Meditations for Advent

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The Advent season, the first of the Church’s year, provides something of a brake, a salutary resistance to premature indulgence in Christmas cheer. We look beyond the feast we shall celebrate in a few weeks in order to know better the reason for its joy and the direction in which it would take us. With that in mind, the teaching staff at St. Augustine’s offer a brief meditation for each week of the Advent season, inspired by the Old Testament lesson. Please feel free to download, share, and use as you see fit.

Christmas Eve: Isaiah 9: 2-7

[2] The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined.
[3] Thou hast multiplied the nation,
thou hast increased its joy;
they rejoice before thee
as with joy at the harvest,
as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
[4] For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
thou hast broken as on the day of Mid’ian.
[5] For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
[6] For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon his shoulder,
and his name will be called
“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

[7] Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom,
to establish it, and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and for evermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness- on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

This week I went to see Friedrich Schiller’s drama “Mary Stuart” at Islington’s Almeida Theatre. Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams played both Elisabeth 1st of England and Mary Queen of Scots, their roles decided each night on stage at the start of the play by the tossing of a coin. To emphasise their sameness, each wore a simple cream silk shirt and black velvet suit throughout, until the play’s last scene. Each paced the same stage, round and round, now facing each other, now apart. Even when apart, both were obsessed with the image and power of the other in their own thoughts.
Both women are depicted as completely imprisoned by the political power struggles and gender expectations of their time and place in history. Their bodies enact before us the pain of bitter constraint, while their souls long for freedom, peace and love. Only at the end are they differentiated by their dress. Mary Stuart dies on the scaffold in a prisoner’s shift. Elizabeth I lives, but alone and isolated, cut off from intimacy and trust in a white mask, stiff silk dress, and wig. The agony of their incarceration is fierce – like that of birds entrapped in the fowler’s snare.
It is possible to sense ourselves tightly imprisoned, unable to move, this Christmas tide. We ourselves may feel trapped in political and economic systems which waste the earth’s resources and bring injustice to those already ground down by poverty and fear. We may want no part in our nation’s lack of welcome to the stranger and the refugee. We may hope that “post truth” remains a jingoistic phrase, having no power, but fear it may not. Worst of all, we may know the good which we want to do, but, whether by personality or social and political circumstance, we may feel powerless to effect change. We may sense ourselves to be involved in tiny flutterings towards goodness stage-left, while a heavy curtain drops across the world, covering much which we hold dear with a dark fog of nationalism, materialism, and the violent fear of that which is “other”.

In the darkness centre stage a light shines – a light of judgement and hope, a light of encouragement towards peace and harmony, a light of reconciliation between warring human flesh and God. An inextinguishable light blazes, shining our way to freedom. The snare is broken.

For the action of God in the birth of a child 2000 years ago brings an utterly new perspective to this dark sense of constraint and powerlessness. There is a mountain path, certainly, but on it the crocus blooms. There is a barren wasteland, true, but in it a bomb- blasted tree has already burst into leaf and branch. God has created light in darkness. God has revealed the self of God to us in our own human nature. God has stretched out God’s hand to us and raised us up. A royal son has been born who is able to cleanse our perception, take away our blindness, for he knows how to distinguish between true goodness and the deception of evil. This son is Immanuel, God-is-with-us.
If we trust this royal son he is able to speak, walk, and touch us into God’s life for us, like a tiny child who entices us to play in the midst of the rubble of war and woe. Come, follow me!
It is the time, now, to celebrate this good news. We have been freed.

We have been freed to receive God’s love known in Christ Jesus our Lord, to share it, live it, explore it, be constantly renewed by it as a rich counterbalance to the ways in which the world would shape us. This is a strange freedom, certainly; a freedom which may sometimes look more like death, as we learn to give ourselves away, and to centre ourselves upon God. Yet it is a way of perfect freedom, as the Christ child entices us from his crib, to be overwhelmed by his love and challenged by his truth.
Have a happy and blessed Christmas.

