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Thoughts at no ordinary time

31 October 2014

Peter McGeary looks at making Advent better than just busy


The Lord is with thee: the cover image of stained glass of Our Lady of Walsingham, and the gardens beside the Anglican Shrine at Little Walsingham, from A Walsingham Rosary by Philip and Anne Gray, a new and enlarged edition of a guide first published in 2000. It offers advice on starting to pray the rosary, and how regular prayer with it might be varied, and envisages the praying of the 20 mysteries at different locations around the pilgrimage village (Canterbury Press, £9.99 (£9); 978-1-84825-630-9)

The Lord is with thee: the cover image of stained glass of Our Lady of Walsingham, and the gardens beside the Anglican Shrine at Little Walsingham, ...

Walking Backwards to Christmas
Stephen Cottrell
SPCK £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT861 )

The Canterbury Preacher's Companion 2015: Sermons for Sundays, holy days, festivals and special occasions, Year B
Michael Counsell
Canterbury Press £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10 (Use code CT861 )

Reflections for Daily Prayer: Advent 2014 to Eve of Advent 2015
Various contributors
Church House Publishing £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT861 )

Cover to Cover Advent: Making room for Jesus
Liz Babbs
CWR £4.99
Church Times Bookshop £4.50  (Use code CT861 )

Jesus: The voice that makes us turn
David Wilbourne
York Courses £3.99 (booklet)
Church Times Bookshop £3.60 (Use code CT861 )
(Course pack, including booklet, CD, and transcript, is available from www.yorkcourses.co.uk; phone 01904 466516)

Scots Worship: Advent, Christmas and Epiphany
David D. Ogston
Saint Andrew Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT861 )

Longing, Waiting, Believing: Reflections for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany
Rodney Holder
BRF £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT861 )

Love Life Live Advent: Make room for the manger
Paula Gooder and Peter Babington
Church House Publishing £1.50
Church Times Bookshop £1.35 (Use code CT861 )

A Chequered Legacy: The good the bad and the ugly: An Advent course. Book 1: The Good
Nick Fawcett
KM Publishing £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10 (Use code CT861 )

A Long Way Off: A daily walk from Advent to Christmas
Jeremy Brooks
KM Publishing £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

Tales from the Jesse Tree: 25 Bible stories to watch, tell and explore
Amy Robinson
KM Publishing £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT861 )

Journeying with John: Hearing the voice of John's Gospel in Years A, B and C
James Woodward, Paula Gooder and Mark Pryce
SPCK £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90 (Use code CT861 )

IN HIS strange and extraordinary "History of the Holy Spirit in the Church", The Descent of the Dove, Charles Williams suggests that one of the first great problems faced by the Church was that of time: the Lord had promised to return, but had not done so. Memories were failing; so Gospels and letters had to be written so that the story could be passed on. More and more people were drawn to the story; so structures and order had to be brought in to serve them.

Part of that order was the creation of what we now know as the Christian Year. Beginning with the solemn Paschal vigil, the various events of the life of Christ and the mysteries of the Christian faith came to be distributed throughout the year, in order to inform and shape the lives of the faithful. Periods that were not related to the birth or the resurrection of Christ were used to give a rich diet of scriptural material to give the Christian some kind of spiritual vocabulary. These periods are now called Ordinary Time, a misleading mistranslation of the Latin tempus per annum, but one that is now sadly adopted by the Church of England in Common Worship (and still, strangely, used by the Roman Catholic Church).

After some considerable time, the beginning of the year came to settle somewhat before 1 January, with a short period of preparation, called Advent, for the feast of the birth of the Lord. This all-too-brief season was marked for some time traditionally by meditation on the "four last things" (heaven, hell, death, and judgement), which resonated well with early patristic texts that dwell on the different senses of the coming of Christ: his coming as a baby in Bethlehem, his future coming to judge the world, and his daily coming through the Holy Spirit.

Advent is a season rich in characters and themes: there is too much to get through in four weeks or less. The job of taking the season seriously is made even harder by the ludicrous feeding frenzy that is the pre-Christmas rush: how will we have time to do the season justice, especially when we have so much to do, so many carol services that seem to jump the liturgical gun? How will we remember Christmas after Christmas? I suppose that all the books under review here attempt, in one way or another, to address these questions.

I don't know whether the Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell, reads the novels of Martin Amis, but he has adopted one or two of the novelist's tricks in his book, Walking Backwards to Christmas. Cottrell tells its story backwards, starting at Candlemas and going back to Moses and the burning bush. Focus is on individuals: each chapter is a meditation, an imagined internal monologue that tries to articulate the individual's thoughts and feeling. In this way, a picture is slowly built up of the history of salvation. This is very good material for individual reflection.

The Canterbury Preacher's Companion is becoming an indispensable volume. Sermon notes for all the Sundays and main feasts and holy days of the year are accompanied by suggestions for hymns. This is a very practical and useful book for any preacher. Notes like this can never replace the work and prayer that are necessary for an authentic exposition of the scriptures, but they can certainly help a great deal.

