Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

by
01 December 2017

Malcolm Guite takes the college on an early journey through Advent

THE curse of the White Witch on hapless Narnia was that it should be “always winter and never Christmas”. The peculiarity of the Cambridge Michaelmas term is that it should be “always Michaelmas and never Advent, let alone Christmas”.

For such is the timing of things that our final service of term, our Advent Carol Service, falls before Advent itself has even begun. Yet the college must somehow keep Christmas, and I don’t want my students to follow the way of the world in losing sight of Advent altogether.

So I have decided that, if Aslan could lift the witch’s spell and breathe a midwinter spring into Narnia, strangely heralded by Father Christmas, then perhaps a college chaplain might also fold and refold Doctor Who’s “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff”, and bring in the season, even out of season.

Our portal for such time travel in Girton chapel is not the TARDIS, but, rather, the Advent ring. Over the course of an hour, I take the college on a journey through the Sundays of Advent, each with its distinct theme, its reading, music, and poetry, and I light the Advent candles one by one as we go, until, poised before the central candle, I bring us to the brink of what the physicists happily call “the event-horizon”.

Then, amid a hushed and darkened chapel, shimmering with candles, we imagine ourselves at midnight mass, and hear the Mistress read St John’s prologue, that mysterious prose-poem wherein the beginning and the end of all things is made richly available, both in and out of time, for all of us here in the middle.

“Can I get there by candlelight?” Perhaps candlelight is itself the best way to make this journey — not to Babylon, but back from the Babel of all our seasonal crush and pressure, back to Bethlehem, and the silent stars.

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For there is always mystery and beauty in the lighting of a candle: the quickened little wick suddenly resplendent in light that must always be received from another. Coleridge, at his lowest ebb, bedridden after a long illness, in 1801, comparing himself to the “Cold Snuff on the circular Rim of a Brass Candle-stick”, could still recall how he, like the candle, “was once cloathed and mitred with flame”, and even the memory of that light began to rekindle him.

I feel the same way in this season, glad to light whatever candles I can rather than simply curse the darkness. So, though I won’t breathe a word of it out of season, beyond the confines of the college, or contribute in any way to the crass commercialism of ever-earlier Christmases; though I will keep Advent as a blessed, low, subfusc season of expectation — keep it, as Betjeman rightly said, as “waiting Advent”; though there will be no decorations in our house till Christmas Eve; nevertheless, I will be glad to anticipate the Great Light a little in Girton

 

. . . while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel. . .

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