Advent: Time of Waiting and Anticipation: Online Service for Sunday 3rd December 2023

Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley


Opening Words by Cliff Reed, from Beyond Darkness (adapted)


We gather in Advent to anticipate the season of the Nativity,

the festival that will celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world.

For some, he is Emmanuel, “God with us”,

the special presence of the Divine in a human being –

come to save us from the darkness of our own sins.

For some he is a Prophet, who came to reveal

God’s path to righteousness and paradise.

For some he was a sage, a story-teller, a rebel,

speaking the truth to unjust power.


We gather to anticipate once more the stories of his birth –

two stories woven into one, wrapped in myths and symbols

that few now understand.

But the story has been ours since childhood,

and we will feel its warmth as we hear and sing it yet again.


Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point). (words by Cliff Reed)


As we kindle our Advent flame,

the shepherds on their dark hillside, somewhere

out of time, are undisturbed by angels.

In their fabled palaces, the Magi have yet to see

the new star and wonder what it means.

Myth and history await conjunction.

The timeless tale awaits re-telling,

and hearts await its promise of a new beginning.


Opening Prayer


Spirit of Life and Love,

be with us as we gather for worship,

each in our own place.

Help us to feel a sense of community,

even though we are physically apart.

Help us to care for each other,

in this world in which Covid has not yet gone away,

and the clouds of war and climate change overwhelm us.

May we keep in touch however we can,

and help each other, however we may.

May we remember that

caution is still needed,

that close contact is still unwise.

Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have

and to respect the wishes of others.

May we hold in our hearts all those

who are grieving, lost, alone,

victims of violence and war,

suffering in any way,



Reading Advent: Candles and Christmas Trees by Cliff Reed, from Carnival of Lamps


It is Advent,

and to welcome the light of the world,

we light up the long winter nights

and the gloomy winter days,

with candles and with Christmas trees.


Jesus may have seen candles,

but he never saw a Christmas tree,

though if he had, he would have loved it.

He would have loved the joy

its twinkling lights bring to children,

and to all child-like hearts.


It is Advent,

O God, bless your forests

and teach us to care for them.

Bless the trees we take to bring

beauty, light and fragrance to our homes.

And bless all who approach Christmas

with love in their hearts.


Alternative Lord’s Prayer


Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,

may we be aware of your presence in our lives.

May our world be blessed.

May our daily needs be met,

and may our shortcomings be forgiven,

as we forgive those of others.

Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,

the inspiration and guidance to do right,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.

May we have compassion for all living beings,

and receive whatever life brings,

with courage and trust.



Reading by Agnes J. Zuniga


Our winter has begun – the time of darkness which we know always arrives, and which, we know as surely will pass in time into seasons of light and warmth.


The seasons of the soul have their own rhythm, their own reasons:

Who knows the delight of some of us, reuniting with folk so dear?

Who knows the anguish of some among us as our celebrations bring only a reminder of loss?

Who knows the pain of uncertainty within others, plagued with doubts and fears – will there be another winter for me?

Who can tell what hope is budding in some heart even as our sun grows cold and white in a misting sky?


We have, in this winter of earth – we have, in whatever season of the soul – the most precious gifts to give away and to keep:

We have ears for hearing each other, for listening to another’s need.

We have eyes for seeing the signs, for knowing the beauty of another person, for perusing the uniqueness; eyes for telling our own unspoken stories.

We have hands for reaching to help, for reaching to give and to receive – hands which hold, and caress, and forgive.


Let us then, remember the forgotten. Let us seek to heal the injured, to nourish the weak, to revive the withered. Let us be there to love the unloved and the dying. Let our minds and our hearts burn with solstice fires, to prove that the human spirit lives and thrives; that whatever the season of sun or of soul, there reigns a dauntless determination to outlast, together, every dark time.


Let us be filled with the light and merriment that our celebrations bring, that we look ahead in hope and in faith to the Earth’s rebirth, and the Springtime of the soul.


Prayer by Graham Murphy (adapted)


Let us give thanks for this holiday, and link its ancient story to our present needs.

Lord of heaven and earth, all Creation declares your love

And we thank you, that in this, the coldest and darkest time of the year,

We are moved by a festival of warmth and light.

