I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that Advent tends to feel rather busy. Shopping, cooking, partying, school events, church events - it all comes at once. It’s not just the number of things that need doing which can exhaust us, but the sheer sensory overload; the lights, the noise, the people, the rich food, the piles of goods in the shops shouting at us “buy me”, the decorations strung up everywhere, flashing lights, glitter, bright colours. I know lots of people love it, and it can be a great antidote to winter gloom – but I wonder if I’m the only person who soon feels the need for white walls, silence and a nice plain piece of bread and butter.
It’s not just secular society which can pile on the Christmas clutter, though. I am always aware of the temptation in church to go overboard at this time of year. Of course, we want to provide spiritual sustenance and support for a wide range of people. We want everyone to feel welcome. So we try to offer services that fit every need, food for thought for all sorts of palates. So there’s Messy Church and Christingle, Carol services and Crib services, carol singing round the village and Christmas craft evenings, and as many different resources for private prayer and reflection as I can muster, online and offline.
Don’t get me wrong; I am delighted when people pick up and respond to these opportunities. But even as I work away at providing them them I am aware of the danger, especially for those people who are really keen and involved, that they can be a route to spiritual indigestion if we’re not careful.
That’s why these Breathing Space services are such an important part for me of our Advent life here at Seal. They are deliberately calm and quiet, and frankly, I don’t try very hard – there’s nothing very fancy or demanding about them. We gather together in the presence of God in word and sacrament; and that is enough. God is here; whatever needs to happen will happen.
The Gospel reading I chose for tonight might not seem immediately relevant to Advent or Christmas, but it has an important message for souls which are overstuffed and overstretched, as ours may be at this time of year.
Martha and Mary have welcomed Jesus into their home. In first century Palestine the role of women was very tightly defined. They were expected to stay in the background, doing the cooking and housework. They were certainly not expected to sit at the feet of Rabbis and engage in theological debate with them. When Martha complains to Jesus that Mary isn’t helping her, it isn’t just because there are a lot of vegetables to chop, it is because she thinks Mary has forgotten her place in the world and is shaming the family by her behaviour.
But Jesus is having none of it. He gently rebukes Martha “There is only one thing we really need ,” he says to her, “and Mary has chosen it”. Of course food is important, hospitality is a blessed gift, the many things we busy ourselves with inside or outside the church may be entirely good and worthy, but above and before all things, says this story, we need to sit in the presence of God; just sit, just listen, just be there.
So often our thoughts are like a flock of frightened birds, flapping around in the sky frantically, flying in many different directions. We try to do everything at once, to hold everything at once, until we come crashing down to earth.
Maybe the problem for us is as it was for Martha; we don’t feel worthy to come close to God. We feel happier keeping our distance. Why would he want our company?
Or maybe we are just so busy with our own agendas, so convinced that we have to run the world that we can’t bring ourselves to step of the treadmill. Whatever the problem, the message is the same. Whatever else we are doing, the one thing we really need, the one thing we can’t do without is to sit with God – just to sit, just to listen, just to be.
“Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee,” said St Augustine. Advent calls us to come to rest in God, to settle down into his love, to stop striving and struggling, and become that “calmed and quieted” child of the Psalm, the child who knows they are safe in their mother’s arms.