A gracious invitation
I was recently asked to take part in pre-Advent study days for the diocese of St Albans. Another speaker (John Leach, the Discipleship Adviser for Lincoln diocese) and I were invited to address the topic of Waking up to Advent, and to make other more general comments about Liturgy. I had been described in the blurb as “engaging and competent”, which I took to be a kindly admission that although I was not remotely scholarly, I was unlikely to say anything completely asinine. You, dear reader, will be the judge of that. What follows is a tidied-up account of the first part of what I said to the three different audiences in Welwyn, Radlett, and Flitwick. Some people found the remarks useful. I hope you do, too.
‘What are days for?’
I am beginning to realise afresh the very precious nature of the gift of time. This follows in part my own experience of sickness: over a year ago I suffered a stroke, which, although it has not, in the end, greatly debilitated me, could nevertheless have taken my life, leaving my wife without a husband and our young sons without a father. Mindful of this mercy, I have a new sense of the absolute value of time, and of the need to make every vital second count (for something).
This perception has been sharpened in focus and made all the more urgent by our global experience in these past months of the refugee crisis. The men, women and children whose lives we witness through the news media have been abandoned by circumstance in deep oceans of time, becoming passive recipients of whatever treatment our political leaders have decided to pass down to them. One moment, they are admitted to buses and trains and transported hundreds of miles; another, they are left on patches of waste ground, at the mercy of arbitrary lines on a map, or of policemen and others whose actions in applying hastily-constructed law seem equally arbitrary and incoherent.
The refugees’ relationship with time has been transformed by their experience. They are no longer able to make use of time as the rest of us would, for example by working for the advancement of themselves or their families. Unlike the settled citizen, refugees have no sense of the lateness or urgency of the hour; they have no tasks to complete within an allotment of time and are therefore neither in a hurry (‘running out of time’) nor suddenly released from a duty by its quick completion. Their lives have stopped; they have been stripped of their human dignity, left starved and staring at the lights. They take food and water when it is offered, like babies or animals. Time continues to affect them as the seasons turn and they grow older. But it has no meaning that they can shape. It will mean something only when their lives are given again the autonomy to decide their own direction and purpose. It was, of course, precisely this autonomy that they exercised when they set off from their homelands with unimaginably decisive courage, seeking a new home and a new future — a new time.
One sees a diluted form of this in the empty gaze of the commuter: standing still as cattle, transported down the tracks to a daily engagement with their servitude, time is only consequential when given back to them, carefully weighed out at weekends and holidays, when their own socialising, family life or creativity might squeeze itself, frustrated, into fast-evaporating hours of liberty.
Christians must make a claim on time, taking hold of it with confidence. It is the essence of God’s life-gift to us, the portal through which we are admitted to challenge, joy, experience. It has been redeemed for us, the hours carefully counted on the cross. And yes, we know it through the passing of the seconds, tolled solemnly from town halls and church towers, or blinking digitally at us from cooker, laptop, alarm. But we also know it and swim in it through the sense of hallowed time given us by the church calendar. It is this that prevents time from stretching pointlessly backwards through history and forwards into the as yet blank pages of the Google planner. It saves us from being simply a breather and a breeder, our life solely given over to Eliot’s ‘birth and copulation and death’. Through the link established between my life now and the life of Christ seen at work in the saints and the whole of salvation history, I become a purposeful voyager through time, one in receipt of God’s transformation that is marked and mediated through the holy seasons. Through our methodical occupation of each marked paving stone on the pathway from Advent to Christ the King, each with its own proper readings and rite, we are thoroughly immersed in the revelation of God’s love for us. More than just a punctuation of lives, or an arrangement of tasks into certain seasons, time becomes a means of grace, each day a cog in the apparatus of salvation itself.
Why keep Advent?
