A vapour trail through Advent
Bishop Clive’s Pastoral Letter - December 2019
Stillness and the Patron Saint of Preparation?
Like a seasonal affliction, it is hard for regular churchgoers to avoid John the Baptist at this time of year. He bestrides the Advent landscape like a particularly fierce colossus, his presence disruptive, abrasive, unsettling; his call to repentance an invitation to internal combustion. Oh, that we could airbrush him out of our build up to Christmas and highlight other figures less likely to frighten the children – or their parents!
And yet as we follow John the Baptist’s vapour trail through Advent, we can see among the smoke and debris a message for ourselves and for our society that is both very simple and potentially explosive.
It is for good reason that countless sermons will be preached in the coming weeks on the themes of ‘preparation’ and ‘waiting’, themes that are at the heart of John’s ministry and also that resonate powerfully with most peoples’ experience of the build up to Christmas i.e. a mixture of anticipation and task-driven preparation. There will also be numerous exhortations from the pulpit encouraging worshippers to try and find some stillness and space to counteract the hyper frenzy and focus on what it is we are preparing for. But while John the Baptist is the Patron Saint of Preparation, it is difficult to imagine, from what we know of him, that he was an icon of stillness. He was in far too much of a hurry, his mission much too urgent. What we see in John’s ministry is the truth that waiting for the future involves transforming the present.
I remember seeing a production of ‘Godspell’ in London when I was young and the song ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’ is still burned into my memory. It also serves as a reminder that this is our calling too and Advent presents us with so many opportunities to transform the present as we actively wait for the future. There are evangelistic opportunities presented by full churches at Christingles and Carol services and of course there are endless opportunities to witness to our faith through acts of generosity and service.
John was a prophet, calling people to a radically different way of life. Perhaps our prophetic calling this Christmas, may be to demonstrate that our way of celebrating is based on simplicity, generosity and sustainability?
There is mounting evidence that the climate emergency is prompting a widespread questioning of western lifestyles, with our excessive materialism and culture of instant disposability increasingly under the microscope. Does all this stuff really make us happy? And how can we tolerate the impact on the planet of all that we waste and dispose of so irresponsibly?
So this Advent, after the example of John the Baptist, let us be alive to all the possibilities the season brings, from personal renewal to societal transformation, and to play whatever part we can in helping to bring them about through prayer and action.
+ Clive Wulfrun