To break the cold, silent darkness

by
27 October 2017

David Wilbourne on special offerings for Advent reading

BELOW is my take on a firework display of 20 books and courses published specially for Advent 2017.

Simon Stanley brilliantly explores the whole business of time, waiting, and rushing with Lucy Winkett in York Courses’ So What Are We Waiting For? The course booklet is a must-read before engaging with the CD, which forms the icing on the booklet’s very substantial cake.

Heady ingredients include Tol­stoy’s “snare of preparation” (be­­­cause plans never survive contact with the enemy) and Blake’s “mind-forged manacles” of past anxieties. Winkett emphasises how W. H. Vanstone’s classic The Stature of Waiting championed the Christ who chooses to wait, thereby incarnating God in the victim rather than victor. We are encouraged to wait on others, daring to ask them, as Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Though intensely busy, Winkett realises that there is good haste and bad haste, the latter greedily devouring your time, causing a bloated life. She challenges any Advent group to go with good haste and seek such a perfect day that we would be con­­tent for Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis to be our even’s song.

The ancient-of-days Michael and Rosemary Green’s In Touch with God marks the prayerfulness of 25 biblical figures from Abraham to Christ’s birth. Biblical texts fill nearly half the book, while the remaining 72 pages are devoted to traditional but accessible comment­ary, topped by a thought and prayer for the day.

While even St Matthew’s patri­archal genealogy managed to slip in five women, disappointingly only two of the Greens’ 25 characters are female: Hannah and Mary. Even then, Michael Green has to reassure us that the Blessed Virgin gave no countenance to being immaculately conceived, sinless, or co-redemptrix. Abraham (”not just any old shep­herd”), Jacob, Moses, and Elijah inevitably loom. My namesake, David, hogs six chapters, trilling Psalms 2, 22, 24, 51 and 69, while “not understanding fully what he was writing”.

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Other characters have a distinct scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel feel, such as Nehemiah and Ezra, highly praised by the Greens for building walls and resisting the allure of foreign women: here endeth the Gospel according to Brexit.

Advent for Everyone: A journey with the Apostles draws from Tom Wright’s For Everyone series on the New Testament Epistles and Revela­tion. His imagery is typically bold: Paul is a mother duck, desperately hoping that his fledgling Mediterranean ducklings will inherit his maternal/eternal instincts before they sink; we pretend to be married to God while having a secret affair with the world; praying Christians stand with one foot in the place of trouble, sickness, and sin, and the other foot in the place of healing, forgiveness, and hope; Jesus is the reality that makes Alexander, Augustus, and all emperors mere caricatures.

The book contains 28 daily Advent reflections, beginning on Advent Sunday. This year, however, Advent lasts only 21 days, as the Fourth Sunday is immediately followed by Christmas Day. So, unfortunately, Wright’s reflections for 25 Decem­ber and the subseq­uent five feast days are still stuck in penitential Advent: “Has your experience of the Christian life ever resembled Paul’s trials?” he “cheerily” asks on Christ­mas Day, after a depressing reflec­­tion on Peter’s betrayal and Judas’s suicide.

In Christmas Through the Key­hole, Derek Tidball decries the sentimentality and inaccuracy of conventional Christmas carols and, instead, presents a detailed reflec­tion on the original Christmas songs, namely Luke’s Magnificat, the Benedictus, the Angels’ Gloria, and the Nunc Dimittis.

His daily notes run from Advent Sunday, although by the New Year, he clunkily departs from Luke’s Canticles, reflecting on how the Johannine Prologue and the Epistles to the Colossians and Hebrews take the longer view on Luke’s nativity. I found the book more solid than in­­­spiring, though seasoned with some nicely whimsical turns of phrase, such as “angel armies, used to sing­­ing songs of military victories, are now found cooing over a baby’s cot.”

In A Child is Born, Abby Guin­ness wears her deep knowledge of Hebrew and Greek lightly, giving us 31 arresting Bible studies. Each two-page study includes prayers, a recommended Bible reading, and hermeneutic. For 28 days, Guinness gets personal, imagining a chara­­cter’s punchy take on that day’s biblical passage, starring Simeon, Anna, the Chief Priest, Gabriel, Zechariah, Elizabeth (her baby “turns a full cartwheel” in her womb when Mary greets her), the Shep­­herds, Mary, Joseph, John the Evangelist, John the Baptist, Herod, the Magi, and Paul.

Guinness, pregnant while writing this book, gives her take on expectation and birth, but her most poignant character is Rachel of Bethlehem, racked with grief over her toddler’s massacre.

