Sunday, November 27, 2011

Happy New Year!: Advent 2011

St Matthew xxi.1

It's the beginning of a new year! Can we honestly say, in our heart of hearts, that we really feel that today is New Year's Day? Most of us would say not, preferring to wait for 1st January before we break out the champagne and blowing those buzzy things that make look like chameleons with a nasty case of glossitis. Advent Sunday seems a rather arbitrary time to start a new year anyway.

If we follow that line of reasoning then, the first day of the New Year would be the Circumcision of Our Lord which, while no less a Holy Feast and cause for pious observation, doesn't have the obvious sense of beginning and seems no less arbitrary. January 1st is just arbitrary a day to begin a year as Advent Sunday.

If we must rid ourselves of arbitrary beginnings, we must look to the Cosmic influences of our Kalendar. One of the glories of the Liturgical year is how the interplay between Sun and Moon colours how we worship the God Who made them. God put them in the sky "for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years". It's fascinating how these celestial resonances make fixed liturgies dance and play with nuances different from a simple prescribed programme of following a single calendar. A fixed day of Easter would destroy much that makes the Work of God beautiful. There would be no interaction of the Saints' and other Holy Days which are largely fixed by the Solar Year, and the Grand Moveable Feasts which follow the Lunar Year.

These great markers of the Sun and Moon which pan out our year provide non-arbitrary beginnings of years. The Ancients regarded the beginning of the year at the Vernal Equinox when the Sun crossed the plane of the Equator and new life began to spring forth. Harvest happened halfway through the year at the Autumnal Equinox. The Solstices where the Sun reaches its Zenith in the Summer and Nadir in the Winter also important days in which some cultures began and ended their years. In the Solar year, these days are not arbitrary.

The Winter Solstice is not far from the date on which we celebrate the feast of the Nativity of the Lord, though it is not dead-on. Of course, we all know that Christmass is moved to the 25th December so that we can celebrate Our Lord's birth while all around us, the pagans are celebrating Saturnalia. Our Lord's birthday is fixed by the Solar Year. Likewise, the interplay of Equinox and Full Moon determine the date of the Feast of the Resurrection but Pasch does not always fall on the Full Moon, or the Equinox. God is not bound by the motion of Sun and Moon.

If we accept Christmass as being 25th December, why don't we begin our Liturgical Year then? Well, the reason for this can be seen when we consider the Gospel for today, the apparently anachronism of the Triumphal entry.

Jesus, who in obedience to the feast prescribed by Jewish lore and law rides "in lowly pomp" into Jerusalem ready to take his place in the Temple. What He discovers there is a complete lack of preparation for the sacred - a confused mess of animals, money changers, and people being distracted from doing what they came to do by things which, in the Cosmic Scheme, have only a fleeting relevance.

Is it any wonder that He is angry? The sacrifices of bullocks, kids, and birds is about to be abolished with the One Perfect Sacrifice that will take place within seven days outside the city in complete and abject disgrace, and then followed by another Cosmic event which transcends the rhythm of the planets and thrusts humanity to its destiny of Eternity. What stands between human beings and God is a clutter of irrelevances.

What happens next is an act of some force - Jesus throws (ἐξέβαλεν) this irrelevance out of the Temple. It is an act of physical activity and cannot have been achieved simply vocally. Does this shock us about Jesus? What do we make of a man of peace succumbing to anger and to such passion?

This will only shock us if we regard Jesus as being "meek and mild" a passive figure who tolerates all our naughty behaviour because He loves us. This is not the love that God shows us. The love of God is hot and active and intolerant of all evil. This is not a God who stands on the side wringing his hands impotently at our misdemeanours. This is a God who does not tolerate anything coming between us and Him. He demands his Temple to be cleared out, the seasons to be purged, He demands space.

Space for what? Breathing space.

We get caught up in our own rhythm, our own season, our own timings. We want things our own way. We see Christmas around the corner and that means going out and getting presents and getting trees and getting decorations and getting drunk. That is how our year goes. The Baby of Christmass was crowded out of the Inn and had to make do with the manger. Likewise, the baby in the Nativity display is being crowded out by the latest Xbox 360, inflatable caricatures of a long dead saint and rather odiously twee snowmen. The sound of God is being drowned out by jingle bells and the simpering affections of people trying to be "nice" once a year yet ignoring that directive on the other 364 days.

Our Lord Jesus Christ demands nothing less than intolerance for anything that stands between Him and us, and all that crowds Him out of our hearts. How then are we to respond? Well, the Church does help us, because it builds that preparation into her year in the season called Advent. In beginning the year with Advent, we than have a choice to make the appropriate preparations. This is the time to sit and examine our consciences, to make space for Christ -breathing space.

Yet, it is not for us to breathe first. The first person to breathe is God, and his breath is the Holy Ghost. In clearing space to breathe, we can breathe in Air that is truly good for us, not polluted by "the smoke of Satan" as Pope Paul VI put it. Christ wants us to breathe in His Spirit so that we can live. Thus Advent affords us the opportunity to see the Baby born in a Manger, not through a haze of materialistic detritus, but through clear air.

Before we begin the song of our year, we must take a breath and note the timing. This is why the year begins with Advent so that we can join our voices in a Cosmic hymn of praise to our Creator, accompanying the rolling spheres, and free from that which would encumber us.

How are you beginning your song this year?

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