First Sunday of Advent Reflection

“Item 5 – Forthcoming events”

There is a standing agenda item for many of my regular church meetings – ‘forthcoming events’. It has the character of a litany, as we recite the dates of special services, concerts, social events for the three or four month window it feels prudent to plan for. We list them out because they are unusual, at least in the immediate context. But set against the wider backdrop of the years, there is a pattern and a shape to this conversation. Christmas first gets listed in August, but we say each time that we’ll look at it properly ‘a bit nearer the time’. In September we note that Remembrance Sunday will run as usual. And so it goes as year turns to year.

When I first came to these parishes, this litany of forthcoming events was part of my enculturation as priest and minister in these places. I needed to learn to recite the familiar pattern of the things that count as out of the ordinary in order to know this place and its people. I needed to become adept at the story of the year if I wanted to discern how to tell it in new ways. That experience is always a tension. That necessary waiting on God and paying attention to how God speaks through a place and its people comes at a time of excitement and enthusiasm, of wanting to make a difference.

A few years on, I look back with enough perspective to recognise that this is how God breaks in. Breaks in to us as ministers to the places where he calls us and breaks in to those places by the rooted disturbance that we bring. There is something about the ministry of a local church that is all about rooted disturbance. There is a witness that comes from being genuinely located in a place and a community and therefore being able to say, ‘there is more that matters than just this’. That witness is made possible when we know the place and its story and can hold the tension of speaking of a God who transforms us beyond recognition, even as we live the pattern of the year.

That tension between rootedness and transformation comes front and centre through Advent. Christmas services welcome many who relax into the reassuring familiarity of tradition. Yet they speak of a God who upends the social order and brings a scandalous freedom to his people. Our Christmas scriptures themselves tell of the unprecedented presence of God with his people through the incarnation, but that world-changing moment is as rooted in God’s relationship with his people through the centuries as Mary’s song is rooted in Hannah’s.

In Advent we live the tension between rootedness and disturbance and as we do so the ministry of the local church comes into sharper focus. God breaking in and making things new with the telling of an old, old story. A life that is rooted in a place and a time, but always conscious of the promise of forthcoming events.

The Revd Dr Helen Dawes, Team Rector of Shaftesbury.

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