I am in Boots waiting for my booster jab. I am sitting where I can see a display of Harry Potter Advent calendars, priced £40, and above it reads “More Joy to Follow”. It isn’t even November. It fills me with huge sadness to see something as delicate and beautiful and awesome as Advent trivialised in this way, becoming yet one more consumer product. I know that before long the shop windows will be proclaiming Christmas with urgency. I know that the pavements will be full of anxious shoppers. And, sitting there and waiting for my turn, a great wave of sadness sweeps over me.
This is the time of year when the opening between earth and heaven becomes so close. This is the time of year that I love above all. Michaelmas Day announced it with a flourish of angelic voices and then, according to the Celtic calendar, the year swings down to Samhain, on November 1st, when the flocks are brought down from their winter pastures, a time of bonfires, a time to face the coming of the dark, a time to think of death and dying. It coincides with the Christian festivals of All Saints and All Souls. My father died on the eve of All Saints and my neighbours in the Welsh Marches, where I then lived, said ‘How right that he should go at the turning of the year’.
Advent brings us the invitation to enter into the most mysterious time of the year – an invitation to leave the safe and familiar and be ready to encounter the unknown. Does it feel like living on the edge? A chance to heed Pope Francis’ warning about the danger of being ‘barricaded into our own certainties’. Yearly we are given the opportunity to reclaim, in the words of Mark Oakley, ‘the reality and freshness of God as mystery’. Here, if ever, the Christian year is offering us drama, cosmic drama, to capture the imagination, not anything easy, domesticated. We must resist, Timothy Radcliffe tells us, the temptation of marketing a timid and safe Christianity.
For as we approach Advent we are handed such an amazing range of tools: the liturgical texts, the Advent music, the glimpses in the poems of R.S.Thomas, the words of the old Prayer Book collects, those great O antiphons with all their calling on God by every name. But – as far as I know – no ikons. It is up to us to enter a place beyond words: to create for ourselves our inner ikons.
There is a verse in psalm 39 which I particularly love: ‘How many, O Lord my God, are the wonders and designs that you have worked for us.’ Wonders … designs. It catches so immediately for me the sense of mystery and poetry and symbolism and God’s purpose at work
Here is a reminder of our religion as drama, cosmic drama. And yet where does it lead us? To a stable in Bethlehem, to a new-born lying in a stone feeding trough, a new-born at once tiny and infinite, asleep in what already presages the cold stone of the tomb.
Again paradox. And paradox is our window onto glory. As Pauline Matarasso reminds us, eternity is not a length of time, it is time telescoped out of existence – as when St Benedict saw the whole world gathered up into one ray of light. But while we are in time, the meaning lies in the waiting. Advent waiting is one of longing, of spiritual longing. Longing is part of our identity as human beings.
Thomas Merton entered the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani in Kentucky in Advent and said that this was the perfect season to begin a new life. His longings had taken him to many places in pursuit of lives which did not bring him what he was seeking. But here, as he wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain, he found what he had been searching for: ‘You begin a new life, you enter into a new world at the beginning of a new liturgical year….
And everything that the church gives you is a cry of ardent desire….
It is a desire all the more powerful, in the spiritual order, because the world around you is dead.
Life has ebbed to its dregs.
The trees are stripped bare.
The birds forget to sing.
The grass is brown and grey.
The sun gives its light, as it were in faint intermittent explosions, ‘squibs’, not rays, according to John Donne’s conceit in his ‘Nocturnal on St Lucy’s Day’.
BUT the cold stones of the Abbey Church ring with a chant that glows with living flame, with clean profound desire.
And then throughout the week before Christmas at Vespers, Evensong the time of the lighting of the lamps, the chant would include those seven great antiphons to the Magnificat:
O Adonai,….. O come and redeem us with an outstretched arm
O Root of Jesse,…….O come and deliver us, and do not delay
O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High.
You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner.
O come to teach us the way of truth.
And so they go on these antiphons, each seemingly more glorious than another: phrases that you hold in the palm of your hand, as it were, until they become lectio divina:
O Rising Sun you are the splendour of eternal light;
O King whom all the peoples desire,
you are the cornerstone which makes all one.
Until finally we get to December 23rd: O Emmanuel
You are our king and judge
The One whom the peoples await
O come and save us, Lord, our God.
or, in the words of the Benedictine hermit Maria Boulding who has meant so much to me, ‘Come and set us free’.
Thomas Merton would have heard these shouts ringing out in the great abbey church. For most of us they will resound in the silence of our hearts.
Here we are present to the enormity of Advent – which can seem almost overwhelming. The refrain is VENE, COME- so simple a word, yet taking us into something so vast and complex – that calling on God by all those names. And underlying the root from which it springs is desire – that deep longing vividly expressed so simply in the words of St Ignatius of Antioch in the 2nd century: ‘There is a living water within me saying “Come to the Father.”’ Mark Oakley tells us that our faith is a religion in the vocative: it asks God to come and touch us back into life.
‘Come my way, my truth, my life’ in the familiar words of the poem of George Herbert, and the images come pouring out. Another seventeenth century voice, but this time from Russia, that of St Dimitri of Rostov:
Come , my Light, and illumine my darkness.
Come, my Life, and revive me from death.
Come, my Physician, and heal my wounds.
Come, flame of divine love, and burn up the thorns of my sins, kindling my heart with the flame of thy love.
Come, my King, sit upon the throne of my heart and reign there.
For thou alone art my King and my Lord.
