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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

01 December 2023

Betjeman and Beckett help Malcolm Guite to recover a sense of waiting at Advent

WHEN a poet finds just the right word to describe something, just the epithet that gets to the essence of things, that word is not necessarily out of the ordinary, or “poetic”. Sometimes, it is a common word that has never been applied in quite that way, or allowed to mean so much before. So it is with the ringing opening line (ringing in every sense) of Betjeman’s poem “Christmas”: “The bells of waiting Advent ring” (italics mine).

“Waiting” is the perfect word to describe Advent. In its directness and simplicity, it brings back into focus something that the world, in all its rush to earlier and earlier Christmas bling, has forgotten: Advent is about waiting, about patience, about the hope that looks forward, not the nostalgia that looks back.

Of course, in one sense, we look back to that first Christmas, when Christ “came to visit us in great humility”. But it is precisely because that first coming kindled hope, when his birth ennobled all flesh, his death redeemed all sin, and his resurrection began a new creation in the midst of the old, that we take heart and look forward, and wait with patience and longing for him to “come again in his glorious majesty” and fulfil what was promised and implicit in that first Christmas.

I say that we wait with patience, but that’s an ideal: it is by no means entirely true. We have hope, but “hope deferred maketh the heart sick”; and, when so much has become so dark in our world, our “waiting Advent” can be so forlorn and frustrated that it may feel more like a Beckett play than a Betjeman poem.

Perhaps we should have special performances of Waiting For Godot during our “waiting Advent”. Even though we know that Christ has come, and will come, and Godot has not, we can still feel empathy for Estragon and Vladimir in their long wait, and, like them, at the very least, we can “keep our appointment”, and do what we can for the others who wait with us.

This Advent, with so many cries for help from Israel and Gaza, from Ukraine and beyond, I feel a strong resonance with those words of Vladimir’s, whether or not Beckett intended them ironically: “Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not.”

Vladimir goes on, of course, to utter the famous line: “Yes, in the immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come —.”

For Christians, the world’s confusion may sometimes feel as immense as it did for the existentialist Beckett. But for us, too, “one thing alone is clear. We are waiting” — not in despair for a non-existent Godot, but in hope for the God who has pledged his love in the cries of the Christ-child and the blood of the crucified, and promised a new creation through his resurrection. That pledge and demonstration of love, that hope, is enough to keep us going for now; but Advent reminds us that we are still waiting for something even better.

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