Advent – the opposite of hygge – for the night is dark and full of terrors

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Hygge has ended up being one of the words of the year for 2016, largely due to some clever British marketing of a Danish concept of cosiness. Hygge totally appeals to me. It is a bit obvious though, of course getting cosy in slippers and a blanket and cuddling up shutting out the world appeals! Especially in this annus horribilis. These books about finding hygge will end up in stockings everywhere this Christmas.

So when I came to preach on this Advent Sunday I came with thoughts of getting cosy in my mind and was reminded again of how counter-cultural advent is. Our churches are devoid of decoration for most of advent. We don’t sing the gloria. Our vestments and altar cloths are a sombre purple. The traditional themes of advent are death, judgement, heaven and hell!

The New Testament reading for today was from Romans, Paul writes:

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. – Romans 13:11-14

Everything our culture tries to do at this time of year is an attempt at hygge. An attempt to block out the darkness by wearing Christmas jumpers, putting up Christmas trees and lights in November and showing adverts presenting us in our best light, showing goodwill to all. There are some downsides to hygge. One element is that it is trying to anaesthetise us to the darkness – this doesn’t make the darkness go away. The other is that it blocks out the element of surprise, it shuts us down, it makes us exclude (the hygge concept is popular with the far right in Denmark – foreigners are not welcome in our cosy homes). So this is where advent comes in, to shake us out of this all too human desire to shut out.

Wake up! Says Jesus to the disciples. Wake up, says Paul to the Romans. The responsory for morning prayer in advent is the rather Game of Thrones-like:

Now it is time to awake out of sleep,
for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.
Now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed,
for the night is far spent.
Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
for the day is at hand.
Put on the Lord Jesus Christ
and make no provision for the flesh,
for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.

(or, for the night is dark and full of terrors!)

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Our only defence in these dark times is to put on the armour of light. That’s right, to arm ourselves against the darkness, not to anaesthetise ourselves by cosying up and blocking out others. It’s a much more dynamic way to respond to these dark times we’re living through.

Let’s get armoured up. Let’s wake up in the morning and make the devil say ‘Oh crap, she’s up!’

Here’s a way to arm yourself, St Patrick’s breastplate prayer:

I bind unto myself today

The strong Name of the Trinity,

By invocation of the same,

The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever.

 

 

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

 

 

A New Year meditation: You also shall light my candle; the Lord my God shall make my darkness to be bright.

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This morning’s psalm in Morning Prayer was Psalm 18 and this verse in particular stood out for me:

light my candle

At the beginning of a New Year it seemed to me to be so apt. We often feel that we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we have to do everything ourselves, that we have to bear our burdens on our own. These are all things we hear sometimes in church circles but I don’t think they are the way of Christ.

Imagine your life as the unlit tea light in the picture. What are the areas of your life where you need God to bring light, energy, warmth?

It is God from whom we get any energy at all, any vision at all, any desire to keep going. He is our source. We don’t have to and shouldn’t try to go it alone in 2013.

 

Mind the Gap – the hidden sadness in the nativity stories

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the dark side to Christmas. My friend Andy wrote a very moving article reflecting on what this Christmas would be like for the people of Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve also just read the book Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann where she explores what it means to meet God in the darkest moments of life. At my placement church in Leeds there are many people who visit each week to collect food from the foodbank and there are others who have fled their countries and live here in fear. All of this has combined to make me think again about the message of Christmas and what this season of joy might mean to these different people.

When we read the bible, it is sometimes the things that are not said that can be significant. We are fortunate that our gospel writers wrote very intentionally – their versions of the life of Christ and the early Christians weren’t written on the back of an envelope – they were carefully crafted. If you look closely at the nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke there is quite a lot of hidden sadness.

  • In Mary’s ‘yes’ to the message Gabriel brought her, she said ‘yes’ to shame, to ostracism in her community, to the risk of losing Joseph. Imagine for a moment what her pregnancy must have been like for her.
  • Joseph is compelled by the hated occupying forces to take his heavily pregnant fiancee all the way to Bethlehem just for his name to be registered – presumably so that the Romans can leech even more from his people. Joseph, in agreeing to stay with Mary, must have attracted some comments as well from his village – everyone would have assumed he was the father of the child.
  • The shepherds were the poorest of the poor, on the outskirts of the city being kept there both physically and metaphorically by wider society. What hardship had they encountered in their lives and what would have carried on after they had met Jesus?
  • The wise men had to change all their plans after meeting Jesus, they had to go home by a different, probably dangerous, possibly costly route. What would that journey home for them have been like?
  • As we can see, in amongst all the joy is sadness. In the call of God there is both loss and gain.

    I don’t know if this gives me comfort or not. I guess it does because if it wasn’t there, I don’t think I could believe the story – it wouldn’t feel real.

    I got irritated in Waterstone’s yesterday looking in the so-called Religion section. There, next to the bibles was AC Grayling’s alternative to the bible ‘The Good Book’. A cursory glance at it immediately spoke to me of emptiness. The reason the bible is the ultimate Good Book is because it contains the disturbing reality of human life – not a sanitised version of what we think it ought to be. I think I’d rather have the warts and all version of how God deals with people than someone’s lofty ideas of how life should be. This is the amazing mystery we celebrate at Christmas, that in our confused and often sad lives, Jesus still chooses to come and be present to us, in the dirt, whilst others whisper about the inappropriateness of it all.

    Immanuel. God with us.

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