Just before the start of Advent, friends and colleagues confessed to me that Advent was their favourite season of the church year. It has always been mine, too.
From childhood, I have associated these few weeks not only with the run-up to Christmas, but with the stirrings of that very human capacity, desire. As a child, I loved the secrets of the season, the hidden preparations, the weeks of indecision about what to ask for. I also learnt the useful lesson that expectation is sometimes better than the reality.
Outside the Church, Advent has been lost. Secular society has insisted that we must have our goodies now. Gratification is never deferred. Advent calendars were once iconic windows; now they are stuffed with chocolate. The feast itself comes way too late, when we are already tired and fractious. Only the promise of Boxing Day sales can stir us into life again, and even then it is to renew the cycle of getting and spending.
Set against this the darkness and stillness of Advent. Set aside the particular desires for the things you think you want, and unite yourself with desire itself. Desire is there in the music of Advent, in the minor key of longing which breaks into the major key of promise: “O come, O come. . . Rejoice!”
St Augustine was troubled by the persistence of his particular desires, but he also knew that desire was the golden thread that leads the heart to God. Our desires are purified by prayer that leads us out of ourselves, and binds the spirituality of Advent to the quest for justice.
Two years ago, I heard for the first time James MacMillan’s setting of the Advent antiphon “O Oriens”. It sent shivers up my spine: “O radiant dawn, splendour of eternal light, sun of justice: Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.” The cry “Come” is repeated, and grows both louder and more discordant with every repetition, as though the cry that begins in a few praying hearts lifts the cries of all the world towards God, with urgency and anger, as well as with passionate hope.
This is where Advent cuts through into reality, and our small desire widens to embrace the 60 million refugees who are seeking a homeland this winter; the stigmatised and the abused of all our imperfect societies; and the groaning of the earth itself under the weight of our incompetence and greed. As Abelard put it, may what we pray for never fall short of the prayer. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.