My favourite quotes? Joseph: “I wouldn’t have believed the dream was anything more than bad cheese, except . . .”. Paul: “Jesus was willing to slum it.” Anna: “Today, I got gobby!” Mary: “I wanted to box Jesus about the ears except I couldn’t stop kissing him!” A truly wondrous book brings to birth a truly won­drous child.

“Advent is the big story of lots of small stories of God, working through unworthiness, through un­­­ex­­pected people, places and situa­­tions,” Magdalen Smith concludes in her Unearthly Beauty. She skillfully puts flesh on familiar and less familiar saints from the Advent and Christ­mas season, all encouraging us to see “gold in the straw, myrrh in the dung”.

Smith observes how encountering Miss Shepherd made Alan Bennett realise that he was not as kind-hearted as he thought; similarly, Unearthly Beauty brought my min­­istry and witness up short, and yet was simultaneously converting and transforming. Smith, una­shamed of her own tenderness, richly draws on her family experi­ence and work as a priest and dio­­cesan director of ordinands. Her hilarious description of hosting her 15-year-old daughter’s wild birthday party prompts empathy with the Bethlehem innkeeper in his grudg­ing hos­­pit­ality at the worst of times, having to improvise a labour suite where there was “no gas and air, no toast and tea after the birth”.

Smith pulls no punches in setting her call in Truro Cathedral, where her father was Canon Chancellor, in the midst of “the tensions and toxicity that cathedral ministry often brings”. Though her English teacher was dismissive of her lit­erary skill, Smith’s language is superb: God presses Zechariah’s mute button, Mary is the astonished prophet, and Jesus arrives through ordinary flesh and fragrant incar­­nation, as we are encouraged to “obey the sadness” and discover the connected self in a connected world.

 

LAST century, I whetted our young daughters’ appetite for R. S. Thomas, introducing them to arresting phrases such as “The meaning is in the waiting,” and “Such a fast God, always before us and leaving as we arrive.” I found myself doing the same exercise with Ian Adams’s Some Small Heaven, which is preg­nant with poignant phrases such as “Allow the holy; look for the wave that is joy; let the song; you are not so much the writer, as the one being written on; when the story finds you, allow yourself to find your place within it; give darkness space to be dark.”

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Writing in real time over the Christmas season, he gives a reflec­­tion in blank verse on each line from Luke’s four canticles, with a side­ways glance at the saints and festivals kept from Advent to Epiph­any, ending with a prayer-word for the day. Deeply desiring enlighten­ment within and without, Adams accompanies his striking reflections with modern-day icons: his own photos of the Cornish and Devon coast, racked by the storms and dark­­ness of winter, yearning for light. A deeply affecting book.

As is Responding to the Light, a collection of Michael Mayne’s pre­­viously unpublished West­­min­­ster Abbey homilies marking how the Christmas season can address those who are homesick for God. Mayne, “choosing my words with the greatest care and speaking from my own centre”, touches on the audacity, frustration, and privilege of preaching. He quotes Flaubert: “Human language is like a kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity.”

These brief, humane, and incisive homilies, peppered with dry humour, unfold the paradox of a Christ-like God who stoops to heal his wounded creatures and wash their feet: “Ultim­­­­ate Mystery is born with a skull you could crush one-handed.” In his foreword, Mark Oakley, ob­­serving that Mayne preached from his scars rather than his wounds, catches a man who has looked ter­rible darkness in the face, but been redeemed by tremen­dous Light:

 

One simple woman and her child
Revealed such glory
That the cold, silent darkness
Was for ever broken.
For God has spoken.

 

“Newness is on its way!” is Walter Brueggeman’s taut and punchy Advent message, driving Celebrating Abundance’s daily reflections from Advent Sunday to Christmas Day. “Poetry opens the world beyond reason. . . Mary did poetry when she found she was pregnant!” he declares, encouraging us to depart from logic and memo and syllogism and host the poem.

Brueggemann urges that, rather than play it safe, we sing a new song to a world of advertising and ideo­logy and endless phoniness. Christ­mas, especially for those whose lives are scarred and hurt in debilitating ways, is about power shifting from the Empire to the baby — “Dare to bet on the baby!” is a repeated catchphrase. And the psyche of Trump’s American Empire, where the big ones always eat the little ones, draws Brueggemann’s fierce censure.

I just loved his every disturbing Corbynesque word, including prayers for the 12 days of Christmas, seeking the courage to be foolish while the world presses us to be smart. If every Christian took to heart this wonderful book, the Kingdom would dawn by Epiphany.