Clare Herbert

Advent IV: Isaiah 7:10-16

[10] Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, [11] “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” [12] But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”
[13] And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?
[14] Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. [15] He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.
[16] For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.” (RSV)

We join Ahaz, King of Judah, as he receives the word of the Lord delivered by the prophet Isaiah. As we learn earlier in the chapter, the encounter takes place at Jerusalem’s Upper Pool, where Ahaz is inspecting the defence of the city. It’s a time of high alert: the neighbouring kingdoms of Israel and Syria have teamed up to besiege Jerusalem, with the aim of dividing up Judah between themselves. Ahaz and the people are terrified, but Isaiah is sent with a message to put things into perspective: soon Israel and Syriah will be reduced to ‘smouldering stubs of firewood’ (v. 4).

It may be hard for Ahaz to believe, preoccupied as he still is with protecting Jerusalem against the two enemies on its doorstep. So he is offered a sign, something to hold on to. But he declines: “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”

A strange response, perhaps. It isn’t the first time that God allows a leader of Israel to test his reliability. Moses, standing before the burning bush, doubted God’s wisdom in choosing him as leader; he only dared embark on his mission after God had turned his staff into a writhing snake (Exod. 4:2-3). Likewise, Gideon only felt able to go into battle after receiving a divine sign – in the form of an elaborate experiment involving wet and dry fleeces (Judges 6:36-40).

God lets doubting and fearful people ‘taste and see’ for themselves that God is indeed to be trusted.

And yet, there is a fine line between receiving a sign from God, and attempting to twist God’s arm. God gives signs as free gifts, not as instruments of manipulation. Moses had to learn this the hard way. Driven to despair by the Israelites and their complaints, he and his brother Aaron lost their temper: “Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” (Num. 20:10). Moses hit the rock, using his staff as if it were a magic wand. As their punishment, he and Aaron would never enter the promised land.

King Ahaz, then, seems to have learned the lessons of history: “I will not put the Lord to the test.”

A wise answer too, it seems, in the season of Advent. The Lord is coming; yet he comes “like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). God may be faithful and dependable, but God alone will determine the terms and conditions of his coming. We should not prejudge God’s acts of deliverance, trying to fit the Lord’s coming into our timetables.

That being the case, why does Ahaz’s reply anger the prophet so much (v. 13)?

Ahaz’s answer may seem orthodox, but Isaiah knows better. This is the same Ahaz who sacrificed his son to one Canaan’s cruel idols (2 Kings 16: 3). The same Ahaz who, around the time of this exchange with Isaiah, is trying to buy Assyria’s protection with silver and gold taken from the temple. And soon he will try to ingratiate himself with the Assyrian king even further, ordering for himself a copy of an altar he sees whilst paying a courtesy visit to his new overlord (2 Kings 16:10-18).

Ahaz knows how to play both gods and men: you give them what they want, so they will give you what you want. Now, admittedly, the Lord – this God he has inherited from his forefathers – is a tricky one to deal with. This god isn’t open for business like the others (no use in sacrificing a son to him!). But even here, surely, there must be ways of getting divine power on your side. The least one can try is say the right things: things that sound pious and in accordance with the Scriptures, bound to mollify a moody prophet of the Lord.

“I will not put the Lord to the test.”

Wrong answer. Because the Lord had already determined against the campaign of Israel and Syria (v. 7). So Ahaz gets a sign anyway: the two kings, we learn, will be gone by the time the boy who’s about to be born (Ahaz’s own son perhaps?) will be old enough to ‘refuse the evil and choose the good’ (v. 16) – that is, two years old.

A surprisingly reassuring outcome, perhaps, at least for the immediate future. The nations currently threatening Jerusalem will soon be consigned to history by a force far more powerful and menacing – the empire of Assyria. Yet if Ahaz thinks he can control the process of his deliverance, hedging his bets and sending protection money to Assyria, then he is seriously mistaken. Why would an empire built for war not aim to swallow up tiny Judah as well, like all the other nations (cf. 2 Kings 18)?

