The season of Advent, starting on Sunday 1 December, marks the beginning of the Church’s year. The Advent wreath with it’s four candles will stand proud in the chancel at St Mary’s with no other flowers to distract from it’s marking of the four Sundays before Christmas. Other features of Advent are a bit like Lent – the Gloria is omitted, particular hymns are sung and the colour of the church vestments is purple – all of which are done to help us mark this season of the Church’s year.
However the themes explored in Advent are if anything more mysterious than in Lent! The characteristic note of Advent is not penitence (as it is in Lent) but expectation. The services in Advent, with their readings, hymns and anthems not only direct us towards Christ’s birth, but beyond that to our ultimate hope. So while traditionally the great Advent themes have been the four last things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell – more modern Advent reflections tend to be on the themes of watchfulness, spiritual longing, waiting and silence, often using the darkness of winter to explore these themes in candlelight.
This year we are taking Thomas Merton to be our companion at St Mary’s during Advent. Merton was a monk and hermit who died in 1968, who had, and still has, an extraordinary influence through his writings. His first books, shortly after the Second World War, drew many women and men to join Benedictine communities across America. Later he wrote powerfully against the Vietnam war in the New Yorker and elsewhere. In the years before he died he was engaged in a remarkable dialogue with Zen Buddhists and the Dalai Lama. Throughout this whole time his spiritual writings deepened, and are full of extraordinary insights, as fresh and as valid as when they were first written. He remains one of the great figures of twentieth century Christianity.
There are two ways in which we shall take Merton as our companion this Advent.
At the short Wednesday evening services (6.30-7.15pm) we shall welcome the Revd Robert Wright to lead the reflections. Robert was formerly Sub Dean of Westminster Abbey, vicar of St Margaret’s Westminster, and chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons. He is now working as a priest and a painter, living in Witney. Robert’s paintings are abstract, and they are often painted in response to his reflections on the writings of Merton. This series he has entitled listening to the silence of God, a phrase that comes from Merton. The three services will be an opportunity for us to learn about Merton in images and words – and in a time of quiet reflection. Robert has a deep understanding of Merton, and we are grateful to him for joining us for these services.
In addition to which please pick up a booklet from church of Advent Reflections from the Writings of Merton. ‘Breakthrough to Joy’ is a booklet with daily readings and prayers for you to use on your own during this season.
May your Advent be deep and your joy unbounded!
Photo of prayer candles in the Church of Nativity, Bethlehem, Palestine taken during the 2013 Olive Planting Trip