As I write in late October, the scene outside my Glasgow window is of gathering gloom, or as is said in these parts, evening gloaming, meaning twilight. With the clocks having retreated an hour, the northern night falls increasingly early as autumn turns into winter. Experiencing fewer hours of winter darkness and more hours of daylight, will be one benefit for my wife Jan and I, once we’ve migrated the 400 or so miles south!
Through this year people across the world have experienced life’s equivalent of gloaming, with the sun setting on much of what is cherished in day to day life and living. So many are hoping and praying for some light to shine in the darkness, whether for the rate of infection to recede, more effective treatment options to be developed or the approval and administration of a vaccine.
It is in such times that I so value the season of Advent, because it doesn’t airbrush out our wintry hearts in the rush to the true joy of Christmas, rather it embraces the natural range of our emotions; heartache and hope, sorrow and joy. The season has both a material and a spiritual dimension, and extends through a continuum of time, from the past to the present and beyond to the future. It is a season to remember that God chose to join humanity in the mystery, mire and miracle of life, it is the season to prepare anew to welcome Christ into our hearts and lives. It is the season through which we have an assurance that God in Christ goes before us into the future, illuminating the way.
World War II was a previous period of darkness around the globe and for countless people personally. One individual, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and minister, was incarcerated for his opposition to the Nazi regime. In a letter from his prison cell to his parents during Advent, he wrote:
The awareness of a spiritual tradition that reaches through the centuries gives one a certain feeling of security in the face of transitory difficulties… Such feelings will not overwhelm those who hold fast to the values that no one can take from them. (17th December 1943)
Despite the bleak outlook that he faced, Bonhoeffer expressed a freedom in the Christian spiritual tradition, that helped to sustain him and his loved ones in the most testing of days.
Phillips Brooks, a US episcopal minister, and author of the carol, O little town of Bethlehem, expressed a similar thought in the line:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
The season of Advent through to Christmas season will be very different this year. We won’t be able to mark and celebrate in many familiar and cherished ways. In church, we are not permitted to welcome people until the sanctuary is overflowing, sing carols to raise rafters, or greet one another in a Christmas Day embrace. At home, we may face limitations too, who we can welcome, visit or see over Christmas, including who we can share Christmas Day dinner with. But the restrictions won’t prevent us from putting up our Christmas nativity scene in the manse front window! We will be proclaiming light in the darkness with the help of some twinkling lights.
Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has given a message to children that Santa has been designated as a key worker, assuring them that he will be able to visit on Christmas Eve. As your new, rather than first minister, I, too, am designated a key worker, and whilst I won’t be appearing down your chimney! nor should I visit you inside, I do hope that I can start to get to know some of you by greeting you on your doorstep, if only for a two-minute chat.
I have served as a local church minister for over 20 years, but never in such times. It isn’t going to be easy for me to recognise everyone, not least when meeting with masks on, but I do look forward to getting to know you. It may take time to find a pattern of ministry that works in these times; I know that you’ll bear with me, and if you have any suggestions or wish to get in touch, please feel very welcome to do so. As people are currently encouraged to work from home, I am going to begin my ministry likewise. You are welcome to get in touch with me there, even just to say an initial hello, our phone number is: 0208 777 0626. If I’m out and about, feel very welcome to leave a message and I’ll call you back. I am very much looking forward to being a part of your church and community.
As we travel through Advent to Christmas against a very different global and local pattern of life, may we have a sense of the light of Christ filling our lives. May we, too, as a church, and each of us as individuals, reflect that same light to those around us experiencing wintry hearts.
I leave you with a text from John the Evangelist to hold in your heart through this season:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1. vs 5).
As Christmas lights twinkle from street windows, may the light of Christ shine on you.
Take care, God bless,