On the Feast of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the church’s year, I preached about the phrase “the great and the good”, and more specifically about an epiphany I had many years ago: that when we use that phrase — “come along to X event,” we say; “you’ll get to meet the great and the good” — we normally mean to signal our interest in “the great”, whilst singularly failing to give “the good” as much as a simple look in. This is simply because the world rewards greatness far more than goodness. If goodness happens to come along with greatness, that may be perfectly well and good, but it’s by no means necessary.
I keep being struck, for example, every time I read the news, by how much of our public discourse is governed by “what’s good for Britain”, “what’s good for Europe”, “what’s good for America” — much of it described in terms that are ostensibly generous and high-minded towards our own populations in terms of trade deals, national interest, national security, and so forth. What I never seem to see in these reams of articles and endless speechifying is much interest in what’s good for the people of, say, Bolivia, or Niger, or Indonesia. That suggests to me that even when we talk about the “public good”, we are still nonetheless describing that “good” in terms of greatness, and what we can extract from the people and nations we exploit. It is a “good” that is inwardly and selfishly directed, rather than outwardly and generously.
Christ, by contrast, stood before Pilate on charges of sedition — i.e., charges of criminal pretence to greatness — and declared simply: “my kingdom is not from this world”. There was no denial of this kingdom’s advent, nor even its overwhelming power. For the day will come, says book of Daniel, when God’s “dominion and glory and kingship [over] all peoples, nations, and languages” will be “an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away”. Yet this irresistible, universal power comes not from greatness as commonly understood but rather from a self-giving, almost foolish, generosity — from goodness — rooted in the very nature of the creator God’s divine life.
You will note, now that Advent is upon us, that we tend to characterise the season as one of waiting and expectation for the birth of a Saviour — and, indeed, of preparation for a wonderful celebration each 25th of December. Nonetheless, our prayers, collects, and many of our readings actually speak of a different kind of advent: Christ’s second coming — the day when his eternal reign will be fulfilled. Certainly, we look forward to celebrating Christ’s birth, when we tell with joy once more the tale of Emmanuel: God-with-us. But underlying all that is the expectation, hope and excitement not for an event that happened in the long-distant past, but rather of the great and profound events yet to come — a moment when, as the book of Revelation foretells, “God himself will dwell with them” — with all of us, with all of creation — eternally.
The Church then calls us not simply to wait by idly whilst God’s kingdom is in process, but to join in, to take active part, to incorporate this second kind of Advent into our lives, our minds, our prayers, our spirit — and our doings. The annual reminder of Advent is that Christ’s work at Christmas was not the perfect fulfilment of the ancient prophecies, but rather only its beginning. We continue to look forward to the day when God’s reign in creation will be perfectly fulfilled, and Advent calls us, amongst all our other preparations for more immediate things, to remind ourselves what this glorious, powerful kingdom will truly be about — to redouble our efforts to spot signs it it breaking into history already and to be prepared to join in God’s work. The true greatness of the holiday, in a word, is a greatness that calls us to God’s goodness: to pray faithfully and honestly God’s Holy Spirit to be present in our own lives and communities, that our own power and effectiveness may come from God’s goodness, too — and then to act from within our trust that God will hear our prayer and answer it favourably.
So I wish you, then, in this season, the most merry Christmas — and an exciting and holy Advent. May the joy of the Kingdom feast spill into your hopes for Advent blessings, and may God’s goodness bless all that you are, and all that together we can become.