The Colour of Advent

There is an online debate taking place about what colour the church should use for Advent.

The traditional colour for Lent is purple but recently some churches – particularly in the US - have taken to using the colour blue, reflecting a change in emphasis in the season of Advent.

Purple of course is understood as the colour for penitential seasons. It is the colour for Lent.

And those who are choosing blue are trying to say that penitence is the wrong approach in Advent.

Marcus Borg, the recently deceased but very popular writer and theologian, has said:

Seeing Advent as a penitential season strikes me as unfortunate. It is the product of a seriously distorted and yet widespread understanding of Christianity: namely, that the central issue in our lives with God is our sinfulness and thus our need for repentance and forgiveness.

He goes on to suggest that this is all tied up with the idea of Jesus, Son of God being sent by God as a sacrifice, to pay for our sins. And concludes:  This is a serious impoverishment of Christianity and Advent.

I have a lot of sympathy with Marcus Borg’s argument.

The central themes of the stories of Jesus’ birth are hardly at all about sin and our need for forgiveness. Rather, they and the texts from the Old Testament that they echo are about a more robust, attractive, and compelling vision of what Christianity, Advent and Christmas are all about.

The central biblical themes that we follow throughout the whole of Advent are these:

  • Firstly - Liberation from bondage: from the Pharoahs and Herods and Caesars who dominate us and our world – it doesn’t take too much imagination to think about who they are today. These include oppressive political and economic systems and also psychological-spiritual agents of oppression
  • Return from exile: from life in Babylon - being re-connected to that from which we have been estranged, that to which we belong.
  • Light from darkness: an archetypal image of human yearning. What happened in Jesus is the fulfilment of our deepest longings.

So Advent themes are not so much about what we have done or failed to do, they are about what has been done to us. They are addressing the situations in which we find ourselves now. The social, political and economic environment in which we find ourselves. Or more precisely, in the gospels, and especially in Mark’s gospel this morning, the Advent themes are about what has been done to the poor.

John the Baptist’s call to repentance is not said in our modern sense of angst and personal guilt, but in the Hebrew sense of a common recognition of our solidarity with historical injustice – which is the heart of the bible message. As Ched Myers says, ‘metanoia (repentance) means a radical break with ‘business as usual’ and for us it is saying no to empire.

So reflecting on these themes it is clear that Advent is not primarily about penitence, but is essentially about EXPECTATION. Advent is a time when we think about what it might mean to be free from bondage, to have returned from exile, and to live in the light rather than in darkness. This is a vision of the kingdom, this is what he kingdom of God involves.

So in Advent we are called to summon up our expectation. And this is no simple or easy achievement.

In our world-weariness and in our cynicism that nothing will ever change it is so easy to give up on expectation. To settle for less. To go with the flow. To accept the un-acceptable as simply the way things are.

Faith is about a different response.

So expectation is not about us, it is about what we believe God is doing in our world.

Holy Expectation is about not being sucked into the negative stories that we hear everyday on the TV and in the newspapers. It is about affirming that this is God’s world, and that as long as it is God’’s world there is no need for us to despair.

Of course, this Holy Expectation requires something of us beyond hoping for the best.

It means acting as if what we hope to be the case is in fact in the process of happening.

It means staying alert to possibilities. Mobilizing our energy in the service of what we believe to be right. Consciously and practically supporting initiatives that we believe to be good. Being pro-active in the service of goodness – or God-ness. Anticipating the kingdom in as many dimensions as we can imagine.  Being ready, being alert, being open, being awake to God’s possibilities as they make themselves known – which will be many and often.

So this holy expectation that we are called to in Advent is not something passive, just sitting and waiting for something to happen. It is an active response of faith. To quote Ched Myers again, ‘ in order to facilitate a concrete process of repentance we need intentional communities and lifestyles that experiment with more just and compassionate patters of social and economic relating.

Bernadette Farrell sums this up well in one of her songs. She says, ‘in our living and our dying we are bringing you to birth’. This is the conspiracy into which God calls us in Advent as we prepare to celebrate once again the birth which signals that radical break with all business as usual.

The people we read about in the scriptures at Christmas, who wait expectantly for God – Mary, Simeon and Anna – are not waiting passively. Their waiting is active. And active waiting is waiting with resistance, compassion and imagination. That is the sort of waiting we are all called for. It is a waiting that can change the world by anticipating the kingdom.

Mark Waters

10 December 2017