Some years ago – in 2008 I had the wonderful opportunity of working in a Parish in Malta. I took some Long Service Leave, and for two months filled in during a vacancy as the Congregation in Malta were looking for a new Minister.
Malta is such an interesting place with a fascinating and long history woven through with influences from Phoenician, Arab, Crusader, Sicilian and many European countries all rolled into one. It draws deeply on centuries of Christian worship and spirituality, which was palpably obvious as we drew closer to December. All of a sudden Christmas decorations appeared that featured stars and large Nativity scenes on almost every corner, or at least in every neighbourhood, so that the story of Christmas was always present. And not once did I see ‘Santa’! The Maltese are very proud of their Christian heritage.
These two aspects of calling a new Minister and looking forward to Christmas engendered a hopeful expectation in the congregation, a looking forward to what might come. And it is both expectation and HOPE that features prominently in the Season of Advent!
The apostle Paul says that there are three things that last, Faith, Hope and Love, and the author of the letter to the Hebrews calls Hope a ‘safe and secure anchor for our whole being’. In a world where we can often feel at sea and on the edge of chaos, that’s a comforting image.
One of the most popular Advent hymns, ‘Come thou long expected Jesus’ picks up that biblical hope and its music helps hold those words of hope in our mind and carry them to our hearts. It was composed by Charles Wesley in 1744, and the story behind the hymn gives insight and power to the words that carry its hope to us. When Wesley was writing this hymn he was surrounded by scenes of homelessness, orphans and squalid poverty.
Eighteenth Century England had a pretty ugly side to it with the upper classes frequently indifferent to the suffering of the poor. Although almost a century later Charles Dickens’ novels also open a window into the state of the poor and slums of England’s cities.
You could say that Charles Wesley had two windows on which he looked out on the world, one was what he saw around him as he walked the streets of London, the other he viewed through the eyes of scripture, for every morning he studied the Bible, prayed and wrote hymns inspired by his devotion. It was in the Bible that Wesley found inspiration for this hymn that expressed his hope for the orphans and homeless he saw every day. His hymn expresses a deep hope for Christ to come again and set all things right. It’s a hymn that has many similarities to the Song of Mary in the Bible because its all about setting people free, and delivering them from fear and distress.
I would encourage you to ponder this hymn during Advent and allow its hope to inspire and sustain your hope, knowing that it was motivated both by the desperate neediness Charles Wesley saw in the dirty streets of London, and by his daily reflection on the scriptures that inspire us to work and pray for God’s liberating kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven to deliver people and set them free.