|Stortfordian Christian Fellowship|
Many moons ago I had the fortune to appear on Blankety Blank. For the uninitiated, it was a game show on the Beeb; contestants were told a short scenario by the host and had to suggest what the “Blanks” should be in a given phrase. You were awarded points if what you said matched what half a dozen celebrities had scribbled down. Needless to say, my way of thinking was not in line with that of the celebrities in the studio that day and I only came away with an iconic “Blankety-Blank Cheque Book and Pen”… For the uninitiated, a cheque book is a way to pay like a debit card or Google Pay but on paper, with a delay of 3-4 days before the payment clears and there's always the possibility of it “bouncing”!
This weekend sees the first Sunday of Advent - the beginning of the new year in the Church's calendar. At the start of any New Year it's customary to wish others, “A Happy New Year!” but what with the year we've had I was wondering, what “Blank” or “Blankety Blank” you might wish to insert before the phrase “… New Year”. 'Happy' seems rather glib amidst the uncertainty of lockdowns and tiers; 'Safe' seems rather draconian; and “Socially Distanced” rather isolating. In a year that has taken us all by surprise, taken its toll on multitudes and taken so many, this year's run up to the celebration of Christmas will be strangely unfamiliar.
In the Christmas ads there's little phantasmagorical fayre, advertisers focusing instead on down to earth family bubbles and neighbourliness. Moreover, the “joys” of Christmas shopping and the glam and glitter of parties have all been stripped away leaving many blanks in the usual Advent calendar. Stripped of these usual trappings of the festive season it's no wonder that many households in lockdown areas responded by putting up their Christmas decorations at the end of October. As the prophet Isaiah said, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” In this time of fearful darkness and uncertainty, there's a deep longing within as we wait for Christmas – which is what Advent is all about.
The trouble is most of us are not good at waiting. It seems easy enough, after all waiting just requires you to… wait! But aye, there's the rub. On the outside there's nothing to it, and none of us should be afraid of nothing. But nothing happening is alien to us. In our minds things happen all the time. Doers expect things to be done. So when we are forced to wait we amuse ourselves by playing out the scene of what is to come, rehearsing the lines we plan to say and envisaging the best outcome. But emotions rise and slip away as we are forced to carry on waiting - anticipation turns to frustration, followed by sprawling doubts that creep into the vacuum of our nothingness. Before long fears and worries strangle our dreams, snuffing out the light of hope we once held.
Eighty-one years ago the country faced an even greater darkness and it was 13 year old, Princess Elizabeth, who found the words for her father, George VI, to speak to a nation that was waiting at Christmas:
“I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
This Advent we don't have to draw a blank whilst we are forced to sit tight and wait fearfully for Christmas. As Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sang half a century ago, “Carry on, love is coming, love is coming to us all”. The absence of the peripheral novelties may leave a blank in our festive Advent calendars, but it also creates the space for us to focus on the heart of what Christmas truly means. A closer look at the Nativity story reminds us that God came into a dark and dangerous world and chose to dwell with us so that we need not be afraid but would have peace knowing that He is present.
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