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Advent Reflections

by the Rev’d Priscilla Slusar

Reflection for the Fourth Week of Advent (download for printing here)

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1898

Mary is a central figure in the mystery of the incarnation and birth of Jesus; she carries inside her the child that we are waiting for throughout this Advent season.  Hers is the final candle in the outer ring of the Advent wreath.  To honour Mary this week I have chosen this image of the Annunciation to remind us that God’s preparations for the birth of Jesus started long ago; before the beginning of the world according to John’s gospel.  (John 1)

There are many works of art depicting the visit of the angel to Mary (Luke 1.26-38), but I think that this one is unusual and striking.  Mary is shown as a young woman, barefoot and wearing a nightgown.  It looks as if her sleeping area is just a section of the main living room, separated by a screen.  The angel is represented as a column of light rather than the usual semi-human figure.  The presence of God is often shown in artwork as a beam of light and Jesus is referred to as the Light of the World, so this is a clear indication of God’s message to Mary.  Mary looks thoughtful and anxious rather than terrified even though this is a far from normal occurrence.  Mary is looking directly into the angel light, accepting the role that God has assigned her with quiet self-assurance.

Behind the angelic light is the outline of a shelf which creates the form of a cross.  This reminds us of the suffering and death of Jesus, and that Mary will also suffer deep sadness and anguish.  (John 19.25b-27) She will need all her courage and faith in God to accomplish the task that lies ahead of her.  This makes her “Yes” even more impressive.  (Luke 1.38) She knows and understands God well enough to trust in what he asks of her, so Mary becomes the cornerstone of God’s plan for salvation.  God’s choice of Mary indicates recognition of her great strength of character.  In Christmas carols Mary is often referred to as “meek and mild” but perhaps words such as “courageous” and “strong-minded” may be better descriptors.  I am sure there were times when Mary questioned the destiny set out for her, when she wished for an ordinary existence, but her trust in God led her to accept the role assigned to her.

This reminds us that God knows each one of us intimately, as he knew Mary – and we each have a part to play in God’s plan.  There will almost certainly be challenges; our lives will not always be smooth and care-free but God does not ask us to take on more than we are capable of.  Mary teaches us about trust in God and confidence in the knowledge of God’s love for each one of us.

Consider: What is God asking you to do?  What is your part in God’s plan?

Lord, you have known us from our mother’s womb: as we seek you in the face of Jesus Christ, give us your Holy Spirit to lead us daily more deeply into the joy that comes from the knowledge of your eternal love.  Amen

Reflection for the Third Week of Advent (download for printing here)

The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci  c.1500

How do you imagine John the Baptist, who is the central figure for this third week of Advent?  The Bible describes him as a charismatic preacher, shouting forcefully to people in the desert.  His appearance is striking – wearing camel hair and a leather belt, and eating locusts and wild honey! (Matthew 3.4) But I have chosen a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci which gives a very different image of him; it portrays John as a little boy in a family scene.

Many years ago, when I first saw this sketch by Leonardo, I assumed that the two women were Mary and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.  It seemed natural to assume that the two mothers were meeting together to share the joys of their baby sons.  However, I was wrong – the older woman is St Anne, the mother of Mary.  The picture shows a loving family scene.  Mary is young enough to be sitting on her mother’s knee, and Anne is looking at her with love and admiration.  It shows the support that Anne gave to her daughter when she was facing censure for becoming pregnant prior to marriage.  Anne’s left hand is pointing upwards.  Leonardo often used this gesture in his paintings to indicate the presence of God.  Mary is focused on the baby Jesus, whose fingers are raised to bless John – another indication of God’s presence in this domestic scene.

Now let us concentrate on John, the person celebrated on this third Sunday of Advent.  John is placed to the side in this image, leaning against Anne, but slightly removed from the main figures.  He appears independent; he is not being embraced or cuddled.  Is this an indication of his future role?  John always referred to himself in humble terms as the one who was sent to prepare the way for someone more important, for the Messiah.  Is Leonardo indicating that he was preparing for this role even from his boyhood?