The days of preparation are a busy time for us – often we are tired and anxious,

Fretful that we strain the relationships we would rather strengthen,

Frightened that in a world of such variety and wealth as this,

Our desire to give love and receive love is frustrated.

In the multitude we feel lonely, in the midst of plenty, we have spiritual poverty,

And we long for the wonder and affection of life’s first awakening.


The story of the infant Jesus appeals to us because it reminds us of that awakening,

The unfolding of his life speaks to our condition:

In childhood he received love in the way that we received it.

And as he grew… into full maturity of spirit,

He was guided by your love in all that he did….


As we rejoice in one who is light to our world,

May we be newly born in spirit

On this and every day of life to come.



Reading Waiting by Margaret Kirk, from With Heart and Mind


John Milton ended the sonnet, On His Blindness, with the words, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” What kind of waiting was John Milton thinking of?


It’s not easy to be positive about the act of waiting. It makes us acknowledge our dependence; that we are forced to rely upon something or someone other than ourselves. We wait for trades people to come at their appointed times and curse when they don’t. We wait for friends to call, we wait for examination results, for the letter that tells us we got the job we applied for.


Waiting can be associated with pleasurable things like waiting for warm, summer days, for holidays, for reunions with people who matter to us. And yet that kind of waiting is still dependent upon circumstances and factors over which we have minimal control.


Often waiting is connected with endurance and hope: waiting at a hospital at the bedside of somebody we know who is ill, waiting to hear whether they will pull through, being separated from those we love and waiting to hear from them. Waiting and being able to do little reminds us that we are not in control.


But the word ‘wait’ has a number of different roots. One of these roots is from the old French word ‘waitier’, which means to watch as well as to wait. Another is from the Old High German ‘wafta’, meaning watcher, and ‘wahhon’, meaning to be awake.


So, quite deeply embedded in the meaning of our English word, ‘wait’ is the suggestion that however powerless we might feel, waiting brings with it an awakening… if we allow it to.


Time of Stillness and Reflection words by Annie Heppenstall [adapted]


Spirit of Life and Love,

Accompany us on our journeys,

Help us to travel light and in good faith,

To be brave and kind companions to one another

And to value the journey itself

As much as the destination.

When we are weak, be to us a strong support,

When we stumble, lift us up,

When we take a wrong turn, call us and guide us,

When we lose heart, give us hope.


Give us peace in our waiting,

Let us not miss the moments as they slip by,

In our longing, let us not forget to appreciate the present.




Living in hope of a future touched by grace,

A gift greater than we can imagine,

Let us live out our time

Immersed in your goodness, day by day, and hour by hour.



Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley


Address Advent: A Time of Waiting and Anticipation


The UU teacher and writer Sophia Lyon Fahs wrote, “Each night a child is born is a holy night – a time for singing, a time for wondering, a time for worshipping.” Yes. This is something I believe so deeply. It is one of the foundations of my Unitarian faith – that the birth of every child should be an occasion for rejoicing, not just that of Jesus. Every single child born of man and woman has the potential to make a difference in the world, and to leave it a better place than he or she found it. Perhaps it is our job as Unitarians to provide the space and the community in which individuals can grow to become the best people they can be, giving them the opportunity to “Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you.” If this is so – and I believe it is – every Unitarian congregation and every Unitarian has an awesome responsibility – to nurture that of God, that divine Light, in other people, and in ourselves, so that the world might become a better, kinder, gentler place, in which everyone has enough to eat, a roof over their heads, a place to sleep, and other human basics such as freedom from fear and freedom to grow into their unique and proper selves.


But we cannot do this unless each of us recognises for ourselves that we – you, me, the person you meet in the supermarket – are all “unique, precious, a child of God.” I truly believe that there is a spark of holiness within every human being, “that of God in everyone”, to use the Quakerly phrase. Our job, here on this earth, today and tomorrow, is to recognise that spark, in ourselves, and in each other. This is the same as Jesus’s great injunction to “love your neighbour as yourself.” Love your neighbour as yourself – both parts are vital, because it is not possible to truly love your neighbour unless you first love your true self, your inner child, your spark of the divine.


The season of Advent is traditionally a time of joyous anticipation, as Christians in particular wait the commemoration of the birth of the infant Jesus. For other people, it can also be a time of joyous anticipation, as we look forward to being reunited with our loved ones, sharing food and fellowship over the Christmas season.


