Tag Archives: Advent

23 December, Father Andrew at Advent and Christmas, II.

greyfriarsaumbry (639x800)

More from Fr Andrew’s introduction to ‘Carols and Christmas Rhymes’.

Christmas comes but once a year” is the common saying. But to the Catholic Christian Christmas is always here. Every babe born into the world now comes with the authentic claim of a child of God, for did not the Christ say, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto me one of the least of these, ye have done it unto Me’? The Incarnation of the Son of God has sanctified all life and made the quilted cot in the palace and the poor home-made orange-box cradle in the cottage equally manger-beds of the Babe of Bethlehem.

To the Catholic Christian the Lord comes in the Blessed Sacrament still clothed with the lowliness of long ago, and as in the lifting up of His Sacrifice there is the perpetual memory of His Death and Passion, so in the singing of the Gloria in excelsis and the humility of that Sacrament wherein the great reality of His Presence lies hidden beneath the lowly veils of bread and wine, Bethlehem is set forth beneath the lowly veils of bread and wine, Bethlehem is set forth before us most surely Sunday by Sunday and day by day.

As our young men and old men, matrons and maidens, come to the Holy Mysteries, we may think of the shepherds and folk at Bethlehem, who came with dim wonderment to a Mystery they felt but did not understand, as they peeped at Mary’s Babe at the first Christmastide.

The Blessed Sacrament reserved at the Greyfriars’ chapel, Canterbury.

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December 20. Zechariah, an unlikely Advent Star, VII.


Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and were surprised that he stayed in the sanctuary so long. When he came out he could not speak to them, and they realised that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. But he could only make signs to them and remained dumb (1:21-23).

I can imagine Zechariah staying in the sanctuary long after Gabriel had left him, and then slowly, reluctantly leaving. I imagine the reaction of the people to this long absence of his when he at last emerged. They were not prepared for this new Zechariah – for Zechariah the visionary. Undoubtedly, there were questions for Zechariah. He answers with signs, but maybe they don’t get it at first. Maybe they were impatient with him; possibly there was some teasing before the more perceptive ones among the people noticed Zechariah’s changed countenance and told the jokers to shush.

Zechariah was a man whose vision of reality had not prepared him for the vision he saw in the temple that day. Yet, he had stellar qualities that I would like to have. He was deep, stable, faithful, humble, loyal and prayerful. When the Archangel Gabriel announced a new reality to him that day in the sanctuary, and gave Zechariah the grace of silence within which to ponder this complete reordering of his existence, he acquiesced. And months later, when his eight day old son was circumcised, he was able to affirm his full concurrence with the angel’s message by writing the name that Gabriel had told him call his son: John – much to the amazement of all who where there. And so, he then regained the power of speech. He had used his silence well, and through it had grown and changed, and had come to a full acceptance of Gabriel’s message. (cf. 1: 59-66).

God works that way sometimes. He sometimes does something enormous in our lives and does not always seem to prepare us for it beforehand. He throws us in the deep waters. We may feel frantic. When he works in this way with us, we can only rely on him to give us gradually the understanding we need.

Every Advent is an opportunity to become like Zechariah, to encounter Gabriel in the Holy Scriptures, to hear him saying something that, even now, is hard, very hard, to grasp as fully as it deserves. We know that we each have a role to play in salvation history. We will not be bearing John, no. But as we each bear the unique gift that our personal faith brings to God’s people we can say, as Elizabeth did when she conceived, “The Lord has done this for me” (1:25). And we can pray during this season of Advent for the grace of silence to ponder the Word of the angel who stands in God’s presence.


Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, photo by NAIB.



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December 19. Zechariah, an unlikely Advent Star, VI.


Behold, since you did not believe my words, which will come true at the appointed time, you will be silenced and have no power of speech until this has happened (1:20).

Gabriel’s words are penetrating and packed with meaning. His sees more deeply into Zechariah than Zechariah sees into himself. And so, he first reveals Zechariah’s disbelief to him: “…you did not believe my words…” I suspect that Zechariah is pretty numb by now, and, as it were, unable to get his head around anything that is happening. But Zechariah might still be capable of inwardly assenting to the truth that Gabriel speaks about himself. I see him nodding: yes, he is disbelieving, at the moment. But because we are so often mysteries to ourselves, it can be a relief sometimes to learn a ‘home’ truth. We feel the light that that truth brings and are grateful. I imagine this being so for the upright man, Zechariah.

