Monday, 7 December 2015

Stepping out of the Night

What is Advent? Many answers can be given. We can grumble and say that it is nothing but a pretext for hectic activity and commercialism, prettified with sentimental cliches in which people stopped believing ages ago. In many cases this may be true, but it is not the whole picture. 
We can say the reverse, that Advent is a time when, in the midst of an unbelieving world, something of the luminous quality of this lost faith is still perceptible, like a visual echo. Just as stars are visible long after they have become extinct, since their erstwhile light is still on its way to us, so this mystery frequently offers some warmth and hope even to those who are no longer able to believe in it.
We can say that Advent is a time when old customs live again, for instance, in the singing of carols that takes place all over the country. In the melodies and words of these carols, something of the simplicity, imagination and glad strength of the faith of our forefathers makes itself heard in our age, bringing consolation and encouraging us to have another go at that faith which could make people so glad in such hard times.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Seek That Which Is Above

One evening last week I went to the local supermarket with my family. As we walked in we could hear the sound of carol singers, the local Rotary Club, who do it every year. My daughter pulled me over to them, intrigued by the singing. We sat down at a table to listen, and I was handed a pamphlet by one of the singers and invited to join in as they sang Hark The Herald Angels Sing.

As we sang I became aware of the song as something wonderfully, unapologetically subversive and incongruous in those surroundings. The lyrics lay it on thick:

Christ, by highest heav'n adored:
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the favoured one.
Veil'd in flesh, the Godhead see;
Hail, th'incarnate Deity

and later

Hail! the heav'n born Prince of peace!
Hail! the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

The 'glad strength of the faith of our forefathers' came through to me as I sang, and I allowed the full cognitive dissonance of the situation to hit home - the scandal of God made flesh, the unveiled theophany of the Godhead, on a Tuesday evening in a Waitrose in Surrey.

When another, deeper reality breaks through into the transience and paleness of this world, it brings consolation and awakens the memory of the heart which looks to the star of hope. This advent, it is good to clear away extraneous things, so that you may listen more clearly with the ears of the heart.

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