Sermon: Advent 1

Picture of Winter in Northumberland, England by photographer Ian Britton. (Photograph from

My sermon from this morning:

Winter Martyrium
I don’t like these short, dark winter days. By 4:00 pm the skies are darkening and the street lights across the country switch on like some consenting, creeping blanket of light. And I feel the desire to curl up and hibernate until the spring, to escape the darkness.

And yet there is something of a tension within me. Because it is within the stillness of the darkness, within the isolation and hiddenness of the dark that I encounter God. It is when I am painfully honest about the darkness within me that I am able to approach the light of God and ask for his warmth, protection and company.

In winter dusk and early evening appear to me to be busier than the same time during the other seasons. The darkness focuses our attention on the light that is around about, Like the black line drawn around an illustration, it gives the light focus. On the main roads car lights and lorry lights; the orange “For Hire” lights on taxis; bright window displays, and illuminated shop logos; street lights and traffic lights; Christmas lights across streets and on Christmas trees. Flashing, busy, business, attracting our attention, our custom. Retailers know that light has the power to attract us, like giant moths to a candle. With such a competition for our attention it’s a surprise that we have time for the Light of the World at Christmas.

Funny how we feel more drawn to the light, for warmth, for security, for company. Without electricity or gas few of us can possibily imagine what life must have been light without instant-on light. When we relied very much on the natural ebb and flow of the seasons, until technology (flint, candles, matches, electric torches) helped us out.

We are reliant on light for our well-being, our health. We rely on light for security. Even the faintest glow from a bedside clock is enough to dispel our fear of the dark.

We are drawn to the light for warmth and company. I have fond memories of being huddled around a camp fire on a dark night, on a rocky hillside, the night before we got our final school exam results. The fire was our focus, as we sat enjoying one another’s company.

Or of a big bonfire built in the field of a church member. It was easy to get lost in the darkness, in the vast blackness you could find space. But it was a cold space and sooner or later, one by one we were all drawn back to stand around the fire. Watching the flames leap and dance, firing columns of sparks into the air. That bonfire also attracted the local fire-brigade, I recall.

Advent Longing
I long for the days to lengthen, for the evenings to begin later. I long for the sun to return and fill the earth with its light and warmth and reassurance.

That is what Advent is about: our waiting for God’s light to pierce the darkness; to fill the darkness with His light, even if at first it is only the spark of life that is the infant Christ child; to fill our emptiness with His presence.

I struggle in the winter, with the darkness. So, I find myself tidying up and rearranging things, to help distract me. (It’s my number one anxiousness displacement activity!)

This week I tidied and cleared out my bookcases. I don’t know about you, but whenever I tidy away books I spend about half my time reading books or articles that I’d forgotten I had.

R.S. Thomas
I found an article about the Welsh, Christian poet and priest R.S. Thomas which also spoke to me of this Advent tension between the light and dark, but for Thomas it was about absence and presence.

“The tension between absence and presence is central to R.S. Thomas’s poetry;” writes Richard Griffiths, “the apparent absence of God, and the moments when there is a realization of the presence within that absence …”

“Faith does not come easily to Thomas. Only too often, his search for God seems to lead to nothingness. God is silent. There is a recurrent image, at all stages of his poetic career, of a priest praying in an empty church, unanswered. Though it is a constant theme, the message varies. At times the vision of the cross breaks through the silence of God, as the praying man comes to see the love of God:

To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.

Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long,
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.
(“In a Country Church”, by R.S. Thomas)

“But, only too often, there is emptiness there, too, The priest ‘tests his faith on emptiness’, nailing his questions to an ‘untenanted cross’:

Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waiting like this
Since the stones grouped themselves around it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
(“In Church”, by R.S. Thomas)”

(Richard Griffiths, “R.S. Thomas and the Role of Poetry”, Theology, Vol. C (July/August 1997) No. 796, p275f.)

No-one knows the time
Is God there or not? If God is there, perhaps the essence of God lies in His inaccessibility, as much as in his accessibility.
The tension between the absence and presence of God in R.S. Thomas’s poetry is more a simple than just those glimpsed moments when we catch sight of God in our moments of enlightenment. God is as equally present in our (perhaps) longer moments of darkness.

That is part of the tension of Advent; part of the tension of waiting with expectation. Waiting to discern the faint outline of God in the darkness; waiting for the light to come among us, as one of us.

“Beware, keep alert; for your do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13: 33)

Come, Lord, come down, come in, come among us.
Enter into our darkness with your light.
Come fill our emptiness with your presence.
Dispel the clouds and reveal your glory.
Come refresh, renew, restore us.
Come Lord, come down, come in, come among us.

(Prayer from Traces of Glory by David Adam (SPCK, 1999) ISBN: 0-281-05199-2.)

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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