Advent: Preparing for Christmas
This Advent reflection by Bishop Nigel was first published in the Dundee Courier:
At this time of year, even amidst a recession, Dundee’s winter lights twinkle in the city centre and the commercial aspects of Christmas press in on us through enticing TV advertisements and shop windows. In a scene repeated in households across Courier country, at Bishops House we are gathering this year’s ‘must have’ presents, ready for our grandchildren’s Christmas visit.
For Christians the season up to Christmas is called Advent. It is a time of preparation and waiting for the coming of the Christ child in Bethlehem. In our part of the world Advent falls at the darkest and winter time of the year and so the natural symbols of darkness and light pervade our religious and cultural life. Some of our popular customs are shared with Northern Europe. Each day families can enjoy opening the windows on advent calendars or watching the advent candle burn downwards towards Christmas Eve. Decorated Advent wreaths with four candles – one for each week up to Christmas - can be found in churches and homes. In Vienna they have a giant Advent Wreath on the city centre’s main roundabout!
However I have recently returned from an eye-opening Church visit to a very different part of the world and as we approach Christmas I am struck by the contrasts. The Diocese of Brechin has enjoyed a companion link with the Anglican Diocese of Swaziland in southern Africa since 1989 and during my visit I took part in the joyful consecration of Ellinah Wamukoya, the first woman Anglican bishop in Africa. It was a poignant moment, coinciding with Church of England’s failure to pass legislation for women bishops. Swaziland is a stunningly beautiful country with many challenges, not least a formidable rate of HIV/Aids, systemic poverty and a lack of full political democracy. Many people there wonder where the next meal is coming from, let alone the Christmas gifts and socialising that we can so often take for granted here in Scotland.
We sometimes think ‘Christmas is for the children’. Among many troubling memories of my brief time there my thoughts are with the pre-school children who walk some distances to Mpaka Mission, a rural church centre which our diocese financially supports, in search of food, safety and love. Many are orphaned or unwell and their dire situation makes our Early Years provision in the UK look luxurious: at present Mpaka’s children have no outdoor play equipment or toys to enjoy. The diocese of Swaziland is determined to help as many people as possible and my diocese will redouble its efforts. I am hopeful that Bishop Ellinah will visit us in Dundee next autumn to tell us how they are getting on and how we can target our support.
We have to budget for our generosity both abroad and in this country. If we take the view that charity begins at home then, this Christmas, our gestures of kindness and concern can mean so much to those in our local communities who feel forgotten or left behind.