“I cannot tell – but this I know”  

“I cannot tell – but this I know”  

“I cannot tell – but this I know”  


The vicarage doorbell rang.  On answering it I found a student from our local sixth form college.  We’d not met before, but it transpired he wanted to discuss a problem that was puzzling him.  When he was sitting comfortably he put his question:  “What’s the story then?”  Being translated, he wanted to know what Christianity was all about.


When Nigel, our vicar, asked me to write about Advent, the same question came back to me:  what’s the story?  We know about Advent calendars, Advent candles and Advent wreaths, but what about Advent itself?  We take so much for granted and assume we know the answers.  But when pressed to explain the things we sing and talk about on Sunday mornings it’s not always that simple.


Yet at one level Advent is simple.  The word itself literally means “coming towards” and can be used in both a secular and religious sense.  As we are using it here, it covers the four Sundays before Christmas and it’s a story in three parts, with a beginning, middle and end.  Together they tell how Jesus came once in the past, how he comes now in the present, and how he will come again in the future.


The first part of the story tells how Jesus came to us as a baby in Bethlehem. There’s a hymn in which each verse begins with the words, “I cannot tell” – i.e. it’s okay to be agnostic about some things.  Then halfway through each verse the tone changes to one of certainty.  Hence the first verse, referring to that first advent, says this: “But this I know, that he was born of Mary, when Bethlehem’s manger was his only home, and that he lived at Nazareth and laboured, and so the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is come”.


That only happened once and can’t be repeated.  The second part of the story tells how Jesus comes now in the present, not once but again and again.  And there are people round the world, from Filey to the farthest shores of the widest ocean, who know that’s true.  They may not always be able to explain it, but this hymn again comes to their rescue.  After confronting the unanswerable questions raised by Jesus’ suffering, it offers words of certainty:  “But this I know, he heals the broken-hearted, and stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear, and lifts the burden from the heavy-laden, for yet the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is here”.


The hymn then points us to the end of the story, Jesus’ final advent in the future.  One day, it says, he will come in glory and draw the world and all its people to himself.  It’s way above my pay grade to explain when he will come, and I haven’t the faintest idea how it will happen.  For the same reasons the hymn writer turns to poetry to describe it, because poetry can often point to truth that cannot be contained within the limits of logic or scientific statements.


Therefore the writer says this:  “But this I know, all flesh shall see his glory, and he shall reap the harvest he has sown, and some glad day his sun shall shine in splendour, when he the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is known”.

What a day it’s going to be!  Until then may this Advent be a time of blessing for us all.

Edward Roberts

To listen to the Hymn from an edition of Songs of Praise click on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62wk5KvI7-w