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Reflections for Advent 2020
The Revd Dr Carys Walsh
Week one: Waiting
Advent is nearly here, bringing again the promise of God-with-us in Christ, but as usual, in danger of getting lost in the run up to Christmas - and this year perhaps more so, as we turn our thoughts to managing our unusual festivities. But this is such a rich season, bursting with hope, poignancy and promise, that to miss it might be to miss glimpses of God’s kingdom, sparking and sparkling among us.
There are many ways of orientating ourselves in and travelling through the landscape of Advent, from remembering prophets and kings, to being reminded of the last four things (like death and heaven). And amongst these many ways, is a Carmelite pattern of waiting, accepting, journeying and birthing. This simple-sounding sequence can carry us as we surrender to the depths of Advent and reaches into the potentially transformative experience of waiting upon God, which characterises this season. And so we begin with waiting.
Waiting is woven richly into our faith, from the expectant waiting of the prophets, to the trepidation of Gethsemane, or uncertain waiting leading to Pentecost. And of course, there is the waiting of Mary, so much part of the Advent season. We all know something about waiting too, from waiting for a bus or to get to the till, to waiting for medical results, or for something that never happens. This year we have come to know even more about waiting as a strange companion; with its frustrations and ‘getting-in-the-wayness’ or its opportunities to hatch new plans and ideas, to be born when a semblance of normality returns.
Waiting can, though, so often pull us out of the present. To wait for something is to expect an end to ‘now’ and so we lean away from, rather than into the experience; but this seems to miss the meaning of waiting. Waiting shapes our hearts, minds, intentions and actions. Waiting for something can only be lived now, in the present, and in a strange and paradoxical twist, as soon as that for which we are waiting arrives, the essential experience of waiting – the anticipation, the frustration - the openness - is lost. But we have been changed in the waiting – we are not the same as when it began, and we are not the same as we will be when the waiting is over. Waiting itself is a kind of threshold experience - and this is often where God slips in.
And when this happens, waiting for may be transformed into waiting upon: living in the here-and-now of waiting upon the God who beckons us, who rises to meet us, and is to be glimpsed during the glorious season of Advent.
Week two: Accepting
As Advent deepens, we circle around the theme of ‘accepting.’ This can sound like a strangely passive word, even a troublingly overly-deferential word, as if accepting requires us simply and humbly to take all the slings and arrows that life throws at us, or accept unquestioningly what others ask of us. But understood differently, accepting becomes a word of engagement and beginnings, embracing the life with which we have been gifted, and pointing us towards hope.
Acceptance understood in this way, more radically embracing than passive, lies at the heart of Advent. It lies at the heart of Mary’s story so brightly spot-lit during this season, not as the simple, single acceptance of a cowed girl, but as the beginning of a journey from ‘yes’ to God, to the churning, pondering, ever-growing recognition of what it means to be utterly caught up in God’s life. In Mary’s journey we walk alongside her in the growing understanding, from shepherds and angels, kings and prophets, that the child she bears will shape destinies, unlock hearts and challenge the unchallengeable. Here there is no guarantee of comfort, but the gradual acceptance of a courageous soul, bearing the burden of new realisations and grasping afresh the untameable grace of God.
If this is some of the quality of acceptance we are called to foster in Advent, we might wonder what it means for us. Perhaps it is in accepting more deeply a faith with which we tussle, or accepting our need to loosen the hold which the familiar and comfortable has on us as God’s ‘new’ beckons. It can mean accepting our folly and frailties and that we allow ourselves to be bent out of shape by our illusions, or accepting wrongs done by us and to us, not as passive recipients of suffering, but tilling the ground for new life and growth. In this un-easy acceptance, in which prayer, questioning and acknowledgement all have a part, we may discover a radical surrender to the deepening realization that ours is a God who draws us into a life of unfathomable love.
Acceptance like this, in which illusions are stripped, courage is grasped, and grace is discovered in the painful and ordinary as well as in ‘obvious’ glories or sanitized moments of life, becomes an ‘Amen’ to God’s life within us, uttered with open-hearted surrender. Far from leaving us bowed by the demands, tragedies and pains of life, unable to bear the load, this kind of acceptance can release us. We can be freed to live both in the ‘now’ of recognizing God-with-us, and also in the ‘not-yet’ of waiting for God to come among us again in the incarnation, preparing us for the journey through Advent and beyond.
