Today we hear from my Friend Graham Peacock. He used to be a methodist minister – actually, do you ever stop? – now he works as a chaplain in mental health services. Here he reflects on his own season, amidst the losses of later middle age.
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.This is part of a set reading for the first Sunday in Advent (November 27th)
There are often readings like this on the first Sunday of Advent: I’ve always struggled with them. At first, they felt like the apocryphal embarrassing aunt whose presence is tolerated once a year at Christmas: the family heaving a sigh of relief when they leave, knowing that they won’t have to see them again until next Christmas.
(By the way, I do not have an aunt, so I can only speculate what they are like).
Then, when faith made sense to me, I was around Christians who believed that these strange, wild prophecies were literally true, ignoring the colourful literary imaginings and poetry and -it seemed to me- invariably remaking them into angry prose. Strangely this God often seemed to hate all the things they did, only more so.
I’ve only preached from them when I’ve had to do so and I haven’t in the last few years: I knew death and destruction happened, but that was in far off places. I’m middle class: bad things happen to other people- the villages near where I live don’t need to hear readings like this.
Just over two years ago, a friend in the pub looked around at our group of friends and said something like; ‘We’ve all done very well: mid 50s and we are all still here’. I laughed, but over the next few weeks I stopped laughing; within that group two long term relationships unravelled, one person developed a lifelong health condition, and another got a terminal diagnosis.
The suddenness shocked me- it still does; what I imagined was a stable group- a bulwark against the uncertainties of life, was fractured.
It is perhaps a mistake to narrow down the majesty, unevenness and unpredictability of that reading at the start, to the tiny world of myself and my friends. However, in my experience, micro shocks make me think about bigger issues like nothing else: I was never good about preaching the big issues- not that I couldn’t comprehend them or that I’m not interested in them- but rather I was liable to lapse into generalities or comfortable bromides.
The micro shocks I experienced through those events opened me up again to something bigger and more profound- all that I’m certain of could disappear in an instant: what I hold onto is only provisional. I think that’s why these set readings appear on the 1st Sunday in Advent- to remind us of that in shocking, sometimes opaque imagery: it’s no wonder that I/we want to shoo them away.
Maybe next year I could chose to preach on the 1st Sunday of Advent.
Maybe one day…