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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Advent Calendar: a meditation on a poem by Rowan Williams

We have recently heard an anthem new to Durham, Advent Carol by Michael Berkeley. It was commissioned by Justin Welby and premiered at Liverpool Cathedral in 2010. I have been pondering the text of the carol this week.  It was not new to me, but the music helped me to read it in a new way. 

The poem is by Rowan Williams and is called ‘Advent Calendar’.  It is a haunting piece: austere, deep, searching, suffused with wintry aches and longings we recognise as peculiar to this season. The language is as spare as naked trees, tough as hardened earth.  It is intended to make us shiver.  Its dense texture needs patience to grasp its complexity; its flinty Anglo-Saxon words are unsoftened by soothing Latin or French cadences.  The four stanzas each elaborate a different simile: ‘he will come like’ the fall of the leaf, like winter’s frost, like darkness following a late afternoon flash of sunlight, like the cry of night-time. It stands in a long tradition of northern Europe poetry in which the cold short days around the winter solstice echo our wintry spirits when our light burns low.

The point about imagery is that we shouldn’t explain it, for that would be to explain it away, reduce poetry to prose.  So I simply want to meditate on each of the stanzas in turn and allow them to help us enter more deeply into this season and it meanings.  And because this is an Advent Calendar, I imagine its stanzas taking us through the four weeks of the season up to the point where you open those double-doors and glimpse what it has all been leading up to. 

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
Has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
Wakes choking on the mould,
The soft shroud’s folding.

Week one of the calendar suggests a violent side to Advent.  This kind of dying is not going gently into that good night.  It is a sudden judgment visited at the turning of the year when beautiful autumn is abruptly cut short by the wind tearing through the trees stripping them bare of their golden canopies so that only their naked skeletons rear up to the sky. He will come like that.  It recalls the daring apocalyptic language in which the gospels speak of the last days, when the heavens are torn apart and the stars fall from the sky like autumn leaves, or the parables where the kingdom of God comes unexpectedly like a thief bursting in at night.  Experience tells us that sometimes he does come to us like the god who rides upon the storm, who in the imagery of the psalm shakes the wilderness and strips the forests bare.  Judgment is one of the ancient themes of Advent: last judgment, judgment now and judgment then as we reap the consequences of what we were and did, the endless compromises and refusals whose undertow over a lifetime drags us away from the pull of mercy and grace.  When the kingdom of God comes, it presents us with the truth of who and what we are.  This is why like the trees, our spirits need to be stripped bare (to quote a poem by Lawrence Binyon) if the sap is to rise again and we are to come back to life. 

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
Opens on mist, to find itself
Arrested in the net
Of alien, sword-set beauty.

Week two is quieter.  Its image is of the frost stealing silently across a misty landscape that seems to retreat into itself in hibernation.  It’s a beauty not its own, says the poem, ‘alien’, given to it from somewhere else, but clothing it nevertheless in place of the leaves that were stripped away in the first stanza. In a poem by R.S. Thomas, frost and rime encrust the heart, freezing its capacity to respond to the impulses of grace. And here, the image of a tranquil winter’s day is interrupted by two words that suggest that all is not as it seems.  The earth finds itself ‘arrested’ in a beauty that is not just alien but ‘sword-set’. So winter has caught and held the earth in a fierce and unrelenting grip, like the Snow Queen or the world-weary rejected lover whose frozen heart is echoed in Winterreise, Schubert’s winter journey that leads into oblivion.  How can God come like that?  Perhaps because our teeming souls, always restless, never still for long enough to notice God or our own selves need to be frozen by an arresting beauty that transfixes us, holds us in place, making it impossible for us not to pay attention, allow his truth to penetrate our being as the frost penetrates the soil.  The cold and dark and silence of winter is necessary if the earth is to lie undisturbed so that the life that lies latent deep within it can come to birth when the time is right.  Advent should make us stand still, watch and pray, become alert to God and the world and our human condition.  So it’s a metaphor of renouncing falsehood, being true, embracing the one who comes into our lives often by stealth, often unnoticed, arresting us by his grace and truth.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
And penny-masks its eye to yield
The star-snowed fields of sky.

