A WITTY curate gave her set speech about Llandaff Cathedral’s stunning nativity triptych: “Gabriel Rossetti probably slept with all the models in this painting, including the men!” Unfortunately, her audience was a class of seven-year-olds from the Cynon Valley. I resolved ever after to give all Rossettis a wide berth, only to be seduced by Rachel Mann’s elegant In the Bleak Midwinter.
Selecting poems from Christina Rossetti’s considerable religious and secular canon, she provides an imaginative and deeply connected exposition. Appreciating that Rossetti’s poems are often dismissed as “Christmas card verses, cloyingly sentimental and banal”, Mann, on balance, deems them “just the right side of melancholia”, worthy of Ezra Pound’s definition of poetry as “the news that remains news”.
Immune from modern-day society’s “excessive and irrational devotion to adventure”, Rossetti sets her face against the world of men, power, and patriarchal authority. Instead, she promulgates a tender God, “almost ready to fall in love with our own desolation”, who suckles at Mary’s breast. “Death is better than birth. You shall return again to earth,” is Rossetti’s quintessence.
Surviving despite some dark places, I tend to be pro-birth, anti-death, and pro-adventure, raging against the dying of the night. So, Rosemary Hector’s A Quickening proved a welcome antidote to Rossetti’s gloom, her wit and lyric genius thrilling every page.
Her refreshing poems on St Matthew and St Luke’s birth narratives — “a fork in time, a hinge moment” — are accompanied by pen-and-ink hand-drawn illustrations, sketched in remote southern Italy, “where the noonday sun is fierce, the nights bitterly cold, and goats roamed freely, overseen by a young herdsman who slept under the trees”. A few select quotations to whet your appetite: the annunciation demanded nothing less than an archangel, because whiskery prophets, prone to halitosis and poor sight, are too terrifying for a girl who has never had attention; if Mary’s right, we’re found; Mary’s tears bathed him free of blood; our cloaks spoke our business — sheep; he came down and had compassion on our worst art, and on our best.
Those who fear that current bishops epitomise our worst art can take tremendous heart from Freedom is Coming, by the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines. It brilliantly juxtaposes Isaiah’s prophecy with the gospel, addressing head-on our present condition, with so many parallels to those Jewish exiles cheered and challenged by Deutero-Isaiah.
Deluding ourselves that we are in the Promised Land, we need instead to forge a Church match-fit for weeping by the waters of Babylon, yearning for return. Though searingly honest about his own dark nights of the soul, Baines is consistently upbeat, championing a God who is permissive rather than prohibitive, with his “Let there be . . .”. He believes you just can’t stop Christians singing, learning theology through what we sing, caricaturing Billy Ocean, “When the going gets tough, the tough write poetry.”
He proves a master of selecting or generating the choice quotation: the people have spoken, but we do not know what they have said; if you don’t have justice you’re left with just ice; there’s no light at the end of the tunnel because the tunnel is not straight; Christmas and Easter’s message is that we are drawn by faith not driven by fear.
The Archbishop of York, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past by endorsing an Advent book, hath in these last days spoken unto us himself. Wake Up to Advent’s homespun biblical reflections encourage waking up, cleaning up, feeding up, and growing up.
Personal glimpses abound. A sickly baby, written off as “a tiny little rat”, Sentamu is loved into existence by his mother, Ruth. Love is repaid as he later keeps a week’s vigil by her death-bed. His granddaughter, named after her, dies, sadly, at birth — the book includes her father’s powerful tribute at little Ruth’s funeral.
Sentamu’s accents sparkle throughout: anyone who has never travelled thinks that mum is the best cook; be a solar panel powered by the S-o-n; if you are not up to it, God is already down to it.
“Spirituality is the art of making connections,” Fr Alan Hilliard observes in his Dipping into Advent, a random peregrination through Ireland, Rwanda, and Australia. His 37 modern-day parables, illustrated with striking photos, are effectively intelligent tweets (#notplatitudes), including wise quotations such as: “We do not live in an era of change but a change of era” (Pope Francis).
