advent and Christmas meet one another.

Advent, as the first liturgical season of the year, introduces us to that longing and that waiting and that hoping which, if we're honest, we know all about anyway.

Christmas is the answer to that hope.

Now, if we are to know the answers to these ultimate questions of which I speak, then they are not going to come from under the sun in our everyday observations, but God will have to reveal them to us.

And the Christian story tells us that this is precisely what God has done.

That he has broken into human history, that he has parted the clouds and come down.

And he has done this in the most unlikely of ways, by taking flesh upon himself and dwelling among us.

We'll hear in a moment, Pearsall's arrangement of indulgy ubilos.

It's a mixture of Latin and English, but in English it says, In sweet rejoicing let our homage show, Our hearts' joy reclineth in the stall, Like a bright star shineth on his mother's lap, He is Alpha and Omega, he is Alpha and Omega.

Friends, take a moment to recognise what is being said here.

Take a moment to recognise the seriousness and the sheer outlandishness of this claim.

In the stall, in a manger, like a bright star, shineth, on his mother's lap, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of all things, is born as a child, cradled in his mother's arms.

And why?

And why is all of this?

For the simple reason that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.

For love, God came down in Christ to speak to us, to communicate himself to us and to save us.

Now this movement from darkness to light, from longing and hoping to what might be called or considered crazy optimism and expectation is just what the Christian faith promises to us.

And this is why that hymn speaks of sweet rejoicing, sweet rejoicing that such a thing could possibly be.

That God himself, that Christ should be born among us as a baby.

And yet Advent is still here among us in this life, always with us.

We suffer, we grow tired, we grow old and we die.

And so the season poses us a question.

Is that all there is?

Is this life simply like Advent and nothing else?

Night and darkness and cold?

Or could it be that one day, some 2,000 years ago now, Christmas really happened in a stall in Bethlehem and that this has now changed everything?

and that this is now our home.

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