Sheila Jacobs’s To Live Again juxta­poses a classic doctrine of fall and restoration with the film It’s a Wonderful Life, where kind-hearted but frustrated George (played by James Stewart) contemplates suicide because his social-housing business is threatened with ruin. A trainee angel saves the day, convincing George that he is deeply loved and that the world would be a bleaker place without him.

Great film; shame about the book! Jacobs is undoubtedly well-intentioned, rightly seeing giving birth to Jesus in our own lives as our only hope and joy. But along the way she pedals some quite nasty and narrow views about theodicy, Chris­tian marriage, satanic influ­ence, suicide, anxiety, and depres­sion which simply grate with her heart­­felt picture of the ever-patient
Good Shepherd, seeking our home­coming.

At first, I was baffled both by what God With Us was trying to say, and to whom it was trying to say it, almost as if the marketing guru Siobhan Sharpe had been seconded from W1A to rebrand the Church of England. But, on second and third reading, I realised that John Kiddle was adroitly squeezing some amaz­ingly deep things about prayer, silence, letting go, seeking light in terrible darkness, love, compassion, and conversion into 30 hyperactive pages. As the legendary Siobhan might enthuse, “We’re nailing jelly to the hothouse wall!”

 

NO FEWER than 60 priests and poets, bishops and deans, media hacks and theologians keep us company in Reflections for Sundays. Each has three or four turns at a one-page reflection on every Sunday eucharistic reading, including both the sequential and thematic Old Testament readings in Ordinary Time. Though clearly piqued that Mark has to share Year B with John, Paula Gooder expertly sketches both Gospels.

Reflections will be a tremendous help for hard-pressed priests and Readers, both in preparation for preaching as well as in selecting readings to include in their lection­ary. Also the laity, in preparing for the Sunday readings (!), would benefit from reading these stimulat­ing texts.

I was most tickled by Sarah Rowland Jones, Dean-designate of St Davids, with her Advent plea to change the acronym WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) to WWJBD (What Would John the Baptist Do?). She argues that too many people exalt themselves as quasi-Christs, when they need to take on the subordinate role of preparing the way for the Greater One. Goodness, WWJBD wristbands: that’s a few Christmas presents sorted!

In Reflections for Daily Prayer, 20 scholars from various walks of life provide a daily reflection on one of the set readings for weekday Morn­ing Prayer throughout the year. For Bishop Rachel Treweek, Morning Prayer’s readings encour­age and provoke connections, enabling her to take a hard look in life’s mirror. Mark Oakley chillingly observes that “in the West we are spending money we don’t have on things we don’t want in order to impress people we don’t like.”

Martyn Percy, tellingly admitting to a penchant for dystopias, quotes C. S. Lewis: “God whispers in our pleasure, shouts in our pain.” John Pritchard reassuringly quotes John Macmurray: “Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.” Malcolm Guite brings a shiver with his most striking sonnets:

 

But every Herod dies and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

 

These excellent reflections enable us to glimpse that Lamb in our life mirror’s bevel. A mini-version, Reflections for Advent, extracts daily reflections from the Monday before Advent until Christmas Eve, and Margaret Whipp in her introduction quotes Teilard de Chardin: “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.”

In her own The Grace of Waiting, Whipp rails against the wrong kind of patience: lazy acquiescence with injustice; resignation in the face of weakness; passivity that ducks loving engagement; apathy and boredom, displacement and collusion — all masquerading as a Christian virtue.

Drawing on case studies of hospital patients, she explores six arenas where waiting is positively harnessed: the wilderness; the wine-press (symbolising the sheer pres­sure of existence); the night-watch; winter; the womb; and the slow, gracious work of God. Each chapter’s theme is hammered home with a detailed spiritual or physical exercise. Her beautiful text abounds in quotations, including: “It is difficult and slow to become new” (John O’Donohue); “Only love is watchful” (Chiara Lubich); “You simply have to be there where the light can get at you” (Rowan Wil­liams); and “The slowness of the good” (Kierkegaard).

The Grace of Waiting struck me as Vanstone’s love-child: undoubted familial features of The Stature of Waiting, combined with its own distinct spiritual and pragmatic emphasis. As someone who models himself on the urgency of the 1981 epic Das Boot, it gave me massive cause to pause.

 

Martin Shannon’s Benedictine mind-set is positively soaked in the Psalter, hailed by Calvin as “an anatomy of all parts of the soul”. From Advent Sunday until Epi­phany, My Soul Waits reflects daily on a chosen Psalm, ending with a beautifully crafted prayer and a quote from a church Father. A skilled Hebraist, Shannon expresses substantial scholarship with the lightest, most inclusive of touches, and a Psalm-like lyrical quality.

