I always make sure that I have an Advent Calendar. I’m not interested in one of those that have chocolate behind each of the windows, mine is just a simple nativity scene. What’s most important to me is that it helps me in the countdown to Christmas, in that sense of preparation which is at the heart of the season of Advent. Like many of the traditions that we now associate with Advent and Christmas it seems that we borrowed the idea from German Lutherans who, in the 19th century, were already producing a calendar from 1 December until Christmas Day that had a Bible text behind each of the windows. The idea caught on.
The other thing that I like the calendar for is that it reminds me that I am in Advent! Being in a Cathedral it is hard sometimes to remember that the season exists. We cling to it in the eucharist of course and at the daily offices but there is so much about Christmas that is happening that it’s a temptation to think that we’re already celebrating Christmas.
This year we have 38 special events in the Cathedral between the beginning of Advent and Christmas Day and these are mainly carol services and carol concerts. That’s simply wonderful but it can mean that by the time Christmas actually arrives you are carolled out!
I love Advent but I also love the opportunities for ministry that being at the Cathedral offers. The vast majority of the carol services and concerts are for firms and corporations in the community, for charities and other organisations. I suspect many of those who come along to those services rarely get to church – for many the carol service will be their annual contact with church and with religion in an organised way. They come ready to celebrate, ready to sing and, most importantly for me, ready to listen. That gives us a wonderful opportunity to share something of the Good News of Jesus Christ with them – and we mustn’t imagine for a moment that that is not a tremendous gift but welcome all those who come with open arms.
It’s all too easy for us – and really I am talking about clergy – to be a bit sniffy about the carol service as though somehow it isn’t ‘proper religion’ as though it’s second rate churchgoing. I don’t need convincing that the Eucharist is the very best way in which to worship and encounter God. In the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday Jesus passed the bread and the cup around the table and said ‘Do this to remember me.’ It is a dominical sacrament because it was given to us by the Lord and it is where Christ is present with us in a real, substantial way. There is no better place to be fed; there is no better place to meet with Jesus than at the altar in Holy Communion.
But this doesn’t mean that other forms of worship are worthless and certainly the carol service isn’t. The model for what we do has to be the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that the choir of King’s College Cambridge sings so beautifully and for so many millions worldwide each Christmas Eve. Bishop Benson and Dean Milner-White established in that service a wonderful journey through scripture beginning with prophecy, travelling through the birth narratives to the high point of theological exposition of the incarnation in the Ninth Lesson, John 1.1-14. This is meaty stuff, demanding stuff and we need to recognise that and take it seriously.
Any carol service should seek to take people on the same journey, engaging with scripture, engaging with prophecy, engaging with the story and engaging with theology and if on the way we hear again a Betjeman poem or a passage from Dickens, well all to the good, because each of those, as with so many other writers, have written out of the same texts and the same experience.
One poem that’s not so often read, in my experience, is ‘Advent 1955’ by John Betjeman.
The Advent wind begins to stir
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
It’s dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
And in between we only see
Clouds hurrying across the sky
And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
And branches bending to the gale
Against great skies all silver pale
The world seems travelling into space,
And travelling at a faster pace
Than in the leisured summer weather
When we and it sit out together,
For now we feel the world spin round
On some momentous journey bound –
Journey to what? to whom? to where?
The Advent bells call out ‘Prepare,
Your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.’
And how, in fact, do we prepare
The great day that waits us there –
For the twenty-fifth day of December,
The birth of Christ? For some it means
An interchange of hunting scenes
On coloured cards, And I remember
Last year I sent out twenty yards,
Laid end to end, of Christmas cards
To people that I scarcely know –
They’d sent a card to me, and so
I had to send one back. Oh dear!
Is this a form of Christmas cheer?
Or is it, which is less surprising,
My pride gone in for advertising?
The only cards that really count
Are that extremely small amount
From real friends who keep in touch
And are not rich but love us much
Some ways indeed are very odd
By which we hail the birth of God.
We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell’d go extremely well
We dole out bribes we call a present
To those to whom we must be pleasant
For business reasons. Our defence is
These bribes are charged against expenses
And bring relief in Income Tax
Enough of these unworthy cracks!
‘The time draws near the birth of Christ’.
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.
The line ‘Journey to what? to whom? to where?’ is what we must address for people in these Advent days, in the Eucharist but also in the carol service. The God who is no longer ‘a distant stranger’ is the one who those gathered to sing carols will meet and it’s the privilege pf those of us who officiate at the services and join in the carols to point to this truth which Christina Rossetti identifies in her lovely poem ‘Love came down at Christmas’.
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
The Advent Calendar, as far as the church is concerned, changes on 17 December, the day we call ‘O Sapientia’. From that day there will be an online journey to Christmas and Epiphany on which I invite you to join me. It’s called ‘Bethlehem Bound’ and I hope you will sign up for the daily reflections. You can do that by going to the blog here and registering. Until then we continue counting down.
we look to that day when Christ will come,
As we count down the days
prepare our hearts to receive your greatest gift.