As the period of Advent begins, time to take some time out in the busyness of the Christmas season. A special quiet morning led by Revd Jane & Richard Frost. More details to come but please contact Richard if you would like to attend.
Ebenezer Scrooge’s comment on Christmas is one I share.
It probably dates back to childhood times when excitement and disappointment both arrived neatly wrapped. I really don’t like Christmas that much: or rather the way the world (and, to an extent, the church) has chosen to represent it. Christmas also exacerbates the more uncomfortable side of feelings that I don’t fit. All the same, I do wish you a very happy and safe Christmas!
But even my dislike of Christmas with all its ‘fripperies’ as John Betjeman put it, was mellowed this last Sunday when carols were sung at our churches once again (outside, of course). There seemed an added poignancy to the fact we hadn’t sung at all for 9 months… it’s been a difficult pregnancy hasn’t it?
As many have said, although some have stated the opposite, Christmas is not cancelled – but perhaps the absence of many of the ‘usual things’ (hard as that is) will enable us to focus more clearly on the Christ in the story.
To focus on the coming of Christ into our own selves.
The Christ who is ever present and never disappointing.
The Christ who calls us to be people who don’t fit.
It’s always good to have one’s prejudices challenged.
This Advent, I’ve been reading Celtic Advent by fellow BRF author, the excellent David Cole. In one of the daily reflections, he writes about the hymn known as ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’. Now, a long time ago, this was sung in a Sunday morning service: all nine verses of it… or was it ten… what a dirge it was and I have never liked it since.
But like many prejudices, our judgment on things once encountered, forever discounted is due to the fact we don’t understand things fully.
Attributed to St Patrick, it’s a prayer of protection and was subsequently translated by Cecil Frances Alexander (she of ‘All things bright and beautiful’ – another victim of prejudice, perhaps…). It is in a tradition of Irish Celtic prayers and can be found again in a version called ‘God’s Aid’ in the Carmina Gadelica and more recently, the song ‘Everything’ by Tim Hughes.
David Cole writes, ‘The verse which sits as the key point of this prayer is the one which states that Christ is within us and in every other surrounding area of us and our life:
Christ be with me, Christ with me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mount of friend and stranger.’
Advent is a time of preparation. Preparing for the first coming of Christ in human form, as a baby at Christmas. Advent is also a time to remember we are preparing for the second coming of Christ: returning in glory to the earth at a time to come.
In Celtic Christian spirituality, there is a third coming that sits in-between the two:
The coming of Christ into our own selves.
‘This is not just a single event,’ Cole writes, ‘a moment of conversion or becoming a Christian. This is a continual activity in every part of our lives on a daily basis.
‘(This) may happen multiple times a day, and in every decision we make… This isn’t about eternal salvation; this is about Christ being intrinsically involved and interwoven in every part and aspect of our everyday lives.’
This Christmas, and in the days before and beyond it, may we all experience the coming of Christ into our own selves.
It’s the same every morning. The dog barks. I sit on the edge of my bed for a moment. Go downstairs and give Daisy her Bonio. Put the kettle on. Let her out. Make a large mug of tea. Let her in. Excited at the new day, Daisy does her party trick of leaping from one sofa to the other.
Then we sit. The only sounds are birds singing, the fridge humming, a clock ticking and the radiators waking up.
‘To you O Lord, my soul in stillness waits,’ as one of the great songs of Advent puts it.
Prayer. Asking for God’s blessing on the day ahead. Prayer for the three people I love most. Prayer for those who work – refuse collectors, shop workers, NHS staff; those facing difficult meetings; those finding fulfilment; those fearful of job loss. Prayer for myself. Sometimes rambling. Sometimes concise. The same words begin. The same words end.
It sets up the day. Whatever the day may bring. A sure foundation.
On this Advent Sunday, as a new Christian year begins, it is perhaps good to reflect on how prayer sets up all we do and all we are and all we are to be.
‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.’ (Psalm 127)
(As an aside, that Psalm also speaks to those who work too much… ‘It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil.’)
The centrality of the prayer is the foundation on which the Lord builds the house which we not only inhabit but also reflects our total being.
And yet, for many of us, it’s difficult to develop and maintain a routine of prayer. (My evening time is much more variable.)
Perhaps that’s because we are trying to be like someone else? We try to be a better Christian based on what other people do – or what we perceive them to be doing. ‘I wish I could pray like you’, ‘I should be reading the Bible every day but…’ How on earth do any of us know how someone else prays!?
If someone else finds extemporary prayer helpful then that’s great but it may not suit you. If someone doesn’t find structured liturgy helpful that doesn’t mean to say that you won’t. Silence or speaking in tongues, how other people pray is of no consequence. There is no one, single, right way to pray.
It’s important to find an approach that reflects both you and your unique relationship with God – and what God wants for you as the person you are.
So back to the edge of the bed. The words of Psalm 25. The same prayer starts every day before anything else…
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust.
May that be a prayer for all of us in the year ahead.