Week three takes us on towards the solstice and its ‘bursting red December sun’.  I imagine this as one of those days when slate-hued clouds hang low over the earth and leach all the colour from a fervourless landscape (‘as fervourless as I’ says Thomas Hardy in another famous wintry poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’).  Then just as the light begins to fail, there is a clearing in the west and a flash of glory reveals a setting sun.  Too soon it sinks below the horizon, and it is dark and clear and cold and the ‘star-snowed fields of sky’ appear.  So this is not the radiant sun that late in time rises with healing in its wings to warm the land and coax it back to life.  No, this is the solstice, John Donne’s weak winter sun whose strength is spent at the year’s midnight.  That phrase ‘star-snowed fields’ keeps us well and truly shivering.  So the sun’s brief splendour heralds night not day.  And he will come, says the poem, not like the sun but like the dark that follows its all-too-brief epiphany.  I think that like the first two stanzas, the poet wants us to read the daytime of our life in the light of its ending: just as the leaves fall and the land freezes over, day turns to night and reminds us of the night into which we must all go.  And like the wind and the frost, the night brings its own truth to bear upon our condition.  What we are at night, when we are so to speak naked only to God and ourselves, that is the truth of what we are.  When this night falls, the poet does not lead us indoors to seek warmth and comfort, or even wrap the darkness round us to protect us.  We are still outside in the cold, watching, waiting, wondering, longing, hoping against hope that in the dark there is a kindness and a mercy.  This is Advent. This is life. 

He will come, will come,
Will come like crying in the night,
Like blood, like breaking,
As the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child. 

After the wintry death, judgment and hell of the first three stanzas, fierce, freezing and dark, the final week culminates in a marvellous surprise.  The threefold ‘will come, will come, will come’ echoes those three comings like knocks on the door.  The repetition delays the disclosure we wait for and heightens its importance, for here is something new: not the inanimate forces of winter but a voice, something alive and breathing in a forlorn and icy world, something ‘crying in the night’.  It’s a reference to Tennyson's ‘infant crying in the night, an infant crying for the light’ – and this is precisely what we ourselves have been, outside in the bleak midwinter where the third stanza has left us.  Is it the echo of our own cry that we hear?  If it were, it would be the ultimate mockery, for we would know that we were alone out there, lost and helpless.  But we are not.  Warm blood and the energies of breaking and writhing tell us that something else is happening, something eucharistic that says that life can begin again and we can be thanful.  There is a birthing that will give us our lives back again. ‘He will come like child.’  That wonderful last line gathers up all the earlier comings and humanises them, no, it divinises them in the simple truth that all our hopes and hungers and longings find their fulfilment in the birth that will heal and save us.  For this Child, a child of the earth and son of man as we are, is ‘tossed free’ (a resurrection image as well as a birthing one) and therefore makes us free too.  In the Letter to the Romans, Paul speaks about creation’s birth-pangs that will one day make us not only free but more than conquerors, thanks to this Holy Child who has come out of love for us to be the firstborn of a new, redeemed humanity. 

We have arrived at the final doors of the Advent Calendar.  The comings of truth and judgment in wind and cold and dark were needed, are always needed if our lives are to be cleansed and our vision purified.  We need Advent to recall us to what is fundamental to human living: as individual men and women, as communities and societies, as churches, as a race.  The word ‘judgment’ is krisis in Greek: life’s storms and frosts and darkness do not always feel survivable.  If we are to face krisis with equanimity and live through it, it will only be by the grace and truth of the Holy Child.   Many voices clamour for our attention in Advent.  His, the Voice that cries out to us in the night, is the one we must hear, and turn to; and when we have found him, we must never let him go.

Advent, 2011

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