4 min read

Beyond waiting: Advent’s acknowledgements and expectations

Understanding Advent has changed since childhood, writes Alianore Smith, who now takes stock of the darkness and expects the light.

Alianore Smith is a theologian, communicator and author. She works for a global charity based in London.

Five candles sit in a row against a dark background, only one is lit.
Robert Thiemann on Unsplash.

Growing up, I wasn’t a particularly big fan of Advent. 

I think this possibly had something to do with the fact that I was never allowed a chocolate Advent calendar. Every year, my brother and I would petition my parents for one – even suggesting a Fairtrade Advent calendar, even offering to share it (which would be a Christmas miracle in and of itself), in the hope that this would swing the odds in our favour. But no such luck. Every year, we were told in no uncertain terms: ‘Advent is a time of waiting’. 

… Can you tell both my parents are vicars? 

So no chocolate for us. 

I felt this particularly acutely in my first year at university. My flatmates and I decided to open our Advent calendars together on December 1st. Everyone else got chocolate – dairy milk, crunchie, even a Twix. I, however, got a hearty piece of Scripture, detailing two of the key Advent themes: ‘the people walking in darkness have seen a great light.’ 

After all, man shall not live by advent chocolate alone. 

I am delighted to report, however, that since my mother-in-law heard this story for the first time, she now takes great delight in sending me a chocolate advent calendar every single year. My Lindt one for 2023 arrived last week. 

Man shall not live by advent chocolate alone… but it certainly helps. 

Of course, the older I’ve become, and the greater my understanding of church tradition, the more I’ve understood what my mother was getting at: Advent is a time of waiting.  

In the church’s calendar, Advent is a season of expectation and preparation, as people prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth whilst also looking ahead to his final return as judge at the end of time. 

Traditionally, Advent has been split into four (or if you’re very serious about Advent – seven!) weeks, each with a different theme: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. 

‘Advent is a time of waiting’ doesn’t seem so bad when you know what the alternatives are. 

In more modern times, however, the church has generally moved away from the four themes of death, judgement, heaven and hell, and instead embraced slightly cuddlier abstract nouns: hope, peace, joy and love.  

Much nicer. 

But my new favourite way of thinking about Advent takes a middle ground between these two and comes from theologian Fleming Rutledge. She says this: ‘Advent begins in the dark’. 

Advent begins in the dark. 

Which seems, quite frankly, ridiculous, when Christmas lights are being turned on in late November, and sparkly baubles are for sale everywhere you look. But traditionally, she’s right: Advent does begin in the dark. Remember what my Advent calendar told me, all those years ago in my uni flat: ‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light’. 

Advent is a season of acknowledging the reality of the world and waiting with expectation for something better – which for Christians means Jesus’ birth and his triumphant return in glory. And if we’re going to acknowledge the reality of the world, we’re going to find some serious darkness. 

You don’t need me to list them – they’re right in front of us: Israel and Gaza, poverty even in the most affluent of countries, the abuse of children, the exploitation by ruthless gangs of people desperate to build a better life. It’s everywhere in our newspapers, neighbourhoods, families, and our very selves. Darkness is, more often than not, the reality in which we live.  

But we’re not very good, I find, at dwelling in the darkness when the option of skipping forward to Christmas is all around us. When you’re playing Whamageddon’ in every shop you go to, and your social media is filled with other people’s beautifully twinkling Christmas trees, it’s hard to sit with the darkness. 

It might mean a slightly different Advent, perhaps with a little less chocolate and a little more reflection, but it leads to something even more glorious.

But, in the words of Fleming Rutledge once again: “Advent is designed to show that the meaning of Christmas is diminished to the vanishing point if we are not willing to take a fearless inventory of the darkness.” 

Take a ‘fearless inventory of the darkness’. 

How are we supposed to take a ‘fearless inventory of the darkness’ when the darkness is so very… big? So very dark? 

How can we be fearless in the face of darkness? 

The answer, surprisingly, lies once again in the meaning of Advent: we are waiting for Jesus. The one who Christians call ‘the light of the world’ invites us to acknowledge the reality of the darkness, and understand that ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’. And we are waiting in the knowledge and the certainty that he will show up. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.  

In Advent, the church journeys from darkness to light. We consider the world around us; we look back to the incarnation – to Jesus’ birth as a baby – and we find ourselves, as we take that ‘fearless inventory of the darkness’, longing ever more fervently for the light of the world to step in. 

It might mean a slightly different Advent, perhaps with a little less chocolate and a little more reflection, but it leads to something even more glorious. After all, how much more dazzling is a candle lit in a pitch-black room than one lit in broad daylight?  

Advent is about waiting. Advent begins in the dark. 

But it points us towards something greater – it acknowledges that deep yearning within all of us as we are faced with the darkness of the world. That deep yearning for light, for hope, for peace, for joy. And it promises that such a thing is on the way.  

6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.