Advent I – Revd Matt Harbage, 2nd December 2018

“When these things begin to come to pass, look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.”

It is a real privilege to be welcomed into this community especially at the very start of this liturgical new year. Advent is such a rich season: A time of reflection and preparation, of expectancy and joyful hope.

Over lunch this week, a friend remarked, “We often think that love is the most important virtue in the Christian tradition, and indeed it is,” he said. He continued, “However, perhaps hope is even more foundational to our faith.

As we find ourselves starting to think perhaps about sending loved ones Christmas cards, buying presents, or booking holidays and making arrangements, — amongst all the busy activity, we might forget to be people of hope.

As the Church begins a new liturgical cycle, I find this first week of Advent always feels particularly special and a time when I look back at the year gone by.

For me, this year has been marked by transition and joy – not least getting married in October to my wife Catherine, also a priest; completing my curacy in the diocese of Lincoln and moving to Central London.

I am really excited for the months and weeks ahead, especially having the opportunity to get to know you and the wider St. Mark’s community and where God has been at work.

As we look back at the past year as Advent begins, we might also reflect on the life of the world and of the nation. We find ourselves in a time which is perhaps not unfamiliar in the chaotic description given by St. Luke:

For … There is much distress amongst the nations; in the Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen. People desperate for hope.

The ‘sea and the waves roar’ as we observe sea level rises, and climate change claiming islands. The powers of the heavens twist and turn.

Our hearts too might fail us as we engage with the constantly evolving news surrounding Brexit.

And into all these signs of the times, which might easily lead us to look ahead into Advent with fear, doubt and despair, we are called to remember our identity as people of hope.

For hope is at the very heart of our Christian life together.

Our hope is a joyful hope. Rooted not in a naive ‘hoping for the best’, eyes closed, fingers crossed. But rooted rather in our loving God & his Son Jesus Christ.

This hope is rooted in history, in the concrete person of Jesus and his holy Incarnation as Emmanuel – God with us. It is rooted in his teaching and his active witness to the forgiving, generous character of God. And [our hope] is rooted in Jesus’ death and resurrection, which he promises will be our pattern too, when our time comes.

The apocalyptic language of Saint Luke invites us to explore the traditional Advent themes of Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell and in our order of service, we are offered a depiction of the Last Judgement by Michelangelo.

This painting of the second and final coming of our Lord Jesus Christ is I think a striking image.

And as I reflect on it, I feel uncomfortable with all the movement and activity. Souls ascending (towards the left) and descending (towards the right), in fact there’s movement pretty much everywhere.

The warning of St. Luke to keep watch and keep alert feels all the more important amongst all the activity. I wouldn’t like to get lost in this picture.

But there, at the centre of it all, drawing us in, is Jesus with his Blessed Mother Mary. Our Lord, surrounded by light.

Our joyful hope is a simple one, although it is a mystery.

It offers comfort, a fixed point amidst the busy, activity of life. Importantly it allows us to sit with contradiction and pain, knowing things will change. It shapes us as people of prayer, and in the light of God it challenges us and stirs holy fear.

I wonder where this Advent, here at St. Mark’s, will take you as we journey together in this beautiful space, accompanied by our sacred music.

How will we carve out space to sit with God, sharing with Him our hopes and desires?

As we journey through the Season and get busy with preparations, may we make time to pause and centre ourselves so that we might make space for Christ’s arrival in our hearts, and thus be a people of hope for the world.

To end, I’d like to conclude with a prayer, by Padraig O’Tuama:

Let us pray:

God of fear,

God of the night,

God of the expectation.

You visited shepherds in the night,

With songs and sights of joy.

In all of our nights, turn us

towards hope, because

Hope might just

Keep us alive