Advent is not only the time to prepare for Christmas, it is also the start of a new Church year. On New Year’s Day, 1st January, my sister, my parents and myself used to go and visit my grandmother. She was not always a ‘glass-half-full’ person to say the least. One year, as we arrived, the first thing she said was ‘It’s going to be a difficult year’. It quickly became our family mantra on New Year’s Day.
Of course, the sad truth about a prediction like this is that it may well become reality for those who expectantly wait for difficulty to arise. Not always: we may be pleasantly surprised by that which lies ahead of us, but our expectations do colour our experience.
We were discussing this very topic in our Philosophy lesson this week when we looked at religious experience. The question that arose was whether we can experience God, for example, if we are non-believers? Some people say that this is exactly what a conversion experience is about, such as the experience that Saul had on the road to Damascus. On the other hand, some people see God in nature, whereas others may experience the same awe, but would not attribute this to a divine creator.
Famous non-religious examples can be found in the development of scientific insight. For instance, Einstein’s first attempt to apply his theory of general relativity to the universe did not work entirely satisfactory because Einstein himself believed that the universe was static, and could not conceive of anything else. It was only later, through the observations and theories proposed by others, that he realised the universe was expanding, and this made his own theory fit the experiments much more naturally.
Back to religion for a moment: Augustine had this insight too, that we can’t really know what comes first in our faith: our knowledge or our expectation. He writes and prays at the start of his Confessions “Grant me Lord to know and to understand which comes first – to call upon you or to praise you, and whether knowing you precedes on calling upon you”. Can we pray to a God if we’re not sure whether he exists? But how do we know if not through prayer?
So, we see that expectations do matter. It is a reminder to us that what we expect may well become what we get. Advent offers us the opportunity to step back from our expectations of ourselves, of others and possibly of God; it offers us the opportunity to make a new start and to try something new. Every once in a while, let’s try to expect the unexpected, let’s hope things can be different.
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.