A CLOTHING shop in Oxford
market sells T-shirts with religious messages. Favourites include
"I have found Jesus!" with, in small letters underneath, "He was
down the back of the sofa all the time"; and "God loves everyone",
with, in small print, "but I'm his favourite!" Suitable for Advent,
there is also: "Jesus is coming! Quick, look busy."
Advent is that time in the
calendar that marks the start of the Christian year by looking
forward to the end of history. This is the moment in time when time
will be no more; when, lo, he will come with clouds descending,
with angels and trumpets in accompaniment, to wrap up the history
of earth and fold it into the eternal history of heaven.
Christians have used Advent to prepare. The four weeks before
Christmas are punctuated with acts of penitence, abstinence, and
self-examination. But just when the whole world seems to be caught
up in the consumerism of Christmas preparations, the Church has a
hard task in trying to persuade us that this is a time to pause,
and to think about the judgement that is to come.
Setting aside most of
December as a period of penitence and holy preparation seems almost
risibly counter-cultural. Most of us don't like churches that bang
on about sin too much. In our therapeutically attuned culture, the
very concept has been downgraded. Sin may induce guilt and shame.
Such concepts, we are frequently assured, are paralysing and
A culture formed mainly out
of desire and achievement may find itself in the grip of a subtle
temptation - namely, to confuse sin with imperfection, with what we
lack as people. To be sure, it is often helpful to be conscious of
sins of omission and negligence. Yet a society that plays down the
idea of serious personal and social sin, and even apparently
unfashionable concepts such as original sin, does so at its peril.
In ignoring the dark side of human nature, we risk collapsing into
a falsely optimistic world-view that then struggles to cope with
the reality of evil when it strikes. Rather than accept sin as
commonplace, we have regarded the state as exceptional, and even as
a private matter.
I suspect that part of the
problem lies in language. Sin is a short, simple word. Its very
accessibility has arguably played a part in the weakening of its
power. Our older and arguably denser religious vocabulary preferred
"trespass". The word captures the idea that lines have been
crossed: that some of the things we say, do, and think are actually
offensive, and grieve God.
Cranmer's majestic collect
for purity understood that a great deal of sin is concealed inside
us: "Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known
. . ."
All desires known - and in
the run-up to Christmas? Does God really know what I desire? Yes:
to God, all hearts are indeed open, replete with their miscible
emotions and motives. All of them are seen by the one who is
returning. Yet the prayer goes on, in petition: "Cleanse the
thoughts of our hearts . . ."
A prayer for the cleansing
of desire seems an apt way to approach the clutter and gluttonous
onslaught of the Christmas consumerfest. But it also captures
something of the Advent hope: that light can pierce the darkness,
purity trounce pollution, salvation overcome sin. Advent, then, is
a serious time of preparation. For Christmas, but also for the rest
of our lives, and beyond.
This is an edited extract from Thirty-Nine New
Articles: An Anglican landscape of faith by Martyn Percy
(Canterbury Press, £16.99 (CT
Bookshop special offer £14.99 - Use code CT260