“The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah – the king of Assyria” (v. 17).

Unless Ahaz and the people of Judah turn back to the Lord in genuine faith, the Lord’s advent will bring them nothing but the arrival of Assyria in all its dreadful might.

Advent is good or bad news, depending on how you read the signs.

Guido de Graaff

Advent III: Isaiah 35 1-10

[1] The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus
[2] it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the LORD,
the majesty of our God.
[3] Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
[4] Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”
[5] Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
[6] then shall the lame man leap like a hart,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
[7] the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
[8] And a highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not pass over it,
and fools shall not err therein.
[9] No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
[10] And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

The little autumn crocus pushing up through a well-trodden path; not only the heavy trudging boots of pilgrims but the swooshing and sweeping of mountain bikes and their lycra-clad riders seem hell-bent on crushing such a tiny and fragile miracle. It persists and multiplies and, out of the forest, a delicate field of pale purple shines in the fading sunlight.  From every side the sound of gushing water – and birdsong.  The threat has been removed, for evil must be overcome (Isaiah34) before such a lush universal vision, as we have in this passage, can appear.  Deliverance from exile becomes the metaphor which promises healing, wholeness, justice beyond our imagining, to all human life – and an end to human pain and our obsessive greed and warfare.  Anxiety, loneliness and depression will be swept away, as completely as the physical challenges of the barren desert and its dried-up watercourses.  The world is not – as we had thought – precariously balanced in the hands of alien powers, but held safely by the Creator and endowed with the restored glory promised by the prophet; the same restored glory as marks the kingdom and authority of God.  The Lord has been absent to creation and is now reordering it with a compassion that assimilates and overwhelms any suggestion of vengeance.  The rehabilitation of God’s people is shown to be inseparable from the restoration of God’s merciful and cosmic rule.

Transformation happens, it seems, in desert caves, ‘the sound of sheer silence’ and waiting in the less-visited corners of our inner world and the marginal places of our cities and our continents.  Such a distance we are shown between our present and our dream;  and always there is the danger of mirage to lure us off course.  We are to wait rather for an encounter, guard a right use of time, hear the radical call to put down roots rather than erect walls, and  live more vulnerably.  Yet, both within and without, it is boundaries which create us and prevent us from falling into chaos.  Bruce Springsteen, brought up in a household without edges, explores the horizons and borders of reality in many of his songs:

‘For you I’ll build a house/high upon a grassy hill/ somewhere across the border//where pain and memory/pain and memory have been stilled/there across the border’ and

‘On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert/I pick up my money and head back into town’.

For his generation – us – it is the margins that matter: the cost of urbanisation and a prevailing sense of powerlessness in world affairs tug at our hearts and consciences.  Earth is a living organism – spirituality of the city is pared down to the prayer of silence and recovery of the body.  The incarnate Lord, to be born as spewing infant, challenges our heart’s loyalty by pointing up the distance between this reality and the restored upside-down universe of God’s realm, the project to which we are summoned.   Vast increasing tracts of our planet are desert, places of extremes where animals and plants struggle to survive and, in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, vicious conflict rages, resentment is fuelled by global injustice and, as ever, exiles are on the move – searching and yearning for a peaceful existence in a New City.  Such migrations, from war zones via traffickers, are a far cry from the glories of the famed cedar trees of Lebanon and ‘the majesty of Carmel and Sharon’.

In Isaiah’s vision the safety of the road is secured, though the territory on either side remains dangerous.  All who walk it are made clean, ‘fools’ will not risk the security of others, all will know to whom they ultimately belong and God will take full responsibility for their safe passage.  And more than that: Zion is restored as the place of God’s joy.  The home for which we were all created comes into focus.  The towers and palaces of the celestial city emerge shining from the coffee shops and market stalls.  When the ground squelches beneath our feet, when anxiety threatens to overwhelm us – even then, especially then, ‘we have God’s joy in our blood’.

