Watching the BBC’s wonderful Planet Earth yesterday evening, the sight of a hungry lion almost, but not quite, catching a terrified giraffe in the southern African desert reminded me, on this Advent Sunday, of a verse in the great Advent hymn, O come, o come Emmanuel, which (in one version) reads:
O come thou branch of Jesse, draw
The quarry from the lion’s claw
From the dread caverns of the grave,
From nether hell thy people save.
In this season of Advent we are invited to put ourselves into the mindset of the ancient Israelites yearning in their uncertainty and suffering for the promised redemption. It is an opportunity to reflect on the theme of waiting, the anticipation of something better than our present existence, an anticipation which somehow sustains us in the here and now and enables us to carry on.
This is of course a common human experience, both individual and collective. We all know the experience of looking forward to a weekend after a gruelling week, or anticipating a holiday away, during which we imagine we will enjoy undiluted happiness (it doesn’t always quite work out like that).
Collectively, we have this year experienced a (for many) somewhat overwhelming expression of a wish for something different, or better, in the political arena, both here and in America. Commentators have observed that people have not always been able to describe exactly what it is they are wanting, but they certainly have said clearly that they want something different, and presumably better, than they have now. The debate has certainly, as the poet Yeats said, been “full of passionate intensity”.
Neither here nor in America have we yet seen what that future might look like. It is not always clear that what the politicians promise their restless and dissatisfied electorates is likely to quench their thirst for a different kind of life. Something might change because something has happened, but we don’t quite know what, or how. We are living in an ‘in-between time’.
Although Advent is about anticipating, through the experience of the Israelites, and their prophets, the arrival of the promised Saviour, the season also invites us to heighten our awareness of our own spiritual in-between time. In Advent we anticipate not just the arrival of Jesus at his birth, but we also look to the promised second coming of Christ at a point in our historical and spiritual future. Indeed, in a very profound way, to live as a Christian is to inhabit an in-between time: God has done one world-changing thing in history, yet also promises to ‘come again in glory’ in our future.
Living in an in-between time creates tensions and uncertainties. Our redemption is at the same time with us now, and yet still to come. Unlike the promises politicians hold out to us, or indeed the long awaited holiday, learning to live with Advent waiting is what gives us the life of faith. There is perhaps no better modern example of this than Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who, after one short period of intense awareness of God’s call in her early life, which inspired her life-long work with the poor, wrote later: “Where is my faith? Even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness & darkness. So many unanswered questions live within me – I am afraid to uncover them.” A whole life of service lived patiently waiting for an awareness of God.
This is a very contemporary experience. We can all resonate in our times with the plea of the Advent hymn:
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.