Then the Archangel Gabriel adds the magisterial phrase “…which will come true at the appointed time….” To my mind, these words are further words of reassurance for Zechariah – and for us. No matter how weak or disbelieving we might be in the face of the unexpected and unfathomable divine command, we cannot interfere with what God ordains. The upright Zechariah desires the fulfilment of God’s word. Gabriel’s prophecy is God’s word, and it will come true at the appointed time, no matter what else is happening in Zechariah or in the world at large. Just wait and see, Zechariah, Gabriel seems to say. God’s word is always an effective word. What God says will happen will indeed happen.

Finally, Gabriel tells Zechariah that he will have no power of speech until God’s word is fulfilled. Now, I believe that the Archangel Gabriel knows exactly what kind of man he is dealing with in Zechariah, and I do not interpret the angel’s words punitively here, either. In yesterday’s post, we were meditating on our need for time and prayer when we are confronted with something from God that we cannot grasp. I therefore see the Angel’s bestowal of silence upon Zechariah as a necessary condition for absorbing what he has experienced – which is so other, so unearthly, so wonderful. This silence can be understood as an expression of God’s mercy to Zechariah. I live monastic life, after all, and monks and nuns know that silence is a privilege not a penance. Silence allows us to live in an environment that is conducive to the deepening of our relationship to God. God knows that this good and upright man needs time now, and protection from the usual trivialising tendencies of speech in order to ponder his word and absorb what has just happened to him in the temple. What’s more, I imagine Zechariah welcoming this silence in the way a thirsting man welcomes a spring.


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December 18. Zechariah, an Unlikely Advent Star, V.


The angel replied, “I am Gabriel who stand in God’s presence, and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news (1:19).

When I read of the angel’s reply to Zechariah’s disbelief and perplexity, I do not hear a rebuke in his words, as some interpreters have done. I hear reassurance. First, the angel tells Zechariah his name. His name is Gabriel. In the bible, to know the name of another being is highly significant: the name gives the other a sort of power over the one whose name is disclosed. God refuses to tell Moses his name in order not to give Moses power over him. He refers to himself only as I AM. But here, Gabriel allows Zechariah to know not only who he is but also what he does: he “stands in the presence of God.” He, furthermore, is God’s messenger: “I have been sent to speak to you….”

I can imagine Gabriel emphasising the words “sent” and “you,” as if to respond to Zechariah’s doubts about the angel somehow getting him mixed up with another and younger man. Gabriel tells him that there is no muddle. He is obeying what Almighty God has commanded. He has the right address, and knows exactly who Zechariah is, and how old. Zechariah is emphatically the right man.

And what is the purpose of this angelic visitation? Its purpose is to bring Zechariah this good news. Perhaps Gabriel emphasises the word “good” here, to assure Zechariah that, despite his confusion and doubt, this is not a tragedy. This news is good! Gabriel’s words might be paraphrased as: ‘Zechariah, you are not Job! This is a New Beginning for all humanity, and you have been chosen to play a leading role. You will be the father of the one who will prepare the way of the Lord! The new stage in salvation history is now starting, and you and Elizabeth will be instrumental in an event of truly cosmic proportions.

My own feeling here is one of great affection for Zechariah. Surely, Gabriel cannot be displeased with this humble man. He just needs time to take in the message.

Sometimes I need time, too. Do I allow myself time when I need it? Or am I hard on myself when I cannot immediately understand what God seems to be asking of me? Or, worse, am I hard on God? Do I turn away from God in frustration when his message seems incomprehensible to me? Sometimes I need to wait and pray. Do I?


This Cornish Angel carries the name of a parishioner, inviting our prayers.

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December 16. Zechariah: an Unlikely Advent Star: IV.

baptist.zako (480x640)

Your son will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord; he must drink no wine, no strong drink; even from his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the Israelites to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him to reconcile fathers to their children and the disobedient to the good sense of the upright, preparing for the Lord a people fit for him (1:14-17).

Zechariah and Elizabeth had longed for a child. A child will be born to them, says the angel, but such a child as they could not possibly have imagined. The angel declares that their son will be “great in the sight of the Lord… in the spirit and power of Elijah. Their son will have a mission for all Israel: to bring them back to their God, to prepare for the Lord a people fit for him (cf. 1: 12-17).

