Any decent decorator will tell you that 90% of the work is the preparation, and actually putting the coat of paint on is but the culmination of all the work. It’s the preparation that matters.
Looking at it from a very different angle, the idea for the Basingstoke Canal began as an economical means of transportation for the development of agriculture in central Hampshire. The first route to be surveyed in 1769 was a line northwards to the Thames near Maidenhead, but the engineering problems proved it would be too costly. In 1776 a 44-mile route eastwards from Basingstoke, to link with the River Wey Navigation and the Thames at Weybridge, was considered. This route included a loop round Greywell Hill, but this met with opposition from the owner of nearby Tylney Hall. As a result, a decision was made to tunnel through Greywell Hill rather than go round it, and this route, reduced to 37 miles, was approved by an Act of Parliament in 1778. However work did not commence until nine years later owing to financial restraints as a result of the costly War of American Independence. The canal was completed in 1794. The preparation took eighteen years, and the actual building only seven years.
Again, looking at it from another angle, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Blackwater Valley Relief road, now the A331, was planned and built. It runs from the point where the three counties of Berkshire, Surrey, and Hampshire meet, down to the A31 near Farnham. Dare we begin to imagine what the traffic through Farnborough and Aldershot would be like today without it? It opened in stages, because it was a very difficult project.
One difficult part was the fact the Basingstoke Canal was in the way of the new road, and the Canal was on a large embankment. The Ash embankment had been constructed from the excavation of a cutting at Deepcut, and was itself a significant construction achievement for its time, all undertaken with horses and carts, wheelbarrows and hand shovels, and many, many navvies – it must have been back-breaking work.
A number of designs for the canal crossing the new road were considered. Taking the road over the canal, either by constructing a high bridge, or lowering the canal with a stair-case of locks were each rejected. Eventually it was agreed to take the road under the canal. What was eventually agreed upon was a pre-stressed reinforced concrete channel, supported by steel cables along each side.
In order to give sufficient headroom below the aqueduct, the road had to be “sunk” below the 100-year flood level, and so is built on a thick concrete raft to prevent it from floating in extreme groundwater conditions. Provision had also to be made to prevent the hollow filling with water.
It was all about the preparation.
And if you were in any mistaken thoughts that preparation is a modern concept rooted in the secular world around us, Isaiah speaks of the voice calling out in the wilderness “prepare the way”. Mark has John the Baptist as a voice calling in the wilderness, “prepare the way”. The psalm is translated in several different ways, but many translations end the psalm with “righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps”. So, I want to put it to you that preparation is not limited to decorators, canal surveyors, and road builders, but is a deeply Biblical idea.
What then does preparation mean for us, now in the darkness of Advent? We prepare lists of things to do; We prepare lists of things to buy; We prepare Christmas cards; We prepare to decorate our homes, trim a tree, plan a Christmas dinner; We spend hours of time in preparation; We prepare for a great holiday celebration; We prepare for reunions with family and friends; We prepare for the excitement in giving and receiving gifts. Within the preparation, do we make time for waiting in quietness to hear God speak, to wait in wonder to know Christ being re-born in us, to wait in silence to experience the Holy Spirit enfolding us?
Now that the Christmas lights go up the days after Remembrance Sunday, it seems that the four weeks of Advent preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ are largely redundant. Thanks to the whirl of December carol services, it has been noted that there are two parallel times in this season. Outwardly there is a time in which the church engages in mission and proclamation, welcoming those who would celebrate alongside their Christmas shopping something to do with the birth of the Christ child. This proclamation opens to them something of the depths of Christmas even at the cost of anticipation of the Feast. But inwardly there is a time in which the church makes her Advent preparation. What are we doing in this hidden time, what is this preparation?
Advent looks backs in order to look forward. Celebration of the first coming of Christ in the stable at Bethlehem has meaning and purpose because of hope and expectation that brings. Christmas is not sterile memorial of a thing past and gone, but effectual preparation for what is to come.
Have you sent your cards and done your shopping? If even our Christmas cheer cannot adequately express our love for our relatives, friends, and neighbours, how much less can our devotion adequately express our love for God? So Advent begins in penitence: its colour is purple, the symbol for Christians of preparation and forgiveness. During the preparation time we can reflect on our lives, perhaps realise our inadequacies, but we shouldn’t remain focused on ourselves, because Advent calls us to look joyfully to God.
So, Advent hymns and readings are full of happy expectation: “He is nearer now than when we first believed.” “Hills of the North rejoice!” Yet it’s important to remember that we don’t know the day nor the hour. Advent candles and Advent calendars count down towards Christmas Day, but the Advent season challenges us not to put preparation off until tomorrow and to be ready now. So we turn again to God’s grace, for we can never ourselves be ready.
Advent can even be a cause for us to change our attitudes to our lives, which are set in a proper perspective when we see them from their end. Preparing for promotion or success or achievement as ends in themselves is not actually what it’s all about, but humbly waiting on the Lord, seeking success or promotion or achievement only so far as these things promote God’s kingdom and God’s work in the world.
A great symbol in Advent is the increase of light. Candles are lit in ever greater number in growing expectation, indeed Advent itself can be thought of as an extended meditation on the mystery of time. We can look back to the moment of the incarnation, the pivot around which world history turns, in order to see the meaning of the flow of the events of human history. Assessing the importance of human events in this light can give hope even in the face of disaster and the failures of our politicking which are thereby set in their proper perspective.
Advent is thus the antidote for both frenzied concern and cold cynicism. It concludes in the great celebration of the incarnation; ending at the beginning with a renewed zeal and hope in the life of Christ.
Those canal builders and road builders found out, if they didn’t know already, that once the canal and the road have been built, they need to be maintained. The preparations, and the opening, was the beginning not the end. There needs to be a maintenance plan after that. Advent may be our time of preparation, but Christmas is the beginning, not the end. We can celebrate Christmas as much as we like, but there is more work to do for God when Boxing Day dawns.