It is a great paeon – the word ‘Come’ echoing throughout with its urgency – as it echoes throughout Advent. Think of the first disciples (or any one of us) when it all begins with ‘Come follow me’, then ‘Come and see’, then to Lazarus (when we have grown deadened) ‘Come out’ – and I think of the bound figure in grave clothes in Epstein’s great statue in the ante-chapel of New College, Oxford. Then in John’s gospel ‘Do not be desolate/ I will come to you’. So this is our prayer, the prayer of the whole church, Come Lord Jesus!
Advent is coming, not our coming to God, but his coming to us.
We cannot come to God (these are the words of Austen Farrer). He is beyond our reach; but he can come to us, for we are not beneath his mercy.
And so we wait…Watching and waiting – the two go together. Alert and attentive, awake, keeping vigil. Watching alert with eager anticipation. Watching in a silence that cuts out distraction. The heart of waiting is the place of God’s action. Carys Walsh speaks of ever deepening waiting: ‘there is no anxiety in this waiting, nor is it something to be endured or suffered. There is simply the understanding that waiting upon God is fundamental to knowing God.’
I have always loved how St Gregory the Great puts it as a question to himself – one that I too try to follow – (it is the set reading on his feast day on September 3rd). ’Who am I – what kind of a watchman am I?… A watchman always takes up his position on the heights so that he can see from a distance whatever approaches.’ He confesses to his own weakness. ‘And yet the creator and redeemer of mankind can give me, unworthy though I be, the grace to see life whole… .’
How well I remember a week that I spent with a Cistercian community in Catalonia, whose monastery was a fortified medieval building. After Vigils I would come up and stand on the ramparts waiting for the first signs of dawn, the first shreds of light, the first hint of birdsong – waiting for the coming of Christ, and keeping watch for a sleeping world that did not know him. I am so grateful that I have had this experience and can return to it in my imagination – for it reminds me of the power of waiting without anxiety. And this is so central to the season of Advent waiting. It gives us the yearly chance to re-learn the art of finding meaning in the waiting. This is not passive waiting but active as I wait, alert and attentive, I find myself carried into a sense of timelessness – of timelessness within time.
Here is the mystery – there are three comings,
one in historical time, the human birth at Bethlehem,
one in the future when Christ comes in glory,
at the end of the coming to which we look forward as we sing
Lo, he comes with clouds descending … .
I get out my Ancient & Modern hymnbook and I remind myself of words which catch my attention anew: Robed in dreadful majesty…….
Yea, Amen let all adore thee
High on thine eternal throne
Saviour take the power and glory
Claim the kingdom for Thine own!
Thou shalt reign, and Thou alone.
Here is time in the future – the four last things, death and hell and heaven and judgement. This takes us into the realm of mystery. It asks me to be like Moses at Mt Horeb, who took off his sandals because he was standing on holy ground in front of a bush of dazzling brightness
And then thirdly his coming in the life of each one of us, which happens time and again, secretly and silently.
The first in swaddling clothes, in flesh, vulnerable and helpless.
The second clothed in light as in a garment, in power and great glory.
The third a secret coming.
I love the way in which the twelfth century Cistercian Guerric of Igny puts it: grace accompanied his first coming,
Glory will surround his last,
And the intermediate coming to each one of us has in it something of both.
And this coming is within time – we come back yet again to the role of living in the moment.
And I shall be marking this Advent moment by moment. There will be the daily opening of the Advent calendar, for I have managed to find one which leads me to the crib. And I shall mark each Sunday with the lighting of the candles on the Advent wreath – a circle made of holly and ivy, evergreens which represent eternal life with four purple candles.
Rituals matter. Traditionally the four symbolise hope, love, peace, joy, and I shall add the fifth, to be lit on Christmas Day, a white candle, for the light that Christ’s birth brings to the world. I am glad that the first candle is Hope –It sets the tone for what is to come: whether in the time of Advent, or in the space of our earthly life. Looking forward is something that we are meant to do – minds occupied with heaven will help us with life on earth.
When the Cowley Fathers in America re-wrote their Rule, they called it ‘Living in Hope’. Their final chapter is The Hope of Glory: ‘Through this gift the Holy Spirit opens all that we are and all that we do, to the promise of eternal fulfilment beyond death.’ The gift of hope is woven into the texture of their daily life as a community, but this can apply to any of us anywhere. Because, as they say, ‘our life lies not in what we have done for God but in what God has done for us… .’ So to hope I add thanksgiving, and that will be a thread of the first week of Advent. And then the weeks follow successively: faith, thinking of the time of the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah 40 1-11); the message of John the Baptist; and finally, on the eve of Christmas Mary, when the candle represents joy.
There are few things more deliberate than the act of lighting a candle. First holding the flame, whether by striking the match or from another light, holding it long enough for it to have the strength to share its light, then watching it gain strength, become steady, flare up. Each weekly moment of this ritual of lighting is a prayer, a moment of stillness.
Here are ‘moments of great calm’ in that familiar small phrase of R.S.Thomas, an eternity of moments, which bring me the present moment. That is the only way to live fully. Only the moment matters. That is where God is. ‘The Christian life can be done on the spot’ – what a splendidly down to earth declaration from Monica Furlong –on this square foot of ground on which we stand.
It is impossible to think of Advent without Christmas, and then as we stand in front of that stone trough, the manger that I spoke of earlier, Christmas, the birth carries us forward to death and so then on to resurrection. Thus the Advent / Christmas mystery is the overture to Easter, to the paschal mystery, the heart of our believing. An overture is of course the opening to what is coming, but like the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict, it also stands in its own right as a lyrical, beautiful expression of what is to follow.
Because of course in Advent while we wait and watch and hope and pray in the ante-room, as it were, we find that God has arrived before us – in fact he was there all the time – he was there all along, silently waiting with us.
Esther de Waal