This blog, or rather the sermon on which is was based, nearly didn’t get written. Katie and Gavin went down to the turning on of the Christmas lights in Linlithgow – a rather splendid torchlight procession up and down the high street, with real flames for the adults and glow-sticks for the children. Somehow, unlike so many Christingles, no-one has been set on fire yet.
But I was marooned in front of the computer, sermonless. I made the terrible mistake of putting on some music, namely Dies Natalis, by Gerald Finzi. I find it almost impossible to work with music on, and so there was only one choice. Stop work.
There’s something truly sublime about Finzi’s music, in the deepest sense of that word. Finzi, whilst maintaining a careful agnosticism, used words from the metaphycial poets, in this case Thomas Traherne, and it is the perfect magnification of their ideas through music which produces music which is beautiful, generous, dignified, and above all deeply emotional.
Finzi gave me something that night which I feel I haven’t experienced for weeks and weeks. Which is space. It is beautiful spacious music. Space from my worries and sadness at leaving my churches in order to take up a new post; my grief at leaving people I love so much; my anxieties at how the move will affect my son, and all the stresses at moving at this time of year, when so much has to be done. Finzi gave me space.
Space is lacking in Advent. Once again Christianity is a victim of its own success. Christmas has become so big, that the “mechanical” preparations we make during Advent for Christmas can get in the way of what we need to do spiritually. We are used to the buying and decorating, shopping, wrapping, cooking, mulling spicing. And all that’s good, I really don’t want to be a killjoy about that, but unless we prepare spiritually, emotionally for Christmas, that can all be just a list of things to do. To make Christmas truly rich, truly “spiritually spiced”, we need to prepare ourselves with as much diligence as we prepare our houses and our meal table.
Christmas was magical when we were children, because all we did was wait. We didn’t’ have work, we just had to count down the days. I don’t think it was just because we were children that we got so excited. I think we were excited because we had the time to be excited. And as adults, we need to give ourselves the time and space if we are to find Christmas magical as we did. That time and space was carved out for me by Finzi on Saturday night, and it is what Advent is about.
So here is a Finzi-inspired image which I hope you can take home with you, concerning what Advent is about.
Advent is about being naked. About nakedness, bareness.
When I was a child, one of the stories I used to love, used to giggle about was the Emperor’s New clothes. Do you remember that story? You tend to re-live these stories when you have a child. I used to think it was just a story about a naked man, but actually it’s incredibly deep! A man who seeks to aggrandise himself as above the rest of humanity, by putting on clothes, heavy ermine and jewels and expensive fabric. And what happens because of his pride, is that people see him as just a man, naked in a way we are all afraid of being.
Advent for me is about willingly adopting that nakedness. Not in the literal sense, obviously – especially not after a sharp frost – but by being, or at least becoming, spiritually, emotionally, naked. Slowly, layer by layer, divesting ourselves of those things that, like our clothes and fashions, protect us, give us social status, those things in which we find a sort of false sense of identity.
I love this time of year because the leaves have largely fallen from the trees, and you start to see things you haven’t seen for a long time – you can see through the trees to buildings, hills, lakes, places you didn’t know existed because of the nakedness of the trees. As I drive from one of my churches to the other, over the hills, it is in this time of year I see lakes and hills, farms and valleys which I haven’t seen since this time last year. As the trees enter their winter sleep, the world is revealed.
Even in a single leaf there is a revealing taking place. The chlorophyll in a leaf is what makes it green – the process of the tree, if you like, being busy, makes it green. But when the tree sleeps, the busyness is over for the winter, then the true colours are revealed – the colours of the leaf that were always there, but covered by the green of the leaf’s busyness. The reds and oranges and russet and yellow and golden brown. The leaf is shown as it is, and that for me is when the woods are at their most beautiful.
So often we value ourselves and other people, not for who we are, but for what we do. In church there is a danger of this busyness taking over. People are not “kind people” or “people you want to get to know better” or “people we love” they are “the organist” or “the server” or “the Sunday School leader” or “the intercessor”. But what are we when we are not busy? When we are unclothed of our work, when we are naked before God?
That is a question too deep to come up with a facile answer in a sermon. Advent is four weeks long, just to prepare us to start asking that question. It is a frightening process, becoming spiritually, emotionally naked. Because of course there is a reason that we are so often busy at the times when we should be so still. We are afraid of that nakedness. Taking off our protective shell, we are afraid of being like the Emperor, stripped of all that protects us from ridicule and hurt.
It is a hard journey, our journey into nakedness. We become vulnerable, as vulnerable as the child we gather to greet on Christmas Day. And we may not, even in four weeks, even in a lifetime, manage to find out just who we are when we are bare of our jobs, our responsibilities, our self-image and pretentions. In a way, it is not about us finding out who we are, but letting God see us as we are. Perhaps only God knows who we truly are. But God knows. And we do I think find a little out about who God is.
Because a miracle, a slow but sure miracle can happen to us when we bare ourselves to God. I’ve only rarely been brave enough even to try it – a priest has every excuse during Advent (and even more so when he is about to move house) for just getting on with being busy. But when I have taken that brave step to try and see myself aside from my job, my tasks, my dog-collar, even my passions, my hobbies, my relationships – when I have been brave enough to try and bare my soul to God, in all it’s weakness and unsightliness, it is then that I feel God warming my body, clothing me with love.
I may never know who I am, but I know that God sees me for who I am. Because our protective shells, which so many creatures need to shed in order to grow, do not just protect us from the world, but from God. And as each layer is peeled away, I feel God drawing closer, waiting for us to let him in. We are loved for who we are, not for what we do or who we want to be. The more naked we become, the more we realise that there is nothing to be afraid of.