Week three: Journeying
From Accepting, we move to Journeying which winds through the season of Advent. From Mary’s emotional journey in accepting the coming of surprising new life, to her physical journeys in Luke’s Gospel to see Elizabeth and with Joseph, surely himself required to map a new terrain; from earth-hurled angels to shepherds travelling away from familiar hillsides, this is a season of movement as well as stillness, inner and outer. And the movement is in new directions, following new demands and impulses, away from the familiar and through the marginal landscape of Advent.
Coming after waiting and accepting, there may be a suggestion that journeying is just ‘the next thing to do.’ But this might be to miss the experience of Advent journeying, and to lose the textured quality of journeying as a movement of soul and spirit, intricately woven around and through the stillness of waiting and the heart-opening moments of accepting. Rather than a thing to do, journeying might be the thread which weaves all these together and a guiding principle helping us to catch a glimpse of how we travel with God through all of our lives.
Perhaps the journey we are making with God, like Mary, is one of travelling as God’s life grows within us; as we cherish and nurture this new life and are in turn, shaped by its fluttering presence. But our way of journeying with God may be utterly different, and lingering thoughtfully over our travelling in God’s presence during this season, may help us to apprehend more fully how we habitually travel with our authoring, shaping, accompanying God. Are we travelling with God or towards God? Are we caught in a paradoxical flight from the God for whom we yearn as in the poet Francis Thompson’s desperate drama of loving pursuit The Hound of Heaven, in which a fleeing soul tries vainly to outpace God’s unhurried grace? Or are we perhaps only recently, and falteringly, recognising our companion on the way, as contemporary Emmaus road travellers, glimpsing God in burning hearts and broken bread? We may be called by the beckoning God of the poet R. S. Thomas, who catches us in His compassionate slipstream, drawing us on, across spaces pregnant with His receding presence, and knowing ourselves and our creator more in the travelling.
Or perhaps we are modern day Canterbury Pilgrims, winding our way through the ordinariness of the world, shaped by life’s demands in all their tragedy and hilarity, but only travelling because of a holy path which guides our feet and gives purpose to our journey. Whatever our mode of journeying, the stops along the way and the punctuations of waiting and accepting, to be called along the Advent journey is to be shaped and to be challenged. It is to be drawn on in love and to know ourselves beloved by the one who is our North Star.
Week four: Birthing
Birthing presents us with a paradox as Advent draws towards Christmas. It is such an active word, conjuring up the creative energy, agency and force of one nurturing new life and giving birth. It conjures up for us the courage needed to bring to birth new human life shaped, borne and birthed by the body of another. Or artistic creativity which, though born in clay, paint, stone or words, still seems to be cast from the cells of its maker. We may think of scientific discovery and breakthrough, a labour of skill and insight, and bringing innovation – bringing hope. All tell us something about the labour of giving birth.
And we do labour as we give birth, whether to new stages of our lives, new ideas or new generations. Giving birth is a work which includes struggle and sweat, rupture and repair as the new emerges. But so too does it include surrender, because the very act of bringing new life into the world, also involves that moment when the balance tips and the one called to give birth surrenders to the energy of new life taking over and completing the work. That moment when a part of us whispers too loudly to be stilled; when ideas form so brightly and fully that they spill over; when the body can no longer hold in the infant who must move into the world.
And here is some of the paradox of this birthing. Emerging from waiting and accepting; carried in journeying which cannot be backtracked, the birthing of Advent is an active surrender to the new life of God growing within us. Advent invites us into the labour of open-hearted commitment to nurturing life in Christ and becoming vulnerable to the life-giving bruise of God’s loving challenge. But it finally requires us to grasp that, even as we do the work of nurturing God, it is God who is the shaper, creator and nurturer; the one who loves us into life; the originator of all birth and birthing.
Any number of Advent images invite us into this paradox of human labour and divine birth. One such image is Tissot’s painting of Mary with the infant Jesus. It shows us a glorious moment of wonder, love and an almost fearful veneration. Mary, swathed, bowed and adoring, looks at the new life as it lies uncontained before her, coursing through her (and our) world. There has been labour; there has been an opening of heart and body, and now in the vulnerability of this utterly dependent, utterly life-changing infant, there is new nurturing to be done, and a new life which will shape hers.
As Advent moves towards Christmas, may we ask ourselves about this time of birthing, and what is being called forth from us. And may we ask ourselves how we will meet the God who shapes us and calls us to surrender to new life.
The Revd Dr Carys Walsh is a priest in the Diocese of Peterborough, and formerly taught Christian Spirituality at St Mellitus College, the training college for Anglican clergy. She is the author of Frequencies of God: Walking Through Advent with R S Thomas, which is available to buy here.