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Today is the beginning of Advent, the season when the church traditionally looks forward to Christ’s return. Daniel Newman’s excellent post here explains how this has been lost in the flurry of preparations for the celebration of Christ’s first coming. I realise I have been guilty of this in giving my blog Christmas colours instead of advent purple. Sorry.
This is W. B. Yeats’ advent poem, The Second Coming:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
When we were singing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ on Sunday, I knew there was something odd about the tune. In the chorus, the final syllable of the word Emmanuel was being held for three beats and I kept wanting to move on after just one. Anyway, I’m currently listening to the Advent Carol Service on Radio 3 Listen Again, and I was quite right, there is only one beat for that syllable. I don’t know whether this has implications elsewhere in the tune and I haven’t got the energy to work it out. Anyone?
I think Advent is my favourite season of the Church calendar.
It has the best hymns, obviously: Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending; Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus; Hail To The Lord’s Anointed; Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence; Hark the Glad Sound, the Saviour Comes; and the eponymous, O Come, O Come Emmanuel. All are suitably grand and solemnly majestic, even in their rejoicing.
Advent just seems to fit this time of year. I can’t imagine what a Southern hemisphere Advent is like, but here in the north, the evenings are drawing in, the winds are rising, the temperatures are falling. It’s as if the world is becoming a stage set for a dramatic encounter. If you’ve never read Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark Is Rising’, you’ve missed out on one of the most wonderfully evocative descriptions of this pre-Christmas winter time. (Whatever you do, DON’T go and see the film!) She perfectly captures the sense of mystery and awe that surrounds the onset of winter. It’s humanity versus the elements at their fiercest. This real physical struggle for survival through the winter seems to mirror the spiritual struggle against the rulers and powers of the age. I fully expect that Jesus will return during Advent (though not just yet). It feels right.
I remember an Advent carol service I went to about 20 years ago, at school. It was an evening service in Malvern Priory – a 900 year-old church which is the largest parish church in England. We all huddled together in our woollen cloaks and sang the great Advent carols in this cavernous building. When we came out, it had snowed. It felt as if our singing had literally been carried up to heaven and that somehow, we had been heard and the world was utterly transformed.
Advent is a good time to remember what it means to be a Christian, caught in the overlap between the ages. Advent prompts us to look backward, remembering the first coming of Christ which ushered in the new age. But it also prompts us to look forward, yearning for Christ’s return, which will bring the consummation of that age. It’s our calling to struggle with the residual effects of the old age: we live in a world that still groans with the effects of sin and we ourselves know the struggle with our own sinful nature. Yet we also live in the resurrection age: having died and been raised with Christ, our lives are hidden with Christ in God. We have confident and certain hope of our bodily resurrection and the restoration of the whole created order. Much indeed to rejoice about, even as we sing and pray.