Of all the seasons, even more than Easter with its Alleluias louder than the song of the birds in the newly-budding trees, Advent is the time when the Christian proclamation of approaching judgement is a perfect match for what we ourselves and the people around us are feeling and experiencing. By late November, deep winter approaches; the darkness and cold are biting; a sharp anxiety about Christmas has been gripping the nation for some weeks already. The tight grip of Sunday trading offers no respite from the commercial vortex: every day is a shopping day; and these whizz by with powerful speed. Adverts for professionally guided present-selection, and masterclasses in how to keep the perfect Christmas, being the perfect parent of perfect kids, have long since landed in the mailbox. And even if I’m rich and can afford to purchase for myself this perfectly manicured Christmas experience, I am not saved from the gut-clenching fear that the lavish gifts I give and receive simply conceal the gaping cracks in my probably imperfect relationships: for all the merrymaking, the baying laughter of the office party, the mounting assault on the family credit card, I fear that this annual judgement of who I have been for one more year (and they won’t go on for ever) will reveal that I and my whole life are a sham, as lifeless as the tree cut from the earth, festooned in tinsel and dropping needles, standing in the corner of the room like Miss Havisham daubed in rouge. And of course if I am poor I am not spared any of these fears which rather multiply, first as the day draws nearer when I must watch the faces of my children to gauge whether their delight in my gifts (which in truth they cannot need or even desire for more than a moment) reveals a glimmer of understanding of the utterly helpless love I have for them. And then there is that second day when (a sharper dread) I must finally pay for all of this, performing the impossible juggling of numbers whose final outcome is for many each year the loss of everything.
So the feeling of some clergy that people will not understand or find themselves able to get any purchase on the Advent theme of God’s coming in judgement is not one that I find borne out by experience. People know all too well what judgement is; they will not be surprised to hear that the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when you will be sorted, sifted, judged and examined, cast into the flames or gathered into my barn. You will see that I have come to judge the living and the dead. I am indeed a refining and a consuming fire.
But even if they understand it, is this really a message to be sharing with people at the start of the biggest party of the year? If they want any religion at all, surely they want the donkey and the shepherds, the wise men and the innkeeper, the bouncing baby miraculously born in the bleak midwinter, long ago?
Questions of whether and when to offer people distinctly Advent themes (especially when we know little if any distinctly Advent music) have an urgency for those who lead and present the worship and teaching of the church at this most numerically abundant time of year. Our regular congregations may want to resist any reference to Christmas until the afternoon of Christmas Eve, like well-brought-up children who know they shouldn’t open their presents until Christmas day. They may also have calculated the need to eke out the riches of Christmas until Candlemas, forty long days away. Occasional churchgoers, however, particularly if they’re coming to school and community carol services, will expect Christmas carols to be sung lustily any time after the start of December.
I think we worry too much, in all sorts of ways. We imagine that there is an irreconcilable difference between the coming of God in judgement (at the ending of the age) and God’s coming in merciful flesh at Christmas. It is true that each of these phrases contains an ancient and tightly-coiled narrative that systematicians and splitters will happily tease out in densely-footnoted detail; but this should not mislead us into imagining that we have comprehended the divine action referred to. Even if we have recited the phrases and heard the stories since infancy, there is no sense in which we can contain or limit them in the palm of our understanding. In the Scriptures, God’s coming and abiding are always diverse: as flame, wind, silence, angel, child, God comes among us in many ways. We will want to make use of a variety of these as Advent proceeds. Each of them invites us to consider ourselves in the light of God, notably the manner in which humankind habitually falls short, marring the divine image within us. Our preaching and worship will be able to open up many of these ideas of judgement, not least that expression of judgement which is visible in the vulnerable Christ child as he lies in the crib, proclaiming the kingdom, even in his crying, and challenging us to love one another more perfectly, by following as this little child leads us from exile and abandonment along the road back home.
The most instructive experience I have had of this sort of liturgy was an Advent/Christmas service I devised for Lichfield Cathedral called Songs for a City. When I was there, it took place early evening in mid-December, being designed principally for those who worked in the town centre, but open also to civic dignitaries and politicians, and to any who had a stake in the well-being of the town and region.