His book teems with fascinating facts: nine Psalms are liturgical enigma machines, acrostics on the 22 Hebrew letters; the Psalms’ neglected Hebrew inscriptions actually contextualise them, such as Psalm 51 expressing David’s deep penitence after his dalliance with Bathsheba; Benedict prescribed Psalm 67 to be sung each shining dawn, and the soothing strains of Psalm 91 to put the church to bed.

Shannon subtly casts many Psalms as spine-tingling precursors to Christ: Psalm 8 makes “an intimate and wondrous connection between God’s uncontainable glory and the blubbering of a newborn babe”. Every year, as their director, I took ordinands for a retreat at the Benedictine Ampleforth Abbey: the monks’ beautiful plainsong Psalms haunted us for months afterwards. So will My Soul Waits.

In Your Light Gives Us Hope, the Benedictine Anselm Grün plays the gnomic all-pervading monk who annoyingly tries to fix you. His daily Advent meditations and spiritual practices, beautifully translated from the original German, are prefaced by chapters interpreting each Sunday’s Gospel, recom­­mended to be read out at the dinner table(!).

Driven by Jungian psychology, Grün prescribes ingesting the rich symbols of Advent and Christmas to release the soul’s healing powers. Therefore, we are bidden to awake to what is truly real; to trust in Christ’s Light banishing our dark­­ness; to seek (à la the Immacu­late Conception) our own im­­maculate centre where Christ dwells; to use every bath to let the Baptist’s God cleanse us; to see each good deed as a strand of hay to warm Christ’s manger; to bow in obeisance before family members as Christ-bearers; to nourish the “divine child” within and banish our “wounded child”.

Hm. Indulging in psychoanalysis in a monastery, with expert spiritual counsel available should things go array, is one thing. Outside those safe confines, you could land your­self in real trouble. Better to stick with Wittgenstein: “Let the ragged stay ragged!”

In What Are We Waiting For?, William Peterson bewails how both Church and world have lost their sense of Advent, turning a peniten­­tial season into a premature Na­­tivity. He boldly explores an alter­­native Advent liturgy in which Christ is the standard who regulates what is normative, with the person not the book, the life not the text, as decisive. Peterson fears that an Advent confined to December is simply too prone to the gravita­tional pull of Christmas, and too truncated to nurture a collaborative “You want God’s intervention, while God wants your colla­bora­tion!”

Instead, he favours seven Sundays in Advent, as in the Ambrosian rite, each devoted to one of the seven Messianic titles marked by the Advent “O” antiphons. He has skilfully devised a seasonal eu­­char­istic liturgy, sensitively addressing objections to the new calendar, such as the integration of All Saints and Christ the King Sunday.

Sadly, Peterson’s inevitably Amer­ican context doesn’t address combining his Adonai Sunday with Remembrance Sunday, perversely the UK’s foremost day of obligation; I just pray that this won’t scupper this ingenious, highly imaginative, and meticulously researched pro­posal.

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CHRIS THORPE’s Dreamers and Stargazers will enable a radical Advent and a truly incarnational Christmas. A veritable liturgical treasure-trove, it includes hymnody, readings, reflection, and interces­sion, provocatively addressing an unimaginable God and unexpected God.

As an eco-friendly alternative to an albeit theologically robust order for lighting the Advent Crown, Thorpe offers services of greening, intriguingly including cedar, holly, ivy, spruce, and mistletoe. Advent concludes with a pilgrimage of hoping, waiting, fearing, and pre­­paring, as well a café-style service, “Locusts and Wild Honey”, promoting the prophetic courage to live out Matthew 25.35-37.

The off-putting soteriology in the outdated traditional Nine Lessons and Carols receives a welcome face-lift, championing a God who de­­lights in his creation and empties himself; a tableau crib service cul­­minates in the reading of “To a Grandchild”, John V. Taylor’s moving poem;Darkness in the Christmas Season” looks tragedy squarely in the face; New Year and Epiphany services mark our diversity, God’s abundance, and our call to preach the gospel with our lives.

The whole collection ends with a nicely paced missiological Candle­mas service, marking comfort and challenge in our darkness.

