Sunday, 7 December 2014

De Profundis

There has been a lot written about the waiting of Advent, about the way it is an active, expectant waiting, about the hope and faith it involves. Perhaps we don't so often think about the way that the waiting and yearning for a Messiah came from the depths of despair, the urgent place you reach when you have just waited to long and are almost hoping against hope for deliverance, looking for a new way when there seems no way forward. Psalm 130 is surely an Advent psalm which articulates the desperate longing for redemption. 

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
    Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
    to my cry for mercy.
 If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
 But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
 I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
 I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.
 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.
 He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.

The metaphors of Advent speak to us of this place where we have almost relinquished hope. The resonance of the people who walk in darkness is indeed beautiful, but if you have ever tried to walk in darkness you will know that it is a frustrating, stumbling process where you are as likely to stub a toe, fall over or go around in circles as to make much progress. Likewise the metaphor of the barren woman, Elizabeth, hoping against hope for a child, involves as much anguish and despair as it does anticipation. Perhaps much of this relates to the situation in Palestine at the time of Christ's birth. The longing of the Jews for a Messiah who would restore power as well as peace and prosperity must, in the midst of disappointment and the hated Roman rule, have seemed  a desperate and futile hope.

Then there is John the Baptist out on the margins in his wilderness, not fertile ground but another place of barrenness and desertion where hope finds it hard to take root and he is not a person but a voice crying in anguish and defiance for a straight way where there is no path to be found. John is  a rather extreme figure with his strange clothes and diet and calls for repentance alongside alarming descriptions of winnowing forks and burning up the chaff, and so he should be because Advent waiting is the waiting of those who have reached a point beyond, they wait more than the watchmen wait for the dawn. It all smacks of a very, very long,  barren night of the soul.

 In our twenty first century world with global warming, economic recession, atrocity, conflict and war there are plenty of reasons for humanity  to cry out for deliverance from the depths of despair. Christ never came to deliver us from the Romans but more to deliver us from ourselves and from the human greed and selfishness that has always led us to mess the world up and continues to do so, perhaps just on a larger scale. Psalm 130 also shows us that we find redemption through a despair at our own folly, a reliance upon God's mercy and a willingness to embrace a new way.Advent is about repentance. Crying from the depths of despair to be saved from ourselves still offers our best chance of hope. 


  1. Your reference to human greed appeals to me because the one thing I hate about Xmas is the rampant consumerism that goes on.

  2. Odd you should quote psalm 130, it is a central part of the monastic office of vespers – when reading this I found myself chanting it... As I would have done for several years as a contemplative novice.

    Care is needed in believing greed is concerned with material possessions; there are other species of greed and self-regard that can be just as destructive.

    One of those familiar referrals was e-mailed to me the other week at work (I’m working as a locum senior social worker in a physical disabilities’ team for London borough at present – tho’ soon to move back to palliative care at the beginning of next year, whilst I look for a ‘real’ after the PhD – at last – goes in). They are not uncommon referrals and after two decades as a social worker you get to spot them. Somebody called the office concerned about a frail woman, who has MS and lives in dire conditions. She can no longer feed herself hot food because her hand shakes, her house in a dreadful state of neglect, she wears shabby clothes and the house is cold and dirty. She’s in a wheelchair and nobody seems to help this woman. It is shocking that social services should let someone live in these conditions... blah, blah... I could scream when I get these kind of referrals.

    People WANT to believe social services let people down – it’s fair to remember that people rarely praise social workers: there are, at any one time, some 40,000 children on the child protection register – the vast majority kept safe... No one praises the social workers who do this difficult, demanding and challenging work... One child dies, and the world hates social workers.

    I’d actually seen the woman concerned twice in the past 6 weeks, trying to persuade her to accept care. She has substantial savings (she let slip she has an income of £300 a month in interest which given interest rates are low must mean she has a capital of between £180,000 (at 2%) and £750,000 (at 0.5%)), in addition to DLA, ESA, with disability premium, a state retirement pension and two private pensions; and therefore would pay full cost for her care – so she doesn’t have any care, despite the fact in part at least that is what DLA (or PIP as it is now called) is paid out for! So she made arrangements with a private care agency to do her care, for cheaper than the council charges... However the carers refused to work in a house and kitchen that was so dirty. We (the council) agreed to do a blitz clean, to try and get the house into some order.

    Here I should add, the woman’s daughter, who is able bodied and works full time, lives in the property (a private flat, the mother owns, with no mortgage on it) with her mother. As I noted during my visit, it is not the role of social services to provide cleaners when there is an able bodied person living in the property – either the daughter does it herself or they pay for a cleaner privately – that’s what the DLA is for!

    The house has been cleaned up, but the woman is still refusing to have care because of the cost – yet gets voluntary visits from various do-gooding souls and tells them the sob story of how social services refuse to help her... Hence the new referral! The woman has full mental capacity and although I did initiate a safe-guarding investigation, re: the daughter, again it was found the neglect was consensual.

    I actually get on with the woman very well – but I am brutally honest in such situations: ‘You’ve chosen to live in squalor when you have ample funds to live a very nice life, despite your disability... Just remember, being the richest corpse in the graveyard is often achieved by leading a miserable life!’ (see: for a similar story)

    So greed can take various forms: obsessive parsimony, a greed for the belief that social workers are neglectful; a greed for pity... Yet as with all greed, it suggests an emptiness at heart.

  3. Hi BAA. I've only just picked this post up, think I've been too busy this week. Funnily enough we had a woman in our village who lived like a tramp in terms of conditions, clothing etc.She was nicknamed "ragbag Annie" by the kids but when she died she reputedly had nearly a million in monies in the bank. Funny old world.