This is becoming an annual game, but this year’s crop of outlandish Advent Calendars is no less extravagant than last year’s. Top of the list at £104,000 is the Tiffany Jewellery Calendar, with a different piece of bling for each day to add that extra sparkle to your watching and waiting. More modestly, Fortnum and Mason offer an Old Rare Whiskey calendar for £1,000. For those who want to save on the washing, Happy Socks offer a new pair for each day at £104.96. Meanwhile at John Lewis their beauty calendar is similarly priced at £105.00 – no messing with loose change there. At the more sensible end, Hotel Chocolat offer their calendar for £26 and Divine have been offering a much more reasonable Fair-Trade calendar for a fiver, whereas the Real Advent Calendar has been even better value at £3.99.
These calendars were discussed on Radio 4 the other day because there has been a campaign to challenge the excessive consumption and acquisitiveness. This was seen as a radical option, which of course it is, if we take radical to be going back to the fundamentals. Advent is a time to ask what really matters and fasting and denial are a way Christian spirituality has traditionally encouraged this. Rather than acquire more stuff, consume more unnecessary chocolate or alcohol, the focus is to aim at living more sustainably. This Advent, with the climate challenge we face to reduce energy and carbon consumption by 7% a year, living sustainably is a timely message. We have to learn a different way of living and being; we will have to learn to curtail the endless increase in consuming that has become a way of life and something to be taken for granted. Endless growth has limits.
Friday was Black Friday and if like me you tried to drive round the city you will have seen how gridlocked it was with queues of traffic bringing people into the centre to shop for bargains. This is based on a marketing tool to encourage spending, which gives bargains to the cash strapped, but it is also a tool of the excessive consumerist culture that we are subjected to. When an event which was designed to get people back into the shops after the Thanksgiving public holiday in the United States of America now lasts a week, leaving aside that we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in this country, something is horribly out of balance. It feeds a craving for having where a bargain is seen as something to be grasped, even if you don’t actually want or need the goods on offer – the enticement tempts and dangles something attractive but not actually needed. We have to get this back under control and the best place to start is with ourselves and our own cravings. Living with enough, consuming no more than we need to consume is not a bad way to approach this season which can so easily be characterised by excess and over indulgence.
There is a radical alternative, which gives the whole basis of this a flip. Some are looking at what they can give as they join in with a Generous Advent. In Generous Advent, rather than opening boxes to take out a gift, looking at what’s for me, the flip is to put a series of boxes or baskets to one side and each day put in another item as a gift for someone who needs it more than you do. It can be a food bank Advent to feed the hungry rather than more chocolates we don’t need. Rather than socks to save the washing, put a pair of socks in the basket for a homeless person who needs a pair. Rather than cosmetics put in toiletries and personal hygiene items for someone who can’t afford them. With this our watching and waiting takes on a different tone.
Advent is a time of preparation, when we prepare to greet the Christ who comes in the crib and also who will come again at the end of time. Our Gospel reading (Matthew 24:36-44) reminded us that we don’t know when that will be. We are to keep awake, be ready. In other words, live as someone who is living in anticipation of Christ’s arrival. And this is where Advent as a season of reflection and self-examination comes in. If we prepare with more consuming, with more acquiring, with more excessive living, then this is what we are preparing for. And we know that this is a distraction from the real goal and point of life. Riches, status, power and glory are all fading vanities. They will come to an end, but they provide a way to shut out that stark and sobering realisation. This is why Jesus said it is so hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. It is hard because it can be a distraction from mortality, from hope and from living for the Kingdom rather than for today’s comfort alone. Poverty is not fun, but riches can be a different kind of poverty, acquiring can impoverish the soul and impoverish contentment. Cravings are rarely satisfied because they are often a sign of something deep being empty and these commodities are the wrong thing to try to fill it with.
The Epistle (Romans 13:11-14) also reflected on this theme with its encouragement to live honourably and not in revelling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarrelling or jealousy. That rules of out the EastEnders Christmas special which usually promises a fight and debauchery in one form or another. Living honourably in this context is to live in the hope of Christ, who comes and fulfils, who is the one we should really crave for.
Advent looks forward and the calendars should point forward too. Having a treat each day, be it shiny things, socks or something for the taste buds, is not actually the point. Advent bids us to live in the light of God’s future, to hope in him and find as we do contentment. As we live in harmony with the earth, with justice and diet, we will be much more at peace. A Generous Advent is one inspired by the hope of Christ.
Sermon for Advent Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 1st December 2019