On Not Living Ahead of Time: The Hopeful Realism of Advent

St Bene’t’s, Cambridge, where I worship, are putting together a series of Advent reflections, with one for each day. I post mine below.

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The subject of my reflection is Augustine’s Letter to Boniface (Letter 189) and is inspired by the thoughts of Canadian philosopher James KA Smith on the letter which you can listen to here:

“we ought not to want to live ahead of the appointed time”

Near the beginning of the fifth century, the great ecclesiastical writer St Augustine addresses a Christian politician weary with his civic duties and the terrible tumult of his times (plus ça change!). We sadly do not have the surviving letter from Boniface to Augustine and so we have to infer Boniface’s attitudes and thoughts from Augustine’s prose. When we do, what we notice is a figure anxious about reconciling his allegiance to God with serving in the government of the time. Among other things, Boniface is particularly keen to know whether he should lead military campaigns as a Christian. Augustine cautions Boniface against abandoning the position he finds himself in and from running away from the gifts God had bestowed on him to fulfil his tasks for the common good.

While we might not follow Augustine in all of his conclusions (we may well raise an eyebrow at Augustine’s justification of Christian involvement in battle, for instance), his words have peculiar relevance and resonance for the Season we now find ourselves in— the Season of Advent. I want to draw our attention, in particular, to Augustine’s short and suggestive supplication: “we ought not to want to live ahead of the appointed time”.

This pithy phrase re-calls us to the radical re-conception of time found in the scriptures. In the Season of Advent, we have a unique opportunity to ask ourselves, What time is it? Yet, like Boniface, we can understandably get a bit confused. We wait, in part, for something that has already happened—Christ has come. And yet we wait for the completion of this event in the future—Christ will come again.

But more than having a muddled mind, our struggle is one that is concerned with our wants and wills. As Augustine puts it, we want to live ahead of time. We attach ourselves all too easily to the idealistic utopian visions on the political menu; on the one hand, we pursue a passive and escapist quietism that longs for disembodied bliss (reading between the lines, this seems to be Boniface’s particular penchant); or, on the other, we throw ourselves into a political pelagianism that would transform the world by our efforts alone.

Augustine offers a radical alternative which, in turn, echoes a good many readings in the Advent lectionary (see 1 John 3:2, Luke 3:1-20): “we ought not to want to live ahead of the appointed time”. That is, as Christians, we think about time in a way that is both hopeful and realistic. We are those who have been given a bold and hopeful vision of the transformation of all things, including ourselves, in Christ. And yet, as we know all too painfully, this vision so often does not seem to materialise in the here and now, even if we catch occasional glimpses. God’s transformation of all things occurs now only in part, and only then in full. And so, it is precisely in this tension of the times that God works with, in and among us for our good and his glory.

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