THE spiritual gifts of the season are summed up in the “O” antiphons recited on the last seven days of Advent. In these invocations, the Church has Christians pray for wisdom, deliverance, redemption, divine intervention, freedom, enlightenment, and salvation, because Emmanuel — God with us — “is the hope of the nations and their Saviour”. This list makes a good starting point from which to evaluate the special demands of Advent 2020 and to assess the extent to which they are met in this year’s selection of preparatory material. Never has hope been in such short supply, and yet Advent, when Christians open their eyes and hearts to their core beliefs, surely offers it in spades.
The books divide themselves several ways: for individual use or for group use; having daily or weekly readings; according to faith tradition or consciously ecumenical; and then, of course, by relevance; for there are those that choose not to offer understanding and consolation “in a time of plague”, and those that consciously attempt to shine a beacon of hope onto our troubled times. Put another way, there are books that could have worked in any Advent up to this year, and those that — casting publishing deadlines to the winds — deliberately target 2020.
Dr Carys Walsh, curate at All Saints’, Kettering, leapfrogs all these divisions by offering a book completed a year ago. Frequencies of God should become something of a classic. The author interprets the poetry of the Welsh priest R. S. Thomas through the Advent prisms of waiting, accepting, journeying, birthing, and seeing. She reveals both knowledge of and love for his verse.
Thomas himself is dark enough to visit the pain and anxiety of any Advent, pandemic or not. By background, Dr Walsh has been a tutor in Christian spirituality at St Mellitus College in London. This is a book for those who already know Thomas or who want to take the plunge and devote time and energy to discovering his verse and its spiritual implications. The author’s lyrical style makes this an attractive option both for an individual or for a study group to share.
In the BRF Advent Book, Gordon Giles identifies the three Advent themes that his reflections seek to explore: “hope, expectation and trepidation”. At Home in Advent is intended both for individual use and for groups. With daily thoughts accompanied by questions, activities, and prayers, it offers a “domestic journey from Advent to Epiphany”. The unpretentious text takes account of the coronavirus threat without traumatising the reader. Its very domesticity would make this book the perfect present for someone on lockdown.
The author believes in the “bounty of Christmas” and is happy to find this bounty in the everyday. Here is a timely reminder that, while some of the celebrations may be different this year, it is impossible to “cancel” Christmas.
A former Methodist minister and school and hospice chaplain, Penelope Wilcock has a devoted following through her contributions to a monthly column for Woman Alive and a blog, Kindred of the Quiet Way. In her book Into the Heart of Advent, she has assembled a series of dialogues with Jesus. These cover all the familiar Advent themes ranging from the Holy Family, on day one, to the infant light, day 25. The tone is deliberately devotional; the style is familiar. There will, of course, be a readership among those seeking comfort rather than the challenge of too much reality. A Covid-19-free read: consoling, probably; relevant, not.
The film The Two Popes, on Netflix, provides the Advent angle in Liam Kelly’s The Glorious Journey
From a book of cheer to the downright jokey comes The Glorious Journey. Liam Kelly has produced an Advent book based on the Netflix film The Two Popes. He works at Ampleforth Abbey in the abbot’s office and offers a nicely balanced secular commentary on seasonal themes such as listening, change, mercy, and loneliness.
A fan of the papacy in general and of Popes Benedict XVI and Francis in particular, he engages with the movie by proposing that readers watch a section of it, read his text, and then pray and follow a further reflection. This makes the book unusual and a potential resource for both individuals and groups.
Living in Hope is another multi-media offering. This ecumenical York Course has been assembled by the novelist Catherine Fox. The 27-page booklet and accompanying CD, with its transcript, are divided into four sessions. These are entitled Living well, Dying well, Hell-bent on destruction, and Going to heaven when we die. In the eschatological tradition, these are perilously close to the “four last things” that were recommended for nightly contemplation. Despite a passing reference to Zoom meetings, these resources will have to depend on the seriousness of their content for a contemporary application. In a group context, much will depend on a gifted leader.
The Irish Jesuits, who produce the www.sacredspace.iewebsite, can be depended on to produce worthwhile seasonal reflections. This year’s offering is Sacred Space Advent and Christmas 2020-2021. This neat, pocket-sized book is no exception, bar the fact that it, too, inhabits a coronavirus-free environment. The spirituality is sound, and thoroughly Ignatian, but there is little here to relieve the anxiety of Advent 2020.
The book extends from the First Sunday of Advent through to Saturday 9 January 2021. There is also a short, “do-it-yourself” Advent retreat included, with the themes of new beginnings with John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and — engagingly — the wise men. With Ignatius of Loyola, the authors believe that “our lives can take a completely different path and direction when God enters our story.” For the battlefield of Pamplona the retreatant can substitute the chaos of a pandemic.
The New Daylight series of daily Bible readings, gathered in a booklet, Journeying through Advent, are written this year by David Winter, Steve Aisthorpe, Amy Boucher Pye, Andy John, and Margaret Cundiff (who died in 2011).
In her introduction, the editor, Sally Welch, writes of a “world covering itself in glitter and sparkle, immersed in an orgy of spending and over-indulging in which the church alone stands sober and still, determinedly counter-cultural”. The Bible Reading Fellowship must surely have been able to tinker with its publishing schedule enough to ensure a less out-of-touch approach. Everything about these reflections is solid and worth while, simply less than fully helpful in Advent 2020.
The BRF is also the publisher of David Cole’s The Celtic Year. With Celtic Advent, Celtic Lent, and Celtic Saints firmly under his belt, he has now spread his reach to encompass the eight points of the Celtic year, namely the winter season and solstice, spring season and equinox, and so on, right through to the final autumn equinox. This shifts the reader to a different universe, a virus-free world at one remove from our usual way of calculating time and space.
Some Celtic spirituality risks being away with the hobbits; David Cole is a more considerable figure. As deputy guardian for the Community of Aidan and Hilda, his work is rooted in the tradition of the north-east of England. His readers can start this book now and run through to October 2021, when the turning world may well turn out to be well again.
Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.
Frequencies of God: Walking through Advent with R. S. Thomas
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £10.99
At Home in Advent: A domestic journey from Advent to Epiphany
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
Into the Heart of Advent: Twenty-five conversations with Jesus
Church Times Bookshop £9
The Glorious Journey: A reflection book based on “The Two Popes”
Church Times Bookshop £6.30
Living in Hope
York Courses £3.80 (booklet); audio CD £8.99; transcript of audio £3.55; course pack including one each of the above £16.30
available from www.yorkcourses.co.uk; phone 01904 466516
Sacred Space Advent and Christmas 2020-2021
The Irish Jesuits
Messenger Publications £4.50
Church Times Bookshop £4.05
Journeying through Advent with New Daylight: Daily Bible readings and group study material
Sally Welch, editor
Church Times Bookshop £2.70
The Celtic Year: A rhythm of prayer and meditation for the eight points of the Celtic year
Church Times Bookshop £8.10