Adevnt Reflection

This Advent and Christmas, pay attention to the symbols of this season, because there is a lot to be learnt through the traditional images we find at this time of year. Although, saying that, I wonder how many of you will send and receive cards with a depiction of the nativity, or if you and your loved ones will favour robins in the snow, or Santa?

One image that always makes its way onto my computer background is the Icon of the Nativity. For me this Orthodox image gives us a different angle to the traditional images, and it drips with symbolism to aid in our Advent preparations and our Christmas celebrations.

The background is dark and displays an inhospitable world, the world we’ve inhabited since our expulsion from Eden. A world we can recognise today in our media with the uncertainty of peace or safety for many people.

Christ is shown in the centre of the icon, with his mother Mary sitting in a cave that the earth has provided. The Creator of the universe is entering history as a new born baby, and his birth changes everything. Christ is a helpless figure, wrapped in strips of cloth, representing his complete submission to becoming human and sharing our life. His manger is like a coffin, and his cloths like grave cloths, reminding us that this child has been born to die. Into this world of darkness and danger, he comes to save us.

Among the joyful festivities of the birth of this child, there is a serious message; the Immanuel (עִמָּנוּאֵל) is here, Jesus, ‘God is with us’ has arrived but not all will recognise this. He is watched over by the ox and the ass. “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3)

Mary, the Theotokos (God-bearer), is the largest and most dominant figure in the icon, lying back after giving birth. It was her “Yes” to the angel brings about the whole series of events and her faith in God that brings forth our salvation. She is a reminder to us that working for Christ is sometimes exhausting hard work, but worth it.

The Wise Men are on the left of the icon and the Shepherds on the right, and they show that Christ came for all, rich and poor, acceptable and unacceptable. The Wise Men on horseback, looking up to their guiding star, they represent not only the rich and wealthy, but they also bring politics into the story with their dealings with Herod. The shepherds are tending their sheep. One of the shepherd plays joyful music on a flute, while one of the sheep looks up to the angels above.

My favourite characters in this icon however are the angels, whose role here is to announce the good news, to praise and glorify God, and watch over the holy events below.

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Advent 3 Evensong Malachi 3:1-4

We are over half way through this season of Advent, this season of preparation, this season of waiting, and it’s a good time to step back and look at our journey, where we have been, and to look ahead to where we are going.

For many, they share in the traditions that make up an emotionally difficult, stressful and expensive Christmas; decorating the tree and houses in a mixture of plastic, wooden and glass ornaments, tinsel, figures of Santa and snowmen, reindeer, sending out 100s of cards, many to people you hardly speak to for the rest of the year, attending and hosting parties, meals, drink get together; buying gifts for friends and family, neighbours and acquaintances; buying enough food to make an army obese, even though the shops are only closed for one day.

But none of these things does a true Christmas make.

Even those of us who commit to keeping a holy Christmas and to keep the true meaning of it can get bogged down in all of these frills that have become the tradition and if we’re honest, Christmas in this consumer society does seem to be all about the cards, and the gifts, the parties and decorations.

And it makes me sad to see so many committing to the hollowness of the fills rather then the holiness of the season.

Advent is a season of preparation, but if your Christmas is about the frills, then what are you preparing for?

We have a different understanding of preparation given to us in our scriptures. We are preparing for the coming of the Lord, coming to us in human form, coming as one of us, to live with and among us. And no amount of tinsel can prepare you for that.

We’ve heard it said again and again at our Advent services, that this is a time of preparation and looking at the four last things, death, judgement, heaven and hell.

But how are we to do this? How are we to do this when the rest of the world is in the ‘Christmas Spirit’ so soon? And why would we want to when the rest of the world preparations are so sparkly and attractive?

Mary Reed Newland has a wonderful quote about what our advent preparation should be, she says, :

“…you cannot just walk into such a blaze of glory without preparation… you must creep up to it, think about it, count the days, watch the signs, and prepare.”

Listen again to the words of the prophet Malachi who speaks one method of preparation:

“See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple… but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,
This is a time of preparation—but what a preparation!

Refiner’s fire!

Strangely enough, when given the option between being put in a fire and fairy lights and tinsel, most people opt for the fairy lights and tinsel.

Refiners fire is not a form of preparation that we often opt for. Not many of us like being put into the fire by God; or by life’s circumstances.

But we’ve all been there, when the heat is on, and we’re under pressure, when life happens

and we have to deal with the messy reality of our fragile and fallible nature, and when we have to deal with the messy reality of the fragility and fallibility of others.

When we need to suck it up, and tackle those things that hang over us, and weigh heavy on our shoulders.

When we’re faced with the choices that we’d rather avoid, and face with the people that have hurt us, and the people we’ve hurt.

And when we’ve experience loss, and death. In all these, we are people in the refiners fire.

We have a choice in those times, to use them, to refine, improve and purify, For the bad things to burn away, and to allow God to create something new and to do a new thing in us, or not.

‘but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire….. he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver

A friend of mine, who is a priest in a little Welsh town, was a silversmith in a former life and made very fine jewellery.

He once described to me the process to of how silver is refined.

He said, ‘the piece of silver is held over the fire to heat up. It needs to be in the middle of the fire where the hottest flames are so all the impurities, the dross can be burnt away. You need to carefully watch during this process, there is no room for slacking because if the silver is left a moment too long, then it would be destroyed.

The refiner needs to wait until their reflection can been seen in the silver, then it is ready to be made into something beautiful.

If God is the refiner, and we are the silver, we can know, and trust in a few things about this process of preparation.

We can trust that God is a good silversmith, who doesn’t just throw us in the fire and leave us there to be destroyed.

He holds us, watches us, he is always nearby, unwilling to let us be destroyed.

And we can trust that when we are ready, that the refiners reflection is returned to him, that we reflect outwards God’s image.

“…you cannot just walk into such a blaze of glory without preparation… you must creep up to it, think about it, count the days, watch the signs, and prepare.”

Advent is that time of preparation before entering the blaze of glory, before meeting God made man in the manger of Bethlehem.

How will use the rest of this preparation time? With tinsel and shopping, or with burning the dross, and reflecting God to the world?