There was a time when we at University Hill Congregation marked Advent with wonderful themes. Each Sunday in Advent was a day to celebrate one of four cherished virtues: hope, peace, joy and love. We do not do this anymore. Somewhere along the way we stumbled into celebrating the Advent of a new world in which these virtues have been turned upside down by the gospel of the Word made flesh. Yes, we continue to light the four candles of Advent. But now each candle stands for a chapter in the peculiar story of God’s entry into the world in Jesus.
The season begins – the Christian Year opens – focused on the future. This is not about looking back to what happened long ago and far away. This is about looking ahead, looking through the lens of what happened in Bethlehem, in order to see what God is up to in the coming days. The first Sunday of Advent sets our sights on the trouble that surrounds us in the world, in the neighbourhood, in our souls. The opening scene in the drama of Advent reveals a people in trouble, a world in crisis and a God who promises action.
Then the second and third Sundays of Advent arrive. Here, in the heart of Advent, the church listens long and hard to the prophetic rage and vision of John the Baptist. It turns out that there will be no easy road to the new future that God is birthing. No sweet lullabies of peace, no saccharine clichés of joy. Here the church remembers that you cannot get to Jesus without passing Checkpoint John at the border of the kingdom of God. These are the Sundays where Advent preaching bumps up against all sentimental desire to soften Christmas into a domesticated happy hour that is satisfied with the status quo. John prepares us to meet – to be met by – the full-grown Jesus, the Jesus who will call us to lose our lives, to pick up the cross of suffering, to die so that we might enter into true life, the Easter life we’re afraid to live and yet long to live.
On the fourth Sunday of Advent it is Mary who takes centre stage. At University Hill we are blessed to have access to a large wooden carving of Mary. On the fourth Sunday of Advent she stands before us, next to the Table, cradling a church in her arm – the Body of Christ. We sing the Magnificat, joining Mary in magnifying the tiny fetus within her womb until the babe is seen to be so powerful that in him the proud are scattered and the poor are lifted up (Luke 2:46ff). Mary is the first disciple. She is the first to say “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to you word” (Luke 2:38). To our continuing surprise, it is through such human agents as mother Mary that God begets a new world.
In order to glimpse this new world we at University Hill celebrate the Sacrament of Communion – the Eucharist – on all four Sundays of Advent. In the face of trouble on all sides we find ourselves at the welcome table of God’s future goodness already present. As we find the courage to say “yes” to John’s invitation to turn from consumptive habits and self-absorbed addictions we find ourselves at the table where we receive God’s free gift of a new life, poured out and broken for others. Then, echoing Mary, we find ourselves at the table of thanksgiving not only as receivers but also as givers: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And the world will never look or be the same again.