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Preparing for Christmas, the true purpose of Advent

In the following piece by Canon George Irwin we are reminded that there is much more to the season of Advent than affording us time to prepare for Christmas and the welcoming of the presence of Jesus Christ into our hearts on Christmas Day.

We are inclined to think that the whole purpose of Advent is to afford us time to prepare ourselves for Christmas and the welcoming of the presence of Jesus Christ into our hearts on Christmas Day. And, as we know, this is a most wonderful experience. But there is much more to the season of Advent than this.

The very word Advent reminds us that this season is a time to think and reflect on the great and central truth that one day Christ will come again. The belief that Christ will come again is firmly rooted in the New Testament and a prominent theme in Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the gospels. It is also set firmly in the Creeds: 'he will come again to judge the living and the dead.'

The gospel reading recommended for the Sunday before Advent this year (Matthew 25:31-46) provides a suitable and thought-provoking curtain – raiser on the period of preparation for Christmas. This passage focusses on the theme of judgement and accountability, and does so in a very clear and challenging way by means of the well-known parable of the sheep and the goats. There is nothing to compare with the crispness and vividness of a parable to get a message across. And in this case Jesus’ message is crystal clear and packs a powerful punch with respect to our accountability before God and what it means to have a sense of spiritual and moral responsibility.

Jesus’ message is simple: God will judge us in accordance to our response to human need. Judgement is determined by giving help to people we meet or hear about every day: the hungry, the lonely, the destitute, the sick and those deprived of their freedom. Now there is a familiar ring to all this for anyone who is reasonably familiar with the course of Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the gospels. We cannot fail to notice that a great proportion of Jesus’ work is among the very categories of needy people mentioned in the parable of the sheep and the goats. But Jesus is also quite explicit about the crucial importance of this kind of work. It is right there at the heart of his message as he launches his teaching ministry. In Luke 4:18-19 Jesus highlights the nature of his ministry by quoting from the Prophet Isaiah: 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 
because he has anointed me 
to bring good news to the poor. 
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives 
and recovery of sight to the blind, 
to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Isaiah 61:1,2)
 
Then again, when Jesus responds to John the Baptist’s demand for him to spell out his credentials as Messiah he does so by simply repeating the things he highlighted at the launch of his ministry: 'Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.' (Matthew 11: 4-6) So it is small wonder that Jesus, in his teaching on judgement and accountability, should spell out his message once again in terms of sharing the love of God through practical acts of kindness to those in need. 
 
The voice of Christ coming to us through the needs of others may, of course, be inconvenient at times. But if we ignore that voice we deny the faith we profess.  Only if we are ready to respond to the needs of others will the message of hope given in Christ fill our hearts and our lives and enable us to face the future with confidence – the confidence of knowing that we are working in harmony with our creator to whom we must give account.

Such are the implications of the message of Advent. But what of Christmas? How do we find meaning in the over-commercialised, superficial, materialistic and exhausting experience that Christmas has become for many people in the western world? Well, underlying all the festivities of Christmas there is the celebration of the nativity, the good news story about how God came among us and entered into our world in the birth of Jesus Christ. And the context of that story carries a wonderful message of comfort to many who, because of troubled circumstances, shrink from festivities at this time of the year. For the reality at the heart of Christmas is that God’s Son came into the world a homeless child who first views the world from an animal feeding trough in a stable. And what is more, that same child and his parents would become refugees in a very short time. 
 
The God who speaks from the manger is a God who has chosen to enter into the plight of the poor and the dispossessed, the weak and the helpless of our world. That is the God who has a claim upon our loyalty as Christians. And we are left in no doubt that he is calling us to share his compassion for suffering humanity. The Christmas story carries a powerful message of good news for the poor, and we can extend that message by supporting the work of Christian Aid.

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