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Therefore let us keep the feast

02 November 2006


“WELCOME, dear feast of Lent,” wrote George Herbert, always a saint, but now enjoying his own dear feast on 27 February. In some varied books for Advent we similarly find “season” transformed into “feast”.

One of these books “celebrates” the season, another proclaims it “festival”. Two of them are based on daily readings for December; none makes reference to Advent Sundays, to the themes of death, judgement, heaven and hell, nor to the pattern of Sunday liturgical texts.

Eltin Griffin’s collection in this is an exception. There seems, otherwise, little interest in “church” in its manifold meanings — as if the Christian life were not resourced by the fellowship of Grace. But the reader brings both Church and world to the task of reflection, prayer and action.

A Journey through Advent (CWR, £5.99 (£5.40); 1-85345-312-9) by Rob Frost provides a pattern of daily material for individual or group use, suggesting a commitment of 15 minutes a day. The weekly programmes are based on Isaiah, John the Baptist, Mary, Jesus, and finally the reader. A scripture passage is indicated with commentary, suggestions for self-examination and reflection, for prayer and discussion.

The quotes used range from Karl Barth to Thomas à Kempis, St Teresa of Avila to John Stott. There is much to think and pray about. A good purchase at £5.99.

Wendy Bray’s The Art of Waiting (BRF, £6.99 (£6.30 ); 1-84101-296-3) is similarly based on a daily pattern from 1 December to 6 January, for use individually or in groups. A scripture passage, printed out, is followed by a commentary, much illustrated from the sorrow and anxieties of daily life — examination results, surgery, chemotherapy, waiting in a hotel lobby.

As in Rob Frost’s book, little attention is given to the sustaining life of the worshipping community, or the presence to the faithful of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, itself a sign in which we show forth his death until he come. But its stories of waiting for God are quietly provocative or inspiring.

If you want “church”, however, there is plenty of it in Celebrating the Season of Advent (The Columba Press, £7.99 (£7.20); 1-85607-468-4). Edited by Eltin Griffin, it is the fruit of eight years of weekends at a Carmelite conference centre in Ireland.

The aim is to help the Advent season “come alive” in Roman Catholic parishes, but it has much to teach other Christians — from the fourth-century origins of Advent in Spain and France, to setting up a parish committee in September to prepare for a good Advent later.

A friar, Sean Collins, notes that “the central mystery of the Advent season is precisely the experience of time — past, present and future — as filled with the promise of God.” In 13 stimulating essays, varying aspects of the season are looked at, so that the mystery may embrace us more fully.

There is, for example, a useful chapter on “Celebrating Advent with Children”, who of course look forward to Christmas, and thus may learn relatively easily about Advent’s “waiting” theme.

With an attractive cover, A Time of Waiting: Images and insight (The Columba Press, £7.99 (£7.20); 1-85607-471-4) is Anne Thurston’s readable short book based on the metaphor of pregnancy. There are nice pictures — although surely our Lady visited Elizabeth, not vice versa, as the writer clearly under-stands.

The introduction to this occasion, in a painful perspective drawn by reflecting on Hagar and her child Ishmael (Genesis 16), is one of several passages to remember and cherish. Such writing is what you want for a time of reflection and waiting upon God. This book is “warmly recommended” for Advent thought, focused on Mary not as queen, but as young woman or mother.

If you want something a bit more Christmassy, Matthew Byrne’s The Way it Was: The narrative of the birth of Jesus (The Columba Press, £7.99 (£7.20); 1-85607-463-3) combines St Matthew’s Gospel and St Luke’s Gospel into one story. It is full of local colour, historical detail and explanation — the circumcision and naming of Jesus, for example, comes over as a sedate, family occasion like a quiet christening party.

The book’s weakness is that — as the title suggests — it does not raise any awkward questions about Bible narratives; on the other hand, it does warn the reader of the way in which the apocryphal Gospels — books about Jesus which are not canonised by the Church — have coloured Christians’ understanding of the story.

That said, The Way it Was is a book to buy and enjoy. Fr Byrne’s writing is vivid, perceptive about people and their motives, and engaging in its exposition of the purposes of God.

Like all these books, it is useful preparation for Christmas.

Prebendary John Gaskell is a former Vicar of St Alban’s, Holborn, in central London.

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