Hilliard is a perceptive and honest observer of the bizarre, amusing, and poignant, gently seeking Christ therein. “Help, my son, the architect, is drowning!” a class-conscious mother cries, springing Hilliard to reflect that Christ is more swimming teacher than lifeguard, wanting us to enjoy life’s waters to the full. Faced both by a couple who had just given birth and a couple who had just miscarried, Hilliard jettisons his Christmas Day homily. Instead, he introduces the Peace, “hoping that peace is possible where there presently may be little or no peace”. The grieving couple tearfully hug; 16 months later, Hilliard christens their newborn.
For David Wilkinson, baptising a howling baby symbolises God’s kissing us with prayer, despite our tantrums. His Who Are We Praying To? is refreshingly honest about struggling with prayer. He explores sticking at prayer, unanswered prayer (don’t treat God like a one-armed bandit, overloading him with prayers to increase your chances of winning), and prayer and covenant, John Wesley’s Covenant Service setting our prayer agenda.
In the chapter “Praying for the Marginalised”, Wilkinson’s daughter, Hannah, catches a younger, more angular generation’s voice, challenging us to bless the poor by social action. On York Courses’ accompanying CD, Simon Stanley, John Humphrys redivivus, grills Wilkinson, egged on by three highly articulate voces populi. Aneurin Bevan’s “I’m proud about the NHS, it’s a piece of real socialism; it’s a piece of real Christianity, too,” is just one of 44 arresting quotations.
Sacred Space Advent and Christmas 2019-2020 includes 43 snappy Ignatian meditations on Gospel texts, running from Advent Sunday until Epiphany 1. Each week begins with a helpful focus, often quoting Pope Francis, “Evangelists must never look like someone who has come back from a funeral.” The book concludes with a mini-retreat, with the avowed aim of talking to God, friend to friend. Those “parked in life” (Pope Francis again) are disturbed to seek out where God has pitched his tent and join him there.
In her Image of the Invisible, Amy Scott Robinson explores 37 metaphors for God-in-Christ. She crafts a prose poem, “the best words in the best order”, from Advent Sunday to Epiphany, imaginatively putting flesh on her chosen biblical passage. Eschatology is realised when the Mayor of Coventry, after the devastating Luftwaffe raid, is surprised by King George VI, knocking on his back door: “Heavens above, it’s the King. We’d better look sharp.”
Scott Robinson’s God graciously “reads our poetry before it deserves to be seen”, greeting us, his brides, with a tearful “You look amazing!” Elijah’s God of consuming fire graciously makes a little fire on Galilee’s beach to cook his friends breakfast.
In Following Jesus in the Holy Land, Stephen Need (formerly Dean of St George’s, Jerusalem) explores ten holy sites’ pasts and presents, deftly weaving New Testament hermeneutic and church doctrine to cheer and challenge contemporary mores. Spanning Advent and Lent, each chapter concludes with suggestions for Bible study, worship, action, discussion, and further reading, marking an immense but accessible breadth of scholarship.
Throughout, locus is subordinate to gospel imperative: transfiguration (often over-spiritualised) is boldly rooted in transforming action such as Kids4Peace and Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; stooping to enter Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, Philippians 2 rings in your ears; the heat of Caesarea Philippi is terrific, with the cults of Pan and Augustus in the crucible, melting before Peter’s confession. It is all as if I sat in a boat in the midst of a silent Galilee, each surrounding village heavy with Christ, who comes as close as touch in Need’s astounding book.
Reflections for Advent 2019 starts with a mini-essay by the Bishop of Derby, Libby Lane, playing a Jane Austen heroine, garlanding her fireplaces and stairs for Advent. Angela Tilby gives 12 reflections on Morning Prayer readings from Proto-Isaiah, boldly challenging her readers to see the season as a sharp corrective, contra Charles Péguy, beginning with politics and ending with mysticism.
On Christmas Eve, the Bishop of Repton, Jan McFarlane, describes Malachi “giving whining and snivelling priests a good shake”. Her spirited reflections conclude on Holy Innocents’ Day, wondering whether boredom has emptied the churches of children more effectively than Herod emptied Bethlehem.
