An old monk once told me this story. He was visiting a Catholic couple in Germany in the 1930s. They asked him if he would speak with their son. The son wanted to join the SS, and his parents were anxious he didn’t. The monk did try, but he got nowhere. And the son’s reply rang in his ears long after, ‘I must join the movement.’
It’s a very human thing. We want to belong. We want to be part of something bigger. We can long to be swept up in a rush of common purpose, to be ‘in on the act’, as it were, to take part in the play. That is fine on one condition. The condition is that the movement’s direction is good. What happened, one wonders, to that young man? Did he end up doing dreadful things? Did he survive the war?
Thank God, there are other movements. And we are in the midst of one here and now. In a sense, everyone is caught up in this pull towards Christmas. We’re beckoned by shopping and parties and a relentless succession of events. We want to get this year’s last assignments done. There’s the blessed prospect of going home. But surely, here and now, we’re affirming another aspect. There’s something better and deeper going on. We want to connect to it. There’s a movement towards Bethlehem, to the birth of the Christ, towards the revelation of this astonishing event we call the Incarnation. A movement with life and rebirth as its goal. A movement of the whole Church, of the liturgy, of the spirit. A movement social and individual, all at once. It catches hold of believers year after year, and it moves their hearts and their minds.
There is a convergence. Here’s today’s Introit: ‘The Lord is near.’ Here is Isaiah saying, ‘Look your God is coming.’ Here’s the Psalmist praying, ‘Come, Lord, and save us.’ Here is John the Baptist asking, ‘Are you the one who is to come or are we to expect someone else?’ So many voices! Here, with a little bit of imagination, are the wise men already setting out. Already there’s a star rising in the east. Already there’s a muster of angels. Already a census is decreed and Mary and Joseph are on the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Already this woman is all but ready to have her child.
Here we begin to see what’s really involved. The movement of the liturgy is a kind of play. It’s the Church’s primal Nativity play, echoed in cribs and children’s re-enactments. But this play makes what it plays really present. It catches us up into reality – the reality of the movement of God towards us. This is why Christmas always wields such a power. Suddenly the unexpected heart of things, the off-centre centre, breaks out in history. Suddenly, why there is anything at all, why there are beings with intelligence and freedom, why any one of us exists, becomes clear; even, why there is physical and moral evil. It’s all for this outbreak of divinity in a child. It’s so that God can be born and grow in us, one and all, and we in him. So that we can become the Body of Christ – deified, Christ-ified, Spirit-filled, God moving among us and our whole being aflame with him.
‘I must join the movement.’ Not any movement, not the destructive, not the superficial ones. But first, this movement of preparation we call Advent: purifying our hearts, making a good confession, taking part in liturgy, aligning ourselves with prophets and angels, wise men and shepherds, Joseph and Mary, and going to Bethlehem. There to meet that love which moves the sun and the other stars, and is now made flesh in Jesus: the movement worthy of the whole of ourselves, that movement which will take us through the Cross to the glory of the Resurrection.
King’s College Chapel, University of Aberdeen