Leigh Hatts’s Keeping Advent and Christmas is a thrilling encyclo­paedia of ancient and modern practices from the Feast of Christ the King until Candlemas. Ten things I never knew:

  • Five popes were previously boy bishops and Erasmus wrote a sermon for St Paul’s Cathedral’s boy bishop.
  • The seven Advent Antiphons (perversely eight in Salisbury Cathedral) were first recorded in Anglo-Saxon England, as was the doctrine of the immaculate conception.
  • Plygain replaced banned midnight masses in 16th-century Wales, and featured 60 haunting Welsh carols, mostly more than 20 verses, un­­doub­­tedly making for a very long night.
  • The body count of innocents mas­­sacred in Bethlehem was between seven and 25.
  • The foundation that became Southwark Cathedral dedicated its sanatorium to the martyred Thomas Becket, hence St Thomas’ Hospital.
  • Stockholm marks every New’s Year’s Eve with a celebrity’s reading of Tennyson’s In Memoriam.
  • The Pope consecrates two lambs on St Agnes’s Day, whose wool is used to produce the pallia for that year’s new archbishops.
  • There was an Enid Blyton Advent Calendar in 1953.

Hats off to Hatts, who not just records all this fascinating stuff, but also sets out the theology behind such riches, driving me to improve my impoverished liturgical practice.

Happy Advent!

 

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is a former Assistant Bishop of Llandaff.

 

In Touch with God: Advent meditations on biblical prayers

Michael Green and Rosemary Green

SPCK £7.99

(978-0-281-07812-7)

Church Times Bookshop £7.20

 

So What Are You Waiting For?

Lucy Winkett

York Courses £3.99 (booklet)

Church Times Bookshop £3.60

(978-1-90910-717-5)

(Course pack, including booklet, CD, and transcript is available from www.yorkcourses.co.uk; phone 01904 466516)

 

Advent for Everyone: A journey with the Apostles

Tom Wright

SPCK £8.99

(978-0-281-07838-7)

Church Times Bookshop £8.10

 

Christmas Through the Keyhole: Luke’s glimpses of Advent

Derek Tidball

BRF £6.99

(978-0-85746-520-7)

Church Times Bookshop £6.30

 

A Child is Born

Abby Guinness

CWR £5.99

(978-1-78259-736-0)

Church Times Bookshop £5.40

 

Unearthly Beauty: Through Advent with the saints

Magdalen Smith

SPCK £8.99

(978-0-281-07718-2)

Church Times Bookshop £8.10

 

Some Small Heaven: Seeking light in winter: Advent, Christmas & Epiphany

Ian Adams

Canterbury Press £8.99

(978-1-84825-993-5)

Church Times Bookshop £8.10

 

Responding to the Light: Reflections on Advent, Christmas and Epiphany

Michael Mayne

Canterbury Press £12.99

(978-1-84825-980-5)

Church Times Bookshop £11.70

 

Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent

Walter Brueggemann

Westminster John Knox £8.99

(978-0-6642-6227-3)

Church Times Bookshop £8.10

 

To Live Again: An Advent journey using the Christmas classic: “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Sheila Jacobs

DLT £6.99

(978-0-232-53329-3)

Church Times Bookshop £6.30

 

God With Us

John Kiddle

Church House Publishing £1.50

(978-1-78140-066-1)

Church Times Bookshop £1.35

 

Reflections for Sundays, Year B

Jeff Astley, Rosalind Brown, and others

Church House Publishing £14.99

(978-1-78140-030-2)

Church Times Bookshop £13.50

 

Reflections for Daily Prayer: Advent 2017 to eve of Advent 2018 (10th anniversary edition)

Christopher Cocksworth, Gillian Cooper, and others

Church House Publishing £16.99

(978-1-78140-019-7)

Church Times Bookshop £15.30

 

Reflections for Advent

Christopher Cocksworth, Paula Gooder, and Malcolm Guite

Church House Publishing £2.99

(978-1-78140-024-1)

Church Times Bookshop £2.70

 

The Grace of Waiting: Learning patience and embracing its gifts

Margaret Whipp

Canterbury Press £10.99

(978-1-84825-977-5)

Church Times Bookshop £9.90

 

My Soul Waits: Praying with the Psalms through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany

Martin Shannon

Paraclete Press £11.99

(978-1-61261-970-5)

Church Times Bookshop £10.80

 

Your Light Gives Us Hope: 24 daily practices for Advent

Anselm Grün

Paraclete Press £12.99

(978-1-61261-904-0)

Church Times Bookshop £11.70

 

What Are We Waiting For? Re-imagining Advent for time to come

William H. Petersen

Church Publishing Inc £12.99

(978-0-89869-037-8)

Church Times Bookshop £11.70 

 

Dreamers and Stargazers: Creative liturgies for incarnational worship: Advent to Candlemas

Chris Thorpe

Canterbury Press £12.99

(978-1-84825-971-3)

Church Times Bookshop £11.70

 

Keeping Advent and Christmas: Discovering the rhythms and riches of the Christian seasons

Leigh Hatts

DLT £9.99

(978-0-232-53335-4)

Church Times Bookshop £9

 

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