This angelic utterance is really a rather long one, containing information that can only have been completely mind-boggling for Zechariah. Perhaps readers of this post have heard this story many times, and through familiarity have lost the sense of its being beyond fathoming – this prophecy from the mouth of a powerful and numinous being. Certainly for Zechariah, it is all too big to absorb. At first he is silent while the angel delivers his astonishing message.

When Zechariah does find power of speech, he comes out with the words that have earned him such criticism through the centuries: “How can I know this? I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years” (1:18). I rather doubt I’d have performed any better than Zechariah, and would probably have done far worse, but note well: this was an angel, after all, and angels generally know what they are talking about. Zechariah, however, seems to think that the angel might not realise how old he and his wife are. Even with my bias in favour of Zechariah, I must confess that I can’t help smiling here. It is almost as though he is asking the angel to check his divine instructions and make sure he has not come to the wrong temple and spoken to the wrong man.

So, what do we see here? Zechariah blurts out a question that is pretty daft in the circumstances. But is he really so bad after all? His question shows at least that he is a stable character, not easily diverted from the path of righteousness. And it has already been established that Zechariah is a good and upright man in the sight of God. He is not someone to curry the favour of men (or angels), or to give his consent, even to an angel, without deep conviction of heart. He is a man of depth. He wants to understand what is happening, but he is out of his depth now. He is used to having his prayer unanswered, we know. But he is not used to that same prayer now being answered.


John baptising Jesus – Zakopane Basilica of the Holy Family, Poland.

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December 15. Zechariah: an Unlikely Advent Star: III.


Then there appeared to Zechariah the angel of the Lord, standing on the right of the altar of incense. The sight disturbed Zechariah and he was overcome with fear. But the angel said to him, “Zechariah, do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard” (1:11-12).

The gospels are sometimes discreet about their characters’ emotional reactions. The Holy Spirit must fill in such details. I imagine Zechariah suddenly feeling, with scalp-tingling certainty, that he is not alone in the Lord’s sanctuary. He looks up from the incense and gasps, his heart hammers in his chest, he trembles, he feels frozen to the spot. I imagine him telling this story long afterwards, every detail held fast in his memory. A magnificently beautiful angelic being is standing there on the right side of the altar of incense, radiant, solemn, and looking straight at him – looking straight into his eyes, and seemingly into his very soul. Zechariah stares back, shaking and wide-eyed. The splendour of the angel overwhelms him. He is frightened, feels he should cover his eyes or lower them, but he cannot stop looking at the angel’s majestic beauty. The angel tries to reassure him, calling him by name, “Zechariah, do not be afraid.”

How does Zechariah respond? Does his fear evaporate? I rather doubt that the fear disappears completely, but perhaps some aspects of it diminish a bit as the angel continues his message. “…your prayer has been heard.”

What prayer? Can it be the one so dear to his heart, yet so long unanswered? The prayer that was by now past praying for? That Elizabeth should conceive? And bear a son? Indeed, yes! Zechariah’s prayer had been heard: Your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son and you shall name him John. (1:13)

But, Zechariah – even though he is a holy man, and upright in the sight of God – might not have been prepared for the fact that when we ask God for something in prayer, God hears not only the request of which we are conscious, but also that request’s most profound ramifications, of which we are not fully conscious when we first made our prayer. Perhaps, then, we need to be ready when we ask God for something – ready for the fact that God does nothing by halves. Our prayer will be answered, yes, but it will be answered so deeply, so completely that it will require of us a new level of surrender to the divine will, and a greater degree of courage than we had needed hitherto. This much is certain: when God answers a prayer, some mind-stretching is required in order to take it in.



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December 14 : Zechariah, unlikely Advent Star II.


Zechariah quickly becomes the focus of St. Luke’s narrative:

Now it happened that it was the turn of Zechariah’s section to serve, and he was exercising his priestly office before God when it fell to him by lot, as the priestly custom was, to enter the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense there. At the hour of incense all the people were outside praying (1:8-10).

Here is Zechariah, an older man, exercising his priestly duties once again. I see him wearing the priestly robes, silently entering the sanctuary and carrying out the rituals prayerfully and in the prescribed manner. He does this, perhaps rather slowly due to his age, but also beautifully, with innate grace of movement and dignity of bearing. This has happened many times and Zechariah knows all the prayers and actions by heart. Everything flows smoothly. He reverently lights the coals; the incense fills the holy place with its fragrance. He loves this religious duty and never tires of it. He is alone with his God and prays fervently for his people.

