Advent begins this weekend. Advent is traditionally the season when, looking back to the first coming of Christ, we look forward to his second coming at the end of time. It was customary for the preacher to dwell, for the four Sundays of Advent, on the themes of death, judgement, heaven and hell, known as the four last things. For many, Christianity was a matter of navigating these four daunting subjects: death was never far away, and the prospect of judgement was terrifying and near.
In my childhood these sober realities tended to crystallise around the threat of nuclear annihilation, whose prospect seemed to threaten all four last things at one go. More recently, three things have changed in the world to refocus the mind and make the traditional themes of Advent very real. The first is the cosmologists’ research into the notion of the big crunch, by which one day just as the universe emerged in a big centrifugal bang, it will meet its demise in a centripetal big crunch, once the forces that blew it apart go into reverse. It’s not likely any time soon; but it does bring the notion of an ending into contemporary consciousness. The second is the climate emergency, which threatens an ending, if not for the planet, then for human life on it. The third is the pandemic, for most of us our first experience of a truly world-engulfing phenomenon that has threatened much we hold dear.
It’s best not to dwell on the precise details of how our story ends – whether in scriptural imagery, scientific speculation or apocalyptic films. The Christian faith is simply that our end is in God. The Christ we saw in Galilee is the Christ who’ll be with us in eternity. That’s the conviction that Advent proclaims. The task of life is to relax into that assurance and enjoy the freedom that it brings.
Revd Dr Sam Wells