The spiritual exercises of St Ignatius are one of the gifts from the Jesuits to the wider church. Included in those exercises is the Contemplation on the Incarnation. Ignatius was very keen on imaginative prayer and in this exercise he invites us to imagine the three persons of the Trinity looking down on the earth and contemplating what is going on. Ignatius suggests that they see: men and women of different sizes, shapes and colours; rich and poor; old and young. People speaking different languages. Some being born; others dying; some running and playing, others sick and suffering. Some laughing, others crying. Some screaming and shouting, others praying and singing. And it is into this complex and colourful scene that Jesus will be born.
Let’s imagine that the persons of the Trinity are looking at the earth just now. They will see much that is familiar – people living in different places and speaking different languages; people being born and others dying; people cooking and eating and growing food and making things. But wait, things don’t look just as might be anticipated. There seem to be a lot of people who aren’t going out to work.
Those who do go out are all wearing face coverings. The places people used to go after work aren’t open. The world looks familiar and yet different.
Do you remember back in March and April how we all commented on the pleasure of walking in streets that were almost free of traffic. We noticed the air quality; we had time to observe the changing of the seasons. Working from home had some advantages – without commuting time, the days seemed longer.
But as we continue our observation, we begin to see the other impacts of this pandemic. Not just the enormous loss of life; not just the impact on our frontline healthcare professionals; not even the massive impact on our economy – all of those are important, and will have lasting consequences. But let’s begin to look at what has happened to individuals. To those people who live alone. To those people who have underlying health conditions.
To people who live far away from their loved ones. To people in residential care. We can see people becoming more and more isolated, more separated from the community around them.
And we’re reminded of the importance of the connections that we make with one another; the importance of gathering, of spending time in the same physical space as other people. One of the things we might note is how important this building has been for people – even when we weren’t able to gather 50 people in this space, the fact that we were able to record our services made a difference. People were able to see the different parts of the building, to remember the acoustic and the colours, the space and the architecture. It was possible to feel a bit more grounded when everything else was in a state of complete flux. It is into that state of flux, that changed world where uncertainty has become our norm, it’s into that world that we will welcome our Saviour.
This liturgical year, we read the narrative of the Incarnation and engage with the Scriptural stories through the lens of Mark’s Gospel. Now Mark is the Gospel writer who doesn’t mess about; none of the fluffy Christmas card imagery for him – for Mark, the focus is on who this Jesus is.
And on this first Sunday in Advent we’re not starting at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, but towards its end. This morning’s question isn’t about how Jesus came into the world – rather it begins to tease out the why question. We’re offered an extraordinary contrast between the darkness and despair of before and the glory and fullness of the after. We’re reflecting on the Incarnation which is not about the baby Jesus coming into a settled world but about incarnate Jesus coming into a world that was dark and troubled.
We live in a world where people are desperate to hear that something will change. We’re in a time when there is an acute need for signs of hope. We can see that in our communities, where people can’t wait to put up their Christmas decorations, can’t wait to bring a bit of cheer into their lives. And the decorations will undoubtedly lift people’s spirits for a while.
Lifting spirits and bringing real hope are two very different things. If we can find a way to hear and respond to the hope that is offered in that Ignatian contemplation, something more fundamental might change. In that exercise, the three persons of the Trinity observe and reflect and then make a decision that the time is right for the second person to dwell on earth. We’re actually being asked to reflect on God’s response to our plight and to the plight of our world. It’s an exercise that assumes God’s involvement with and care for all of God’s creation.
This morning’s Gospel gives a clue about how we might begin to know that it’s true. We’re encouraged by Mark to notice the smallest of signs, and to trust that the first small sign will be followed by a second and a third.
If we rush into a secular Christmas, we miss the darkness and the despair that is inherent in the story of humanity. We miss the struggles and the questions and the anxieties. We miss the opportunities to notice those incremental changes, those fleeting moments when something shifts.
We miss the cycles of life that are crucial to the health of our natural world.
If we go back to our observation with the Holy Trinity and just listen, we’ll hear a lot of people speaking about waiting. Waiting for results; waiting for things to change; waiting for information; waiting for the moment when they can do whatever it is they’re missing. We have been in a season of waiting for several months. And now, we’re in this liturgical season of waiting. We know, because we’ve heard these narratives over and over again, that something mind blowing happened and continues to happen in our world; we know that the Christmas message of hope will bubble up again this year as it did last year and will do next year. But that’s not where we are yet.
Ursula Fanthorpe captures something in her well known poem BC:AD
This was the moment when Before
Turned into After
That moment, that movement is a few weeks down the track. Just now, liturgically, we’re in the before time; we’re in that place where we wait and we anticipate. And we need to live through these moments in order to find ourselves in the moment when everything happens – the moment when light floods the darkness, when in the midst of whatever else is going on in our lives and our world, we celebrate the birth of the Christ child.
Our celebrations this year will be like none we have ever known. Restrictions at home; restrictions at church. Pantomimes cancelled. Carol services online. That’s the reality of this particular Before and After.
The reminder is that whatever the Before and After are like, the Christ child will come into our midst. We will find ways to hope, ways to love, ways to glorify God. And in so doing we will have the Advent and Christmas that is for this time.