With earth restored, with this our fragile star,
in gladness home from pilgrimage afar
we find in God a joy that none can mar. Alleluia!

Georgie Heskins

Advent II: Isaiah 11:1-10

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
[2] And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
[3] And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
[4] but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
[5] Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist,
and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.
[6] The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
[7] The cow and the bear shall feed;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
[8] The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
[9] They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

Imagine an area of scrubland that has been cleared and lies desolate through the winter months. All around is debris and mess. There are no branches left for birds to perch on, no cover for mice or hedgehogs to scurry through, only rotting stems and decaying timbers. You might be able to imagine that growth will resume in the Spring, but experience tells that it will be the weeds – thorns and thistles – that will dominate. How can anything of worth or beauty be re-established?

Isaiah takes this image and draws attention to a particular stump. ‘Look!’ he says. ‘This stump will sprout again. Only a fragile shoot at first, but it will grow, and it will become the most protective and life-giving tree of all!’

The power of the image depends on the context to which it was spoken. The kingdom of Judah in the mid-eight century BC was in dire straits, beset by enemies on every side. Those they turned to for help turned against them, and even their own kindred took advantage – see the narrative in 2Chr. 28. We might think of communities in present day Syria or Iraq, under bombardment from so many sides: government, opposition and even those foreign ‘allies’ whose contribution is to multiply the violence.

The hope that Isaiah offers to his contemporaries is the hope of a future ruler, denoted figuratively as the shoot from the stump of a felled tree. The significance of this particular ruler is that the spirit of God will rest on him, so that he will have knowledge of God, discernment and insight. Again, the full significance of this is apparent when we note the contrast with the pretence of discernment and insight of the Assyrian king (see 10.12-13).

We might be surprised by the way the consequence of this is expressed: ‘he shall judge the poor’ (v.4). Judgement is not an easy topic and often avoided, though one of the four traditional Advent themes. But here judgement is clearly something wonderful and salvific. The implication is that this future ruler will judge in favour of the poor. He will enact justice on their behalf, so that they no longer suffer at the hands of others, and he will do so with righteousness and equity. Those who harm and destroy – and who refuse to desist – will themselves be destroyed.

The image in the continuation of the prophet’s oracle develops this theme. It paints a picture of what the world will be like when powers of destruction are themselves destroyed. But the picture is not merely a negative one – in which violence is absent – but a positive one – in which God’s faithful people enjoy security and well-being. Thus the point is not primarily about changing patterns in the animal world but about how the human and animal worlds relate. When the wolf threatens the lamb, it threatens food supply of the shepherd and his community; when the lion threatens the calf, it threatens the livelihood of the farmer and all his dependents. These threats shall be no more, just as the basic health and life of an innocent child shall no longer be threatened by a poisonous snake. ‘They will not hurt or destroy’ (v.9) any longer.

The reason for such a new state of being is re-iterated as ‘the knowledge of the LORD’ (v.9). So this insight and discernment, the reverence and faithfulness that will characterise the future ruler are, in fact, a type of what all humanity may experience too. All humanity may be drawn into an active participation in the life and purposes of God. Walter Brueggemann, with typical flourish, describes this as an ‘awed, discerning sense of responsible, liberated, caring life in Yahweh’s world’ that represents the hope for ‘the overcoming of every distance between Yahweh and Yahweh’s cared-for human creature.’ (Theology of the OT, 1997, p.480)

As we watch and wait, in the Advent season, for the renewal of all creation, this vision inspires our hope. For do we not yearn for an end to violence, not only as an end in itself but as a means to the security and welfare of all?

