Sunday, 7 December 2014

Spring is just around the corner

Advent is my favourite season of the church calendar. I love the ancient and expectant chants, carols and hymns. I love the four purple Advent candles lit each week marking the build up of excitement towards the beautiful white candle of Christmas day. I love the fact that just as a pendulum slows as it reaches the end of its swing, the nights continue to get slightly longer until just before Christmas when slowly the process goes into reverse, and, as my cheerful dad always says, "Spring is just around the corner". As a child I thought this was a ridiculous exaggeration, but now, as I get older and the earth's orbit around the sun seems to speed up each year, I know exactly what he means and share his optimism.

We have just returned from an overnight stay in Salisbury, which began with a visit to Stonehenge. We were early enough to avoid the crowds which helped us to appreciate the lonely beauty of the place. The ground was frosty, and the low, dazzling sunlight cast long shadows away from the huge and mysterious stones. Nobody knows why these stones were placed as they are, but we can only be amazed by the skill and precision involved in the design of the site, and the incredible effort needed to transport the stones for many miles over land and sea, some from South West Wales. The monument clearly served some kind of religious purpose, connecting humans to the mysteries of the sun and seasons.  More than three thousand years later this same sense of awe and reverence in the presence of the divine inspired generations of craftsmen and labourers to create one of the most beautiful cathedrals in England at Salisbury. And these monuments are still standing and able to lift us above our mundane lives - to me this is part of what Advent is about.

Advent and Lent are the two reflective seasons in the church year. Lent is a period of personal reflection on our own weaknesses and need for forgiveness but Advent tells a universal story of creation, of gestation and of hope. I think it is less about me, and more about our world and its need to connect with the divine.  It is about looking forward in hope as our readings remind us each week - starting with God's people, and circling ever closer inwards past the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary until we focus in on the tiny newborn baby with his poor family in temporary and squalid accommodation away from their home.  What could be more mundane than that? It is an everyday story of a baby born in an ordinary family, and yet you would struggle to think of one that has had a more extraordinary impact. Nobody is too poor and unimportant to connect with this story.

Salisbury Cathedral also hosts the Magna Carta and a small exhibition around it. Within the constraints of a feudal society this important document enshrines the rule of law over free men, and the freedom of the church to govern its affairs. The exhibition explains the link between this early agreement, the English Bills of Rights in 1688, and more recent declarations of human rights.  It also includes some inspiring quotes, such as those below, and examples of how the legacy of the Magna Carta has inspired people to fight for freedom from oppression and for equal treatment in the face of discrimination.  Next year it will be 800 years old, reminding us that the human quest for rights and freedoms will continue.

Although Advent is my favourite season it is also the most exhausting part of the year, with extra events, Christmas performances, work parties, and preparations adding impossibly to our schedule which is pretty hectic all year round. In centuries past Advent would have been a season of fasting and quiet preparation, followed by twelve days of celebration for Christmas, but now it is the other way round with a long period of excesses and expenditure ending with a post-Christmas detox. I usually find this a bit disappointing, and this autumn I have also been feeling depressed by the increasingly divisive rhetoric from our politicians and media, and our society's ever growing inequality and distrust. Also several good friends have found themselves suddenly in tragic or frightening situations and this has felt overwhelming. I wasn't much looking forward to anything, but I have been surprised by a strong sense of peace and hopefulness over the past couple of weeks. Some deepening friendships and small encouragements have shone out for me like candles in the dark.  I am excited about Christmas approaching and the joy of the incarnation - of "God with us".

I have struggled to write this post as I am finding it hard to put my muddled thoughts into words and connect things together properly. Thankfully this poem, which I heard this morning, seems to sum up exactly what I am trying to say. So I will end with it:

Advent Calendar (Rowan Williams)

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

My iPhone photo of Salisbury from Old Sarum - site of the earlier cathedral and medieval castle.