John was (and is) such an important figure in God’s preparations for the coming of Christ.  He forms the link between the old prophets and the new era.  His appearance and preaching echo the great prophets of the Old Testament but he constantly points to the future.  The prophet Isaiah foretold that God would send a messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah (Isaiah 40.3), and John refers to “the one … who is coming after me.”  (Mark 1. 1-8) There are parallels between the lives of John and Jesus: John’s birth, like Jesus’s, was announced by an angel, both of them drew large crowds in their preaching and teaching, and both of them aroused suspicion and fear amongst the authorities.  Finally, they both suffered cruel deaths.  Throughout all of this John focused on his role as the forerunner of the Messiah; he did not try to steal the limelight for himself.

John seemed to have great confidence in God and in his part in God’s plan until one moment of doubt when he was in prison awaiting death.  (Matthew 11.2-11) He must have been at his lowest ebb at this point and started to question whether he had completed his task.  He sent messengers to Jesus, asking if he was truly the Messiah.  Jesus responded by telling the messengers to describe what they saw – the lame walking, the lepers healed, the dead returned to life, and the poor given the good news.  Jesus was referring to the prophecies of old, describing the work of the Messiah.  He knew that John would recognise this and feel reassured.  John’s work was done.

John teaches us so much about a life of service to God, about humility, and about dedication.  But it is also reassuring to us that he knew moments of doubt and uncertainty, just as we do.  The opposite of doubt is not faith, but certainty.  Faith involves believing whilst also living with doubt.  Like John, we can take our doubts to God in prayer and seek support in our darker moments.

Consider: Are there times when we need to stand aside like John, and let others be the centre of attention?  What is the best way to address our doubts and uncertainties?  How can we point out the path to God to others?

Father of all, send us the Holy Spirit so that we may prepare the way of the Lord Jesus Christ, in our lives and in our world.  Teach us to lift our eyes and look with hope for that day when he will return to draw all people to himself.  Amen

Reflection for the Second Week of Advent (download for printing here)

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt, 1630

The theme for the second week of Advent is the Prophets, who helped to prepare for the coming of Christ by directing people towards God.  The prophets were not always popular characters because they challenged people about their lifestyles and tried to make them aware of the presence of God.  Jeremiah is often depicted as the prophet of doom because he foretold the destruction of Jerusalem, the Holy City.  The term “Jeremiah” is still used nowadays to describe someone of a gloomy disposition!

In this image Rembrandt has painted Jeremiah at a time of absolute despair.  Jerusalem has been invaded and conquered by the troops of King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE.  Most of the nobility and educated people from the city are being taken into exile, so that the city is left without leaders who may lead a rebellion against the occupying forces.  It is no consolation to Jeremiah that he had predicted this – but was ignored. (Jeremiah 39-52)

When God calls people to be prophets, he puts a considerable burden on them.  Jeremiah was isolated from friends and neighbours because they did not like his message.  He faced hatred, fear, death threats and imprisonment because people did not want to accept what God was saying to them via him.  They could not see that it was their actions and lifestyle that was the problem, rather than Jeremiah’s words.  This picture by Rembrandt shows the effect of this on Jeremiah; he is exhausted, depressed and alone.  He has not been injured in the conflict, but he is about to be exiled.  He appears to be dressed for the journey (although his feet are bare!), and surrounded by the possessions he has salvaged.  His left arm is leaning on a book labelled Bibel (the Torah, the first books of the Hebrew Bible).  You may find it helpful to view this picture on the internet and enlarge certain sections, so that you can see the detail of the destruction of Jerusalem in the background and the way in which Rembrandt has portrayed the devastation on the face of Jeremiah.

