Today is the last of the four Sundays in the weeks of preparation for Christmas. There is a greater observance in churches of the custom of the lighting of the candles on an Advent wreath with four candles being lit gradually, one more as each Sunday comes.
In many churches the colour of the pulpit and lectern falls and the drape over the Holy Communion table also changes. The purple colour in Advent is also the colour of the season of Lent. The colour is a royal colour. It is also the colour of penitence and preparation. Just as observing Lent prepares us for Good Friday and the crucifixion of Christ, observing Advent prepares us for his birth.
Advent is not a season of a gentle drift into Christmas sentimentality. Quite the reverse. The four candles represent the four great traditional Advent themes – Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgment. They are at the core of Christ’s birth, mission, teaching and resurrection.
The Bible begins with a story of heaven on earth. It tells of a paradise called Eden which is corrupted by human sin. The gospels stress the new creation which Christ’s birth and teaching introduce. Jesus stressed he would go to prepare a place for his people in heaven. He taught his followers to pray to “Our Father who art in heaven.” And the Bible closes with John’s magnificent description of the new heaven and the new earth, a place without crying or pain where the redeemed enter into the inner presence of God. From beginning to end the Bible highlights heaven.
Hell is presented by Jesus as a permanent state of separation from God. It is a place of torment. His account tells of Lazarus the beggar being with God and the torment of the rich man who had despised the beggar realising that he himself was separated from God for ever. The Bible is clear. There is a heaven to win, and a hell to be avoided.
The third theme of Advent is a stark reminder that each one of us, at all times, is only one breath away from death. One of the most famous bishops and teachers to live in the north-east of Ireland was Jeremy Taylor. He knew suffering because of his loyalties and from the illnesses in his own immediate family. He described the aim of the Christian journey to be “holy living and holy dying”.
The final theme of Advent on tomorrow, which happens this year to be the Eve of Christmas, is that of judgment. The main reason Christ was crucified is that his teaching stated that the people exercising religious power were abusing their power and warping the mission entrusted to them by God. Jesus said they would be held to account by God, as would each human being.
In the Anglican tradition there is a prayer – a collect – for each Sunday and the week following it. During Advent and Lent there is also an extra collect which should be said each day in the season. The collect for Advent, drafted from older worship books at the height of the English Reformation, states “Almighty God, Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light…that on the last day when he (Jesus) shall come in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.”
This Advent I saw an illustration on Facebook which sums this up. It simply showed two circular drawings – a Christmas wreath and beside it, a crown of thorns. Behind the cradle stands the cross where heaven, hell, death and judgment meet.