I was a little generous in the first few years, providing four Scripture readings with matching hymns and carols, divided into the four ‘Cities’ of Sorrow (Lamentations 1 and 2), Joy (Christ’s birth in Bethlehem), Glory (the Presentation in the Temple), and Light (the New Jerusalem in the Revelation to John). In subsequent years, we had just the two sections: Reclaiming the Wilderness (Isaiah 40) and Light of the Nations (Luke 2: Presentation reading). However plentiful the material, and whatever liturgical tradition and style we favour, it must be possible to make ample and urgent connection between the city we inhabit, the city of Christ’s birth, the perfection of the heavenly Jerusalem and the disasters that befall so many of the world’s cities fairly constantly. It must be and is possible to lament and bewail our ecological carelessness and political callousness, while at the same time singing O Little Town of Bethlehem. You can also embellish the occasion, for example by preceding it with the blessing of the Christmas tree (more connections to be made there), and by following it with an agreeable social occasion involving mulled wine and Fairtrade mince pies; these are, perhaps, the perfect symbol of a happy conjunction of Advent and Christmas themes.
Good preaching is the most critical ingredient in a liturgy like this. It will need to be succinct enough not to scare off those who are allergic to long speeches, or those who need to get home for children’s bedtime. But it will also need to be rich enough to name and explore both the tradition we inherit, and the lives that we ourselves experience, placing all of it under the merciful yoke of the incarnate Lord, and so leading the way from this welcome beginning of carolling in frosty air to the possibility of eventual regular worship as a member of God’s Pilgrim people.
We were invited to share with the audience two of our most memorable and helpful experiences of worship during Advent.
Together for Advent
The first occurred about 35 years ago when the newly-arrived parish priest decided (with great foresight as it turned out) that the best way to prepare for Christmas was to spend the season of Advent together as a parish, creatively and prayerfully exploring its themes and bringing together the fruit of our work to offer to God in the Sunday Eucharist. Thus it was that on the Friday evenings of Advent, we gathered together in the village hall and set about a variety of activities, some musical (typically learning Advent and Christmas music that could be used in our worship), some artistic (producing banners that dealt with the gospel themes and characters we would be meeting during the four weeks that lay ahead); there was a prayer school that met each week to explore prayer in different styles and traditions; there was Bible study; and there was an enormous sense of fun.
What I remember most vividly, however, is that simple reality of being together week by week as a parish community, then coming together for worship feeling more than usually equipped and prepared. The benefits of the program were quite intense on every level: we knew that we were being built into a more closely-knit Christian family, one we wanted to belong to, and one in which we took comfort and encouragement from each another.
As for the Sunday liturgy, it was most assuredly the offering of all the people, right down to the child who could only play one note on her instrument but who was nonetheless incorporated into the band. It was the offering of all that we had become, all that we had learnt: it assumed a new vitality and imparted to us all a compelling sense of our own dignity and our place in the drama.
The Advent Carol Service
My second experience is that of a priest working in a cathedral, responsible for the musicians, readers and servers, as well as other Cathedral staff involved in preparing and performing the liturgy of the Advent Carol service. I can remember (as a chorister 40 years ago) when these were relatively novel occasions. But over the years they have become commonplace, as regular a feature of cathedral life as the nine lessons and carols at Christmas, and, by and large, as predictable in form and structure: hung on the hanger of the seven Advent antiphons, a series of readings and carols explore the themes of Advent and set forth our Christian hope, while the Cathedral, which has begun in darkness, is gradually illumined as more and more candles are lit, so that, by the end, Lo, he comes with clouds descending, or some other equally sublime hymn is sung by the thousand or so present in radiant light.
This is obviously not the sort of Advent worship every community would want or be able to reproduce, and it is not the specific contours of the Advent Carol service that interest me. What catches my attention is the way this service has the complete confidence to be simple, straightforward, repetitive, and utterly convinced of its ability to draw us into the mystery of Advent. It is what we might call the complete worship event: from start to finish, it is entirely itself. There should be no chummy words of welcome or oppressively relevant prayers of intercession. There should certainly be no sermon. There should be no anxiety that this is effectively nothing more than a wander by candlelight with a bit of singing thrown in. The service must be allowed to get on with the task of being itself, while we are drawn completely into its orbit. We are given the inexpressible luxury of sitting and doing nothing, with no one to bother us, as in heart and mind (nourished by word, music and atmosphere) we allow the spirit of God to work upon us in the generous transformation of divine grace. If we wish to learn from and imitate this sort of event in our own parishes, schools and other contexts, we need a little imagination to find appropriate ways of communicating the essence of its content; but, more than this, we need the confidence not to fiddle with it, and to let the beauty of sound, silence, darkness and light lead us by hand and heart to where we would desire to be.