Simon Stocks

Advent I: Isaiah 2.1-6

[1] The word which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
[2] It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
[3] and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
[4] He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
[5] O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD. (RSV)

“And all the nations shall flow to it,” as to the world’s centre, to which everything returns and from which everything goes forth. Jerusalem, God’s holy mountain, towards which steer ships when finally the storm fails and the stars come out, that is seen at last by the nomad caravan when the dust blizzard is over, and is announced before kings who send their gold and throw open their palace doors to face the shining sun on the mountain at the world’s heart. Judah’s more powerful neighbours understood all this. They might well have mocked Isaiah’s prophecy, had they known it, but they knew about the world’s centre. Was not Nineveh, from where the lords of the Assyrians ruled and sent out their armies like plagues, set precisely at this centre? Did not Pharaoh’s throne have its very foundations on this spot, under the sun and above the underworld? All the great empires made this claim, to rise from the centre, from the omphalos, the world’s navel. The powers of life gather around the omphalos, falling back into the centre for renewal, rising revived. Throughout the cosmos, plant and animal, humanity, even the gods drew life from the centre. In due time, (though this should not be read as ‘at the end of time’), says the prophet, God will set up Judah, as the world’s heart, and the faces of lords and kings shall then turn to Jerusalem, and the Temple itself will set the pulse of all rising and falling.

This is a strange claim. Judah, already only a part divided from the kingdom that David had ruled, is an unlikely candidate to rule the rulers of nations. Judah, whose kings are brave only in alliance or when the horns of empire have already broken. Nor is Judah admirable in faith, rather the prophet, immediately after this outrageous promise, denounces the place as a warehouse for idols. “Jerusalem has stumbled, Judah has fallen, for in word and deed they oppose the Lord… you have devoured the vineyard, and put the spoil of the poor in your houses” (3.8, 14). Neither politically or spiritually is Judah a credible recipient for the promise they she shall “be raised above the hills” and teach the nations peace. We only begin to make sense of this when we understand how this cosmic picture of life circulating, spreading, returning, embracing creatures and gods, itself shatters and is utterly reconfigured the moment the prophet speaks of the Holy One of Israel. In other words, this prophecy, applied to Judah as the promise of Israel’s God, cuts right through a worldview accepted throughout the ancient world. According to that vision, the cosmos is the ultimate reality that contains the gods who are the supreme beneficiaries of its powers. In such a cosmos, earthly rule participates in and mirrors that of the gods. Divine and royal rule promises balance, rhythms of energy seeking equilibrium. The long history of prophetic protest shows how tempting Israel found this account of cosmos, divinity, and royal power. No room exists in this cosmos for the unprecedented, for the God who makes something from nothing, justifies sinners, and raises the dead. As Creator, as the One who has life in himself, unlike the gods of the nations, God does not belong within the cosmic powers. His power does not wax and wane with the seasons; God does not renew his life from the omphalos. He is centre and circumference, beginning and end, nothing centres him; where he is and will be, where he speaks, and where his creatures hear and answer, there is the centre. When Judah turns from all and any god who merely lends a face to some cosmic power or other, who serves an imperial bragging, then indeed the law shall go forth from Zion, and Jerusalem will rise in the heart of the nations.

For the prophet, of course, Jerusalem, built up as God’s mountain, as the centre from which his glory spills, is still a place, an earthly kingdom, a city on a hill, albeit it shall gain this centrality from above, as coming down from heaven. God shall, however, take another and an incomparably greater step and go beyond even this unlikely geography. That happens when God, who is nowhere and everywhere, takes flesh and descends to a place outside Jerusalem (Heb. 13.12), decentred from all decency, all power, all glory, and any hope of life. There God both frees us from time and geography, from the cosmos in which nothing new happens under the sun, and also gives it back to us as the world of grace and service. So, performing the unprecedented, God raises Jesus from the dead, and establishes this unpropitious and peripheral spot in the hearts of multitudes.

Alan Gregory