There are never any surprises here for Zechariah. Ever. Perhaps this is another clue to Zechariah’s character. He knows what should happen next. Maybe he knows this a bit too well. Ordinarily, for frail human beings, our greatest strengths have a flip side, when our greatest weaknesses take over. We usually have a hard time being balanced. Zechariah is like all of us here. His great religious devotion, and his familiarity with what was prescribed by the Law in exercising his priestly office, might not have prepared him for what would happen this time. New ideas are never easy to absorb, especially new ideas about religion. And what would happen this time to Zechariah, as we know, was not merely a new idea, but an entirely new experience of the numinous, and a new revelation of God’s will.

ZMaybe this is a good place to stop and pray. Is this a time in my life when God is asking something new of me – for which I do not feel prepared? Advent is always such a time. The Incarnation is something so new that it cannot be imagined: God’s very Son is born. The Eternal Word of the Father becomes an infant. Have I lost my sense of how astonishing this is? Am I somewhat entrenched in a religious mind-set that I have acquired and maintained for years now? Can I imagine letting go of this so that God can lead me to something I have never experienced before?


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December 11: Things in the night that monstrous seem

crypt.monster Take far away each hideous dream,

Things in the night that monstrous seem …

Two lines from the compline hymn came to mind when I read about the Christmas TV Ad which shows a boy who has a monster under his bed. Not a lot to do with the real meaning of Christmas, I hear you say.

This monster above has lived in the crypt, or basement of Canterbury Cathedral for many hundreds of years, along with a few more of different kinds, not unlike the imaginary beasts in the margins of ancient manuscripts. This fellow is within sight of Mother Concordia of Minster’s Mary and Child.

Ancient writers imagined the infant Jesus creating living creatures from the mud of the ground. I can imagine him playing with toy monsters and dinosaurs as so many children do today. After all, there were plenty of monsters to be seen among the deities of ancient Egypt where he grew up!

Can we not play, and play fairly, in the world created for us and be grateful? Let’s play fairly by some of our less favoured sisters and brothers this Christmas – we all know several ways of helping. Let’s not be selfish monsters!


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10 December, 2nd Sunday of Advent: A reflection from Ghana

Continuing our Advent reflections from USPG looking at how the church is reaching out to mothers and babies, we visit an Anglican programme they support in Ghana that has helped to eradicate cholera in parts of the Cape Coast. One beneficiary tells her story.
My name is Gloria. I have two children, aged three and one-and-a-half years old.

The health programme has helped me and my family. Before, I didn’t know I needed to wash my children’s hands with soap and water before they eat. They would be playing, but I wasn’t washing their hands afterwards. But now, because of the programme, I make sure I wash their hands. Also, before the programme, whenever I bought fruit and
vegetables from the market, I wasn’t washing them. But now I wash them with a soap and salt solution before I use them to prepare food.

Another thing I learned was that before breast-feeding my baby I first needed to wash my breasts. I learned that a child can contract diseases if I do not wash in this way.
Before the programme, I was not putting these things into practice and my children, in fact the whole family, would visit the hospital a lot because of diarrhoea and sickness. But now it is five months since we went to hospital.

O God, who spoke through the prophets:
we pray for mothers in Ghana protecting their children
from sickness. Bless those who bring life-saving knowledge
and give thanks for children now healthy and full of life.

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Reminder: The Amos Trust is holding a Carol Service in Canterbury tomorrow, Thursday 7th December

A Carol Service in Canterbury to help Street Children and others.

amos.trust carol service

Some news from Christians Together Canterbury – a network of churches and Christian groups across Canterbury, including L’Arche Kent.

 Amos Trust Carol Service

The Amos Trust is holding a Carol Service in Canterbury on Thursday 7th December at St Peter’s Methodist Church from 7.00 p.m.

Amos Trust is a small, creative human rights organisation, committed to challenging injustice, building hope and creating positive change.  Its three areas of work are among street children in South Africa, Burundi, India and Tanzania; building sustainable rural communities in Nicaragua and India; and working for a just peace for Palestine. Every year Amos Trust holds an excellent Carol Service in London at St James’s Piccadilly.  It is seeking to make this Carol Service more widely available, and is experimenting by ‘exporting’ it to Canterbury this year.

There will be a collection during the service to support the vital work in which the Amos Trust is involved.


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