Reflections for Daily Prayer is becoming another annual fixture, and a very good one, too. This is primarily intended for use with the daily Office according to Common Worship. Each day contains reflections based on the lessons appointed for morning prayer, written by a very impressive selection of contemporary Anglican writers. Primarily intended for the clergy and any others who are bound to say the Office, this book will help enrich their daily obligation. For those thinking of starting, a short order for morning prayer is helpfully printed on the inside cover.

Making Room for Jesus, by contrast, focuses on the season of Advent, with a series of six sessions (including pre- and post-Advent) which explores specific themes. The main scriptural starting-points are Jesus's encounters with others, and their reactions to him. Bible passages are printed in full to promote ease of use, and there are many prayers and points for reflection here - maybe too many; so the reader may have to be selective.

The York Courses will need no introduction to many readers, and nor will my enthusiasm for them. They really do offer some of the best material for group use, attractively presented, ecumenical, and not tied to a particular season. Jesus: The voice that makes us turn carries on the high standard. Bishop David Wilbourne leads four sessions that swirl around themes of voices crying out, and of calling and being called, which are central to, but not restricted to, Advent. With an accompanying CD to give variety of input, this is just the thing for that person brave enough to put on an Advent course, but pressed for time in preparing material: I tend to find that even just playing the material on the CD can provoke a really good discussion.

Moving further northwards, Scots Worship is the work of the late David Ogston, a much loved broadcaster and minister who died in 2008 as he was putting this book together. The result, edited and finished by a friend, is a marvellous collection of addresses, poems, prayers, and reflections intended for the period from Advent Sunday to Epiphany. This is a very good collection of material by a fine preacher and liturgist, and will be a good resource for those who lead worship.

In many ways, Longing, Waiting, Believing is the most traditional of the books on offer here, at least in format. Also covering the seasons from Advent to Epiphany, Rodney Holder offers a series of daily Bible readings and reflections to enrich the reader's understanding of the period. Again, the Bible passages are printed in full. This would be a good volume for individual use (although there is group material included); in the very best sense, it reminds us of the basics - the things we all too easily forget, in other words.

For those with even less time to spare before Christmas (and/or those with small children), Love Life Live Advent suggests one thing to do or think per day of Advent. There is an impressive variety of suggestions here, especially given the brevity of the format. It would be very useful for those who need to carve out a couple of minutes' reflection a day in the madness that is December.

In A Chequered Legacy, Nick Fawcett uses Advent as a time to reflect on the history of the Church, and those times when it has been seen to act for good. The "voices crying in the wilderness" which he selects - William Wilberforce, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela - are used as springboards to reflect on biblical texts and church teaching. The book is intended to be used in conjunction with a second volume (for Lent), which reflects on those times that should the Church cause for repentance rather than thanksgiving.

A Long Way Off offers daily reflections for Advent, mainly based on St Luke's Gospel, with a flavouring of the poet R. S. Thomas. This is another "traditional" format, but none the worse for it.

Tales From the Jesse Tree will be ideal for those working with children. In the medieval world, the tree of Jesse was a very common image in stained glass, and was used to illustrate the "genealogy" of Christ, from the creation to the incarnation. Amy Robinson uses this idea to select 25 Bible stories, with material to read or act out, and suggestions for things to do to illustrate the story. Intended for the days before Christmas, this material would be useful all year round: in church or school, the chapters can be used in any order or number: a very useful resource.

Finally, something for adults. The authors of Journeying with John have already made their mark with substantial offerings on the Synoptic Gospels, providing very useful material for the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary, where either Matthew, Mark, or Luke are read liturgically in a relatively systematic way. Now they turn their attention to the Fourth Gospel, texts of which pop up in all three years.

This is not a detailed commentary on the text, but rather an examination of the various parts of the Church Year, and how and why St John's Gospel is used in each season. This examination of the interplay between the biblical text and the season in which it is declaimed is hugely enlightening to both. This is much recommended, especially for preachers and worship leaders.

Which of these books is the "right" one? That is the wrong question, of course. Each volume does different things for different periods of ecclesiastical time; so the correct one to use really depends on what the reader wants. Some will give a succinct and compact amount of spiritual and intellectual food for a short period. Others set Advent in the wider context of the entire liturgical year. Clergy and group leaders will have to use their intelligence and pastoral discernment to judge what is appropriate for their context.

Whatever is chosen, the hope is that it will help to remind Christians that for us, since the resurrection of Christ, there can be no such thing as "ordinary" time.

The Revd Peter McGeary is Vicar of St Mary's, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.


COMMENTARY by William Barclay is arranged by Linda Foster for the Sunday "principal service" inCommon Worship, in Barclay on the Lectionary: Mark: Year B  (Saint Andrew Press, £16.99(CT Bookshop special price £13.59); 978-978-0-86153-797-6).

Mother Teresa on Advent and Christmas  by John Scally selects seasonal reflections (Columba Press, £8.50 (£7.65); 978-1-78218-195-8).

Of US origin: John Piper, chancellor of a Baptist seminary, writes The Dawning of Indestructible Joy: Daily readings for Advent (IVP, £4.99 (£4.50); 978-1-78359-178-7); and Sarah Arthur chooses readings from authors and poets in Light Upon Light: A literary guide to prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany  (Paraclete Press, £11.99(£10.80); 978-16126-1419-9).

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