Thinking Anew – The light of Christ will not be dimmed
Interior of Coventry Cathedral. Photograph: Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
We live in challenging times. The uncertainties hanging over our hopes and expectations for Christmas are difficult for many to manage. However, it is one thing to be disappointed about a postponed family gathering; it is another matter for those who have lost loved ones or who are seriously ill or jobless because of Covid-19. A time to think beyond self.
For decades we have, for the most part, enjoyed orderly lives and we don’t find it easy to cope with disruption.
My parents’ generation lived through two world wars, the flu pandemic, the War of Independence, Civil War and the Wall Street crash. They had no illusions about “the changes and chances of this fleeting world”.
Uncertainty, which was their norm, is the theme of tomorrow’s readings for Advent Sunday.
The prophet Isaiah (Ch. 64) speaks of a world of uncertainty in which people suffer. Appeals to God to intervene fail because, we are told, humankind has brought the suffering on itself; we live with the consequences of our collective moral and political failures.
That often unrecognised connection between conduct and consequence is a blind spot in human nature and when they collide, as for example in the politicisation of the Covid-19 disease in the US, innocent people suffer and die.
The reading from St Mark’s Gospel (Ch 13) is also about uncertainty.
The disciples are warned in language no one wants to hear of the possibility of the end of the world as they know it: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
They had previously been told not to cling to the temple and its traditions because the future will not be found in the past or the familiar, a lesson for all of us. Yet they are encouraged, despite current difficulties, to look to the future with hope, believing the future is in God’s hands.
That is precisely what a young soldier thought in the summer of 1944.
Basil Spence had landed on D-Day and as his unit advanced through France he was appalled at the destruction of people’s homes and villages. A fellow soldier asked him what he would do when peace came. Standing among the ruins, Spence, a qualified architect, said he planned to build a cathedral. He had a vision which, said Jonathan Swift, is the art of seeing things invisible.
The city of Coventry and its 14th-century cathedral had been destroyed by bombs in November 1940.
When it happened, the provost directed that the words of Jesus “Father forgive them” should be engraved in the ruined sanctuary but then changed his mind and said that it should read simply “Father forgive”, an acknowledgement that responsibility did not lie solely with the German people. In 1962 a new Coventry cathedral was consecrated. The architect was Basil Spence, the D-Day veteran with a vision.
A window in the cathedral portrays Jesus as light breaking into the world.
While the periphery of the stained-glass window is dark, the central figure, Jesus, is portrayed in clear, dazzling stained glass while the darkness around the edges remains.
It is the message of Advent; that even in the darkest and most uncertain of times, the light of Christ will not be dimmed. That is the message of Christianity to the world.
Advent prepares us to come to terms with the uncertainties of life for uncertainty is buried deep in what we call the incarnation, the reality of God in human flesh. While the incarnation is a concrete event (the birth of Jesus), there are within it uncertainties that have to be faced: life and death, joy and sorrow, heaven and earth; these inseparable realities are part of life. God did not enter the human experience in a sealed vacuum but rather in the web of human relationships where we are assured that love is for real, even when we are apart.