First Sunday of Advent
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
This Sunday our Advent begins. Advent is always a journey, but it is often drowned out by the many preparations that get underway in earnest for a ‘normal’ Christmas. This year we will not be having a ‘normal’ Christmas and perhaps one of the gifts of this is that we can actually look out the window, take a few stops along the way, and really spend time thinking about the journey. I was listening to the first chapters of the Gospel of Luke this week (I have taken to both listening to and reading the Bible, and its interesting what I have picked up listening to it, that I never notice when I read it. There are a lot of apps for your phones – I use NRSV).
What has really come home to me is that both Elizabeth and Mary have the most beautiful and challenging journeys presented to them at the very start, as the Gospel opens. Elizabeth is an older woman, though in the context of the time this could be anything above say 40. Still a daunting time to bear a child, and even more daunting given that this is a child with a destiny. Most of us just hope that we can raise our children to be fairly content and healthy adults. What if we were told, that this child will be destined to, as Luke puts it, ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord’. Wow, imagine what pressure that puts on parents – every sniffle, every tantrum, every scrapped knee or fall, would take on an added significance and pressure on these parents already past middle age.
And then moving on to Mary. Paula Gooder, in the book I’ll recommend below, reminds us that Mary was very young when the angel Gabriel came to her. She was certainly no more than 16 or 17, a young woman who is engaged to be married, and was likely contemplating the challenges of being an ordinary wife, daunting enough, when Gabriel comes and tells her that her journey is actually much more challenging. She’s not only getting married, but she’ll soon be pregnant, and the child will be the ‘Son of the most High’. More than WOW, how does one even get ones head around it?
Both these women received gifts that were indeed great, but with these gifts came a journey that would be an incredible challenge, filled with joy and also heartbreak. We don’t know if Elizabeth was still alive when John was beheaded, but we know that Mary stood and watched the crucifixion of her son.
Advent is a time to think about the beginning of the journeys of these two women. They start, where we all must start, with a revelation, with a ‘gospel’, with the knowledge that God is with us no matter the challenges ahead. And that the challenges are gift – gift that yes contain great sorrow and pain, but also end in great joy. That is always the Christian journey and we need to be bold in proclaiming it.
Advent is a gift given to us where we are invited to walk with Mary and Elizabeth, Joseph and Zechariah. Let’s dedicate some of our time this Advent to really contemplating what this means, for them and for us. They were both asked to accept God’s call, as are we. They received the call with joy and trust, and we are all invited to do the same.
There are resources that can help us. While always the Bible is the ‘go to’ place for the beginning of any period contemplation, God has called many to help us. So here are some books that you might find useful during Advent Season:
Walter Brueggemann’s Names for the Messiah. This is a short and easy to read book by one of the world authorities on the Old Testament, and he explores what is exactly meant by the term Messiah, and what that means to us.
If you like to have a daily reading, Henri Nouwen’s, Advent and Christmas Wisdom may be for you. Again, this is a small book, but has a reading, a quote from the Bible, a prayer and an ‘action’ for each day. It can be a nice way to structure these days of ours that can be a bit unstructured, and can serve as the beginning of a longer period of daily prayer and contemplation.
A bit longer and more substantial book, but very accessible, is Paula Gooder’s Journey to the Manger which looks at the Old Testament prophesies and the New Testament birth of Jesus and how they prepared a people and the world for the Coming of Jesus. Gooder is another world authority on the Old Testament. I really enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it.
Finally, our own Bishop Nick has published an advent book, Freedom is Coming, which draws inspiration from the prophet Isaiah. I know a number of parishes are using this as part of a study series this Advent. I have not read it yet, and it will be some of my ‘Advent’ fare this year.
In case you want some novels to read that are both entertaining and edifying – the best of both worlds!! I’d suggest Katherine Tiernan’s Saint Cuthbert trilogy. They are filled with 7th century politics and life, but also, she does an excellent job of placing Cuthbert and Anglo-Saxon spirituality in this world, managing to do what many historians never manage, to take seriously God’s work in this world through individuals. There are three books in this series Cuthbert of Farne, The Place of Repose, and A new Heaven and a New Earth. I’ve read the first, and the other two are sitting waiting for me!
I’ve also been reading two early narratives of Cuthbert in The Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, edited and translated by Bertram Colgrave, which I’m also finding very fascinating. I think I’ve been attracted to St Cuthbert lately because of his use of isolation and contemplation, and also his openness to God’s call, even if it was not what he would have preferred. Interestingly he preferred isolation rather than sociability and I guess I find that useful to me in our present situation.
I’m sure that many of you also have suggestions of books and readings that you have found useful in your journey, so please do share them.
With all Blessings,
Revd Professor Jessica Malay
Almondbury with Farnley Tyas