from the Chair of District
Dark of the night, my guide,
fairer by far than dawn when stars grow dim!
Night that has unified
the Lover and the Bride,
transforming the Beloved into him.
(St John of the Cross)
The great sixteenth century mystic, St John of the Cross, founder of the Carmelite Order, used Song of Songs as a foundational text for his exploration of God. As the text above suggests, he imagined the search for God as being intimate, like the quest for a lover, taking place under cover of darkness.
As we enter the season of Advent, we may feel that we have been searching for God under cover of darkness for some time now. The past few months have been hard for all of us. We have travelled along a difficult road with our churches and communities and we know that the pandemic will continue to have an impact upon us long after the virus has been brought under control. For many of us this brings uncertainty about the future. We find ourselves in a place we have not been before and we do not necessarily know what to expect in the future. What will the new picture of church look like? It feels a bit like being handed an incomplete jigsaw without even knowing which pieces are missing.
I wonder though whether the journey through Advent might offer us some clues. The gospel lectionary for Advent Sunday (Mark 13:24-37) presents us with an image of discipleship unmoored. Here are disciples living in the midst of crisis, uncertain about the future, in a situation they have not experienced before and wondering what to expect and how to respond. The picture is unclear. The only certainty is that God is with them in the midst of the experience and they are encouraged to wait, to be patient, and to continue in their daily duties – by which I understand the patterns of discipleship which in Mark means primarily following the way of the cross (it is no accident that chapter 13 comes immediately before Mark’s depiction of the passion of Jesus).
Yet in the midst of the darkness and the uncertainty there is an image of hope.
‘Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its tender shoots appear and are breaking into leaf, you know that summer is near.’ (Mark 13:28)
We began lockdown in Spring, just as creation was tenderly breaking into new life. I wonder whether we are being asked to engage in something similar this Advent. Are we being called to long for a new spring in the lives of our churches and communities? Are we being called to attend patiently to the deep wells of discipleship as we wait for signs of the fig tree breaking into leaf?
Discipleship in a time of trouble need not be a source of anxiety about the future. It could be a time to journey and to meet with the Beloved in a more profound way; an opportunity to put things into perspective and remind ourselves that as we step once again into God’s ways that the new picture will emerge bit by bit – the best of all is, God is with us.
Last weekend, Debbie and I went walking near Bishop Auckland. Without realising it at first, we discovered that we were walking part of one of the new ‘Saints Trails’ which have been created across the North East. It was a reminder of ancient ways and modern innovation but also of the importance of journeying. As we pilgrim through this time of darkness, I pray that you may dwell deeply in the assurance of God’s presence, the hope of Christ, and the challenge of the Spirit. I hope and pray that in our Advent adventure, God may open up a new pilgrim way within and before us.
Yours in Christ,
The Revd Richard Andrew | Chair of the Darlington District