Brian Sibley’s Joseph and the Three Gifts fast-forwards through a harmonised version of the Gospels, embroidering Joseph’s story through the eyes of a Gabriel with attitude, complaining that “grappling with an enigma such as Incarnation is never easy.”
Similar in style to Henry Van Dyke and David Kossoff, this retelling has amusing anachronistic side-swipes at artists, theologians, believers, and unbelievers.
Humbug and Happiness juxtaposes the 1951 film of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (the version in which Alastair Sim plays Scrooge) with the gospel. Sheila Jacobs’s words are simple, effective, joyous, converting — and disarmingly innocent: “David and Jonathan is an example of what true friendship should be like — we can see in Jonathan a ‘type’ of Jesus.” But her Evangelical faith proves the perfect foil to Dickens, posing questions that cut to the quick. She writes movingly of her experience of agoraphobia, and her book would cheer those imprisoned by illness, inspire groups new to faith, and challenge groups old to faith, whose love has gone cold.
CWR’s Journey to Christmas travels with Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Daily contemplative reflections include pausing, rejoicing, reflecting, asking, and yielding, with discussion suggestions. A distinct lack of theological meat is redeemed by terse prayers: break my heart for the things that break Yours; help me to practise playing second fiddle.
Rejoice! took me back to John Stott’s 1977 Cambridge University Mission, which over-confidently traced the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience until now. Afterwards, I met the Bishop of Hull to explore ordination, declaring en passant that Stott just didn’t add up, as he urbanely concocted a spurious fall and equally spurious redemption. +Hullen: turned out to be Stott’s chum, so sent me away with a flea in my ear.
That Mission has now matured into 25 Advent reflections by Chris Wright, seasoned with quotations from or about Stott. Humanity makes sense only as part of the Bible story, which Wright condenses into a seven-stage plan, “easily drawn on a napkin”.
God seems more joyous than in the 1970s, “frolicking with whales and moving around creation like an invisible magician”. Wright brilliantly contemporises Exodus, where his God of compassion (but inevitable wrath) “loves meals with people, rather likes tents and wants to go camping”. Forty years on, the slick narrative doesn’t jar so much, akin to other narratives such as The Lord of the Rings, which vastly inspire despite being staged in a parallel universe. I came unstuck, however, with “If God were all-loving but had no power, that would be pathetic.” All-loving? No power? But that’s precisely my God: ever-kenotic!
The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an hon. assistant bishop in the diocese of York.
Listen to an interview with Rachel Mann on the Church Times Podcast, or watch it on the Church Times YouTube channel
In the Bleak Midwinter: Through Advent and Christmas with Christina Rossetti
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
Muddy Pearl £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9
Freedom is Coming
Church Times Bookshop £9
Wake Up to Advent!
(The Archbishop of York’s Advent Book 2019)
Church Times Bookshop £9
Dipping into Advent: Reflections for Advent and Christmas
Messenger Publications £8.95
Church Times Bookshop £8.05
Who Are We Praying To?
York Courses £3.80
Church Times Bookshop £3.42
(Course pack, including booklet, CD and transcript is available from www.yorkcourses.co.uk; phone 01904 466516)
Sacred Space Advent and Christmas 2019-2020
The Irish Jesuits
Messenger Publications £3.95
Church Times Bookshop £3.55
Image of the Invisible: Daily Bible readings from Advent to Epiphany
Amy Scott Robinson
Church Times Bookshop £8
Following Jesus in the Holy Land: Pathways of discipleship through Advent and Lent
Stephen W. Need
Sacristy Press £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9
Reflections for Advent 2019
Jan McFarlane and Angela Tilby
Church House Publishing £3.50
Church Times Bookshop £3.15
Joseph and the Three Gifts: An angel’s story
Church Times Bookshop £9
Humbug and Happiness: An Advent study with the classic movie “A Christmas Carol”
Church Times Bookshop £6.30
Journey to Christmas (Cover to Cover Advent study guide)
Church Times Bookshop £5.60
Church Times Bookshop £7.20