Materials for Worship on Advent Sunday

Nerys writes:
It seems to me that Christmas is starting earlier every year. Today is Advent Sunday and I’ve already led a Christmas carol service, visited a Christmas craft fair and the Extravaganza, sung carols around a Christmas tree and eaten three mince pies! Perhaps 2023 with its brutal wars, the suffering caused by the effects of Climate Change and the economic after-effects of the pandemic has caused many of us to crave some semblance of joy. It is natural to want to turn our backs for a few weeks on all the devastation and desperation and focus instead on things that make us glad.

Carols at Cromlix

I find it fascinating, however, that in the calendar of the Church, before any moment of celebration there is a season of lament and penance. Advent precedes Christmas and Lent precedes Easter. Our church fathers and mothers understood that a night of doubt and weeping  comes before a morning of true joy. This movement from darkness to light is at the very heart of our worship.

In today’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah 64.1-9, the prophet takes us from lament to hope on an emotional prayer journey. His oracle starts with complaint and protest. He appeals directly to God to ‘rend the heavens and come down’. He lays bare the truth of his own experience and that of his people, a nation devastated by years of oppression and exile, and in doing so he expresses his trust that God will hear his desperate call. The honesty of his prayer makes him vulnerable and open to inner change. Lament helps us to move forward with God to a place of hope.

The prophet recalls past times when God acted powerfully on behalf of his people: ‘when you did awesome deeds that we did not expect.’ In difficult times, I find it helpful to look back at my life and to remember how good God has been to me. I bring to mind the special people God has placed in my life, the doors God has opened for me, the unexpected strength and comfort God has given me. In his prayer, Isaiah not only reminds himself that he and his people have history with God but also reminds God that he has a history with us. On that basis, he appeals to God to provide for his people again. Moving from lament to hope requires conversations about the past.

It also requires deep reflection on our present relationship with God. Isaiah speaks of the way his people have fallen short in their commitment to ‘the one who works for those who wait for him’. It makes them feel unclean and worthless, he says, like a dirty rag or a leaf blown by the wind. Many of us carry a lot of baggage in our hearts which is not only weighing us down emotionally, but is distancing us from God. I find that it is good to share with God the things that are bothering me. We can trust God with the deepest and darkest secrets of our lives because we know that God cares for us and will not hurt us.

As it nears its conclusion, Isaiah’s prayer shifts from confession to an expression of trust in God. The prophet proclaims, ‘Yet you, Lord, are our father’, and calls on God to come and see about his children. St. Paul expresses the same deep trust in God’s faithfulness in today’s New Testament passage, 1 Corinthians 1.3-9, as he prays with confidence on behalf of the young Christian community in Corinth. Hope comes from our assurance that God is faithfully watching over us, ready to respond to the deep desires of our hearts.

In today’s Gospel passage, Mark 13.24-37, Mark’s Jesus presents us with three stories to remind us that, however bleak things get, he has not forgotten us and will never abandon us. He is always with us and will come again to put things right in our world. In the meantime, we wait trustingly, mindfully, hopefully and actively.

I wonder what form your Advent waiting will take this year? You may wish to use as a starting point for your reflection this Advent prayer written by Val King, Head of Christian Aid in Scotland.

Waiting is hard Lord.
We wait to hear news of peace with justice,
we wait to greet the day when all will have enough,
but we don’t wait passively.
As we wait again for your coming,
strengthen us in our resolve to work to make your kingdom come on earth.