Yet we also need to remember, to understand, that not everyone is offered a place at the table. For many people, the Christmas season is not one of joy, of hope; it is rather a time of worry about the expense and how to manage the expectations of others, or a time of loneliness, of feeling left out, when everyone else (apparently) is having a wonderful time. Or a time of grief, as someone they care about is ill, or they prepare to spend their first Christmas without a loved one. Christmas can be really hard for many of us.


I really like Margaret Kirk’s reflection on the waiting process, which we heard as our third reading. She reminds us that waiting can be a negative process, as we are impatient for X or Y to happen. Any woman who has had a child will remember the final weeks of their pregnancy, when they feel they have been pregnant “forever” and cannot wait for the birth to happen, for the discomfort of being heavily pregnant to end. I wonder how Mary in the Christmas story must have felt, forced to undertake a long and arduous journey at this time…


And for children, the lead up to Christmas can seem unbearably slow. All around them, lights are sparkling, adverts are filling their eyes and ears with the promise of good things to come, and the days of December can seem endless. Waiting for the school holidays to begin also tests their patience.


Of course, it is not only children who find waiting difficult. All of us can get antsy, waiting for something we are looking forward to, to happen. Or indeed for something we are dreading to be over and done with. Waiting can be a kind of limbo: we can feel disinclined to do anything productive. At times like these, I remember the words of the Abbot of the Black Friars, in Neil Gaiman’s wonderful book, Neverwhere:


“So the day became one of waiting, which was, he knew, a sin: moments were to be experienced; waiting was a sin against both the time that was still to come, and against the moments one was currently disregarding.”


I have shared before and will doubtless say again, my belief that “now” – the present moment – is the only time that has any significance whatsoever. The past is over, and cannot be changed, and dwelling on it, either with nostalgia or regret, is a waste of time. And the future is something which is coming at a rate of 60 seconds a minute, 60 minutes an hour and 24 hours a day, whether we are looking forward to it, or worrying about it. I concede that it is important to at least do some planning for future events, but not to the extent that we spend all our time longing for some mythical future time, when everything will be wonderful, and we will have all that our hearts desire, or conversely, worrying about some other mythical future time, when we have lost all that gives our lives savour.


No, it is now that matters. It is the present that we should be concerned with. Only the present moment is sacred, and whether we are in grief or in joy or in gratitude or in despair, we need to pay attention. I also find comfort in the belief that CS Lewis explains in The Screwtape Letters – that we will be given the strength to deal with whatever joy or sorrow come our way in the present. But not the strength to cope with worrying about possible future alternatives, most of which will probably not happen.


May we all learn to experience life, moment by moment, being like Rumi’s Guesthouse “Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.” And may we truly appreciate what we have, today, now, this minute, for very little lasts forever. And to accept that most things will happen anyway, whether or not we anticipate them with joy, wait for them with impatience, or dread their coming. The only thing we can control is our own response to the waiting time, the anticipation time. As Margaret Kirk reminds us, “quite deeply embedded in the meaning of our English word, ‘wait’ is the suggestion that however powerless we might feel, waiting brings with it an awakening… if we allow it to.”


So my call to you this Christmas season is to remember two things: first, that each birth is a time of new hope, because the birth of every child is an occasion for rejoicing. As I said earlier, every single child born of man and woman has the potential to make a difference in the world, and to leave it a better place than he or she found it, and it is our responsibility to make it possible for each human being to thrive and to grow into their full potential, recognising the divine spark within themselves and each other.


The second thing is to recognise, and to remember and be aware of, the fact that we can cannot control the order of events, nor when they happen. The only matter over which  we have an element of control, is our response to the time of waiting. We can either be grumpy and impatient, or we can enjoy the anticipation.


May this advent season be one of joy for you, and may you recognise the divine Light which dwells within us all. May the light of new hope stir in your hearts, and blessings be on your journeys. And may the waiting time be a positive one.


Closing Words


Spirit of Life and Love,

May we all recognise the divine

Light within each other,

and may it teach us to reach out

with love to others.

May we learn to anticipate with joy,

But not to set our hearts on a particular outcome.

May we return to our everyday world refreshed,

may we share the love we feel,

may we look out for each other,

and may we keep up our hearts,

now and in the days to come,



Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley