Faith & Reason: Watch out for the pre-Christmas demons

Tomorrow the Church begins preparing for the birthday of Christ. But it does so by anticipating the Second Coming rather than recalling the First
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The Independent Culture
ADVENT: "THE coming". It surprises me, sometimes, that the period of Advent, which starts tomorrow, is billed as the approach of the Christmas festivities. But then it doesn't surprise me, because the approach of Christ, which is what the season is really about, is a completely different and frightening prospect.

The Church knows what sort of preparation the coming of Christ requires: the traditional themes for the four Sundays in Advent begin tomorrow with death, and go downhill from there. The faithful remnant that attends evensong on dark wintry nights - while you settle down in front of the television - is wrestling with the demons of despair and destruction.

To avoid the sentimentality of the manger story in the First Coming, the Church tends to work backwards. It starts with the Second Coming, when, according to the texts, Christ will return and start the final credits rolling. It is awkward, but a bit of a relief, to find out that there is no known timetable for the end of the world. Members of the early Church expected it in their lifetime but were a little out (and a little put out). Nowadays things are more relaxed: the 2,000-odd years that have passed since the First Coming have taken the edge off our expectation, and we've put the party nibbles away in our Tupperware boxes. We are used to living with uncertainty. That is all most of us know.

We are thus entering a bewilderingly rich few weeks in the Church's year: recalling the past, living in the present and anticipating the future; preparing for an event that has already happened, all the while knowing that it is the preparation that matters most; reflecting on birth and death, natural and supernatural events; delighting in the riches that God has given us, yet feeling penitent about our affluence. Forget the Millennium thing. Celebrating the past 1,000 years seems dull when the ordinary annual Advent observance grasps hold of eternity and thrusts it into our present.

So, the spiritual shelves have been filled, the lights in the shop windows have gone up, and the doors are now open. Glory can be found on the first floor; darker themes are in the basement. The question in the Advent shop, though, is not what shall we buy, but how shall we live? It is, of course, a question that life asks us every day of the year, but, just as the ordinary shops are suddenly full of strange and wonderful gifts, all to be bought before a deadline, so the Advent season asks us the life- question with more urgency, and offers us more variety for our answers.

We need an analogy. Take Northern Ireland. This morning, women on the outskirts of Belfast are walking the dog, and men are preparing to take the children to the supermarket. Hundreds of children are watching television, scores of teenagers are hunting for matching socks, a few people are wondering where the cat is. It is a normal day. Nobody is looking up into the sky, like they do in Independence Day, suddenly aware in the pits of their stomachs of the cosmic drama about to be played out above their heads.

Yet, despite the absence of spacecraft, this is a day of huge importance. But, just as the Internet doesn't exist "out there" or "up there", but in insignificant grey boxes in insignificant offices, so the hope for the province depends today on insignificant grey-suited men in another set of insignificant offices. Each member of the Ulster Unionist council is weighing the balance between principle and pragmatism, between the possibility of peace and a slide back into violence. And the tension of that choice, somehow, leaks out of the offices and gets to the people in the supermarket or hunting for their cat.

This is how life works: through the choices made by individuals, and the next set of choices that those choices open up, both for those individuals and for the rest of us. Today is not the only pivotal day there has been in the peace process in the past two years, nor will it be the last, but it will close off some routes and open others. Similarly with the Advent store. We seldom have momentous decisions to make, and so, despite all these vast themes existing on other levels, the dark ones below us, the mystical ones up the escalator, we don't have to feel guilty about staying on the ground floor, picking our way through the gifts that God gives to us in the ordinary. This is not to say that people are less spiritual than in previous generations, when they, supposedly, spent longer contemplating the great themes of life and death. The spiritual choices we make are so many and so tiny that, in the ordinary run of things we do not notice ourselves making them. But from time to time the effect those choices have on the bigger themes leaks back into our conscious lives, and we feel the tension, or the peace.

Our contact with the cosmic part of us does not depend on a terrifying invasion from outer space, be it aliens or an apocalyptic Christ-figure. Christ approaches, but he has been here all the time. The first time, he chose to come to an insignificant couple in an insignificant stable.

Next time, who knows? My hunch is that it will feel like this.