One of the great skills that Rembrandt displays as an artist is the use of light and shadow to convey a message or highlight part of an image.  In this picture Jeremiah is bathed in a soft, glowing light which appears to come from the bottom left-hand side of the picture.  Is this a lamp or torchlight?  Or does it represent God’s presence, indicating that Jeremiah is not as isolated as he feels?  Themes of light and darkness are also linked with the season of Advent.  It is a dark time of the year, with short days and cloudy skies; but we look forward to the light of the Christmas season when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, Light of the World.  Like Jeremiah, Jesus faced rejection and hostility in his life as he passed on the word of God; he was rejected by his own people.  But Jesus is also the embodiment of God’s love for the world and us.  The prophets brought good news as well as bad; they foretold the birth of Jesus and reminded people of God’s eternal presence.  In this season of Advent the prophets remind us that God is with us at all times.

Consider: How might you pass on a prophetic message about God to others?

Come, O Lord,
open our eyes to your presence,
open our minds to your grace,
open our lips to your praises,
open our hearts to your love,
open our lives to your healing
and be known among us.  Amen

Reflection for the First Week of Advent (download for printing here)

Credit: imageBROKER/robertharding
Copyright: Guenter Fischer

At this time of year most churches have an Advent wreath on display, with 5 candles to mark the four weeks of the Advent season and Christmas Day.  Each Advent candle represents a theme for that week, leading us through the narrative to the birth of Jesus.  The first week usually refers to the Patriarchs, the founding fathers and leaders of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions.  The Patriarchs remind us that preparations for the coming of Christ began many centuries before his birth.

This image is taken from a fresco in the Orthodox rock church of Abuna Yemata Guh near Tigray in Ethiopia. The church is hewn from the rock at a height of approximately 8,000 feet and access is a perilous journey on foot.

The fresco shows Abraham, Isaac and Jacob standing together as if for a family photograph.  They appear to be wearing their best clothes; the folds of their robes are clearly shown in the painting indicating that a significant amount of material was used to make them.  However, the faces of the three patriarchs appear to show concern or apprehension, with “worry lines” drawn on two of the faces.  The central figure, presumably Abraham, holds a parchment or document.  Is this a representation of the promise made to him by God that he would father a great race?  One of the other figures, Isaac or Jacob, holds a cross.  Is this intended to point to Christ and the part these patriarchs played in his ancestry?

The arrangement of these Patriarchs as a trio reminds us that Abraham and his wife Sarah received a visit from three mysterious strangers who told them that they would have a son and thereby found a great dynasty leading to the birth of the Messiah.  Genesis 18.1-10 (The three mysterious strangers have often been linked to the Holy Trinity – see Rublev’s icon “The Trinity” which is sometimes referred to as “The Hospitality of Abraham”).

Perhaps Isaac appears to be anxious because he is remembering the disturbing events of his youth, when God tested Abraham’s faith by demanding that he should sacrifice his son.  Abraham, although deeply distressed, followed the instructions he was given and was prepared to kill Isaac.  At the last minute, God relented and provided a ram for the sacrifice instead.  Genesis 22.1-19 Is this another link for us to follow, pointing to the sacrifice of God’s only Son on the cross?

The third figure in the fresco is Jacob, a complex character according to the book of Genesis.  He cheated his brother Esau of his inheritance, was tricked by his future father-in-law, and ultimately became the father of twelve brothers who argued amongst themselves and sold one of their brothers into slavery!  Genesis 27-37 However, Jacob had a mystical side to his character.  He experienced a close encounter with God, and had a vivid dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven.  Genesis 28.10-22 Despite Jacob’s chequered life, God promised to be always with him wherever he went.

Reading about the lives of the Patriarchs during this season of Advent helps us to build our relationship with God and be ready to welcome Christ into our hearts and our lives.  Like Jacob, we do not always behave in an honourable or blameless way.  We do not always have the faith of Abraham, trusting God even when life is challenging.  But we can be assured of God’s love and promise to be with us always.

Consider – Have there been people in your life who have directed you to God, who have helped to build your faith and trust in God?

God of all time,
in all the dark and testing circumstances of life,
may we trust in your timeless love.
Strengthen our faith
and open our hearts in welcome
to your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.  Amen