Advent - 27th November 2023
Once more we are approaching Advent, the start of the Church’s liturgical year, a time of watching and waiting for the coming of Christ. We look both to the birth of Jesus in Palestine more than 2000 years ago but also to the coming of Christ at the end of time. We long for evil to be overcome and the Kingdom of God to prevail yet it seems the darkness deepens and we cry ‘how long’. But as the Bible makes clear, we will go through troubled, violent times before that coming, although what form that coming will take, when the city of God will come down from heaven, we have no idea. We are given beautiful pictures but we cannot know the time or the form of the kingdom in its fulness. In the mean time we watch and wait, and clear the space as best we can for the coming of the kingdom in our own lives.
I am yet again drawn back to the figure of Anna the prophet praying in the temple and longing for the coming of the messiah to save his people. Stephen Cottrell painted that lovely picture of her moving around in the darkness of the temple to stand in the place where the sun streamed in through a window, seeking the light in the darkness1. We too stand in the darkness of our times, seeking the light, the light of Christ that shines in our hearts.
For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. [2 Cor 4:6]
That light has shone in our hearts but so often we do not see it. We seek the light, feeling that we walk in darkness, but all the time it is shining within. We simply need to clear away all that blocks that light, to clear the space and clean the windows so that light can shine out into the world. This sounds more like spring cleaning and the season of Lent but Advent too has an atmosphere of penitence and preparation.
When we were celebrating the feast of St Hilda I was struck by the way Psalm 27 has an Advent feel to it. We sing it for the clothing of a novice as it expresses so well the longing that brings us to monastic life, the same longing that permeates the season of Advent:
One thing I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the LORD,
and to inquire in his temple. [Ps 27:4]
Then a few verses later:
Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
"Come," my heart says, "seek his face!"
Your face, LORD, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me. [Ps 27:7-9]
This psalm expresses the desire to live in the house of the Lord, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to seek his face, his presence. We no longer have the physical temple in Jerusalem, rather each one of us is a temple of the Holy Spirit, a place where God dwells. So one place where we seek the beauty of the Lord is in our own hearts. As the Eastern Church says, we must bring our minds into our hearts. That is not a recipe for endless introspection, turned in upon ourselves, but allowing our minds to drop down deep inside ourselves, away from our everyday concerns, and be enfolded in the love of God that we find there. From that place deep within we can then look outwards with love on those around us. The hard work we must do is to clear away the debris that prevents us from dropping down into that place and experiencing the love of God within our hearts. We need to pay attention to what is happening in our own hearts, to remove the log in our own eye as Jesus says, so that we can see clearly to attend to the needs of others. For the early monastics the starting point of the spiritual life was ‘pay attention to yourself’ and St Benedict in his first step of humility exhorts us to continual reverent mindfulness of God and watchfulness over our behaviour and inner thoughts.2
As our inner sight becomes clearer we are more able to see the face of Christ in each person we meet, however much that face is obscured. It is always both-and, not either-or – we encounter the face of Christ within ourselves and also in our neighbour, both at the same time. And our awareness can then expand further into a sense of God present in all creation, and beyond that to God’s utter transcendence beyond all things.
To borrow some words from Malcolm Guite let us use this time of Advent to pay attention to ‘Our God beyond, beside us, and within’3, knowing that God’s loving presence permeates all things from the smallest details of our lives through to the unimaginable immensity of the cosmos. In that all-encompassing awareness we bring the light of Christ to birth in our own hearts from whence it can then flow out into all the places of darkness in this world. May God’s kingdom come.
Mother Anne - 27th November 2023
1Stephen Cottrell, 'Walking Backwards to Christmas', SPCK Publishing, 2013
2A paraphrase of the first step of humility in Chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict from 'Praying with Benedict: Companions on the Journey' by Katherine Howard OSB
3Trinity Sunday – A Sonnet by Malcolm GuiteIn the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In His own image, His imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us and within.