The early Cistercians were drawn to a central paradox of Christmas:that of the verbum infans or speechless Word. Throughout salvation history, God has made ready for great redemptive deeds by preparing quiet places apart in which grace can bear fruit; but that the Father’s eternal Word, by which all things were made, should himself have become such a place was, to these contemplatives, a supreme mystery. The least inadequate response one could make, they thought, was one of silent adoration.
+ Erik Varden, Return to the Centre, The Tablet, 5 February, 2022
Not much more to be said, but find a quiet moment to contemplate the crib in church or at home, or even a Christmas card. Let the mystery flow into your heart.
Fr Hilary Costello of Mount Saint Bernard’s Abbey was a long-standing family friend. These lines are from a poem he shared with my mother that turned up among her papers when she died. The poem seems to veer from one speaker to another, one hearer to another. Here is God talking to the reader, or the writer to God? either makes sense. They also reinforce the idea of enjoying being a Christian. The shepherds and the Magi surely had fun in the searching; so, too, let us go unto Bethlehem!
They like bikes in Belgium! Not that they are always the most appropriate means of transport. This is the story of an overloaded bike in Canterbury and what happened next.
We begin with Will parking his bike against a rack where there was already a red lady’s Dutch style bike, not unlike the one outside the shop above. When Will had finished his shopping, the Dutch bike had gone, but there was a red purse on the ground. It had an address in it, a few minutes’ ride away, so off he went. It was shortly before Christmas.
The door was opened by an older lady, dressed in red, pleased to have her purse back: ‘My basket was too full, I am silly!’ now she was ready to press me to take tea in her winter-wonderland front room. A red settee and armchair, flashing lights and a glorious fake tree, a few copies of the Watchtower. The Watchtower magazine of Jehovah’s Witnesses? The same.
Yes, Mrs S was a Witness. Will had always believed that Jehovah’s Witnesses stood at a distance from Christmas and all things Yule. There had been the time when our regular witness missioner, Joe, had knocked on our door at 1.00 p.m. on December 25th with a personal delivery of the magazine. Obviously Christmas day was nothing to him. There had been more than one year when Witnesses expected a Christmas tree, given by a family, to be removed from a shared bay of the hospice where Mrs Turnstone worked. No surrender to other people’s sensibilities there, even when the other people were dying.
‘I came late to the Witnesses through my late husband,’ she explained. ‘But I like to put up something for Christmas to welcome my friends and neighbours. And the lights are a lovely, comforting sight at this time.’
‘What does Joe have to say about it?’ I asked. ‘He knows I take round my share of leaflets. He doesn’t have to know that I have a Christmas tree!’
And perhaps her Christmas tree and hospitality were as powerful a witness as her magazine.
This is an extract from an article in Independent Catholic News about Bishop John Durkin MSC, an Irish missionary who served in South Africa for many years till his death in 1990. Read the full story here . We include it in Advent Light because we believe in celebrating Christmas, even if we do not know the actual day on which Jesus was born.
Read the last paragraph to learn why celebrations are good! We need to celebrate because we are human.
In Bishop Durkin’s Diocese of Tzaneen in 1982, there were 39 nuns, 12 of them local and 27 expatriates. Ten of the sisters were over 70 years of age. The Bishop wrote that there was no possibility of them being replaced. Obviously, he was alert to the emerging fall in vocations to the religious life in Ireland and in the West generally.
The contribution of the Missionaries to the diocese was enormous. In 1982, it had 21 priests, 20 of them MSCs and one a retired Benedictine. The four Catholic schools educated 946 students. By 1985, there were 10 mission clinics, treating 114,310 patients annually. Within five years, the remaining seven clinics treated 300,000 patients annually. That is a good example of how the missionaries provided education and health services when the state was unable to do so. They did that with the generous financial support of donors back in Ireland.
Bishop Durkin retired on 22 June 1984 due to ill health but continued to work as a missionary in the Phalaborwa district. In 1987, he celebrated the golden jubilee of his ordination, first in Tzaneen and later at a group celebration of jubilees at the MSC House in Cork. He loved celebrations and jubilees. “They are good and fulfil a human need to affirm and be affirmed on the pilgrim way. They fulfil a spiritual need in making us climb the mountain, survey the countryside and look into the horizon and even strain our vision. It is good to be alive on such occasion,” he said.
We read a prayer of Saint Columban on his Feastday; here is another prayer taken from his Instructions. An Advent Prayer indeed!
I beg you, my Jesus, fill my lamp with your light.
By its light let me see the holiest of holy places,
your own temple
where you enter as the eternal High Priest of the eternal mysteries.
Let me see you, watch you,
Let me love you as I see you,
and before you let my lamp always shine,
Thought for the day:
let my lamp always shine,
Unless the eye catch fire, The God will not be seen. Unless the ear catch fire, The God will not be heard. Unless the tongue catch fire, The God will not be named. Unless the heart catch fire, The God will not be loved. Unless the mind catch fire, The God will not be known.
William Blake, Pentecost.
Blake had a way with words, and with ideas. We need to catch fire but not to be too hard on ourselves when the fire is damped down and invisible. This fire was out – or looked that way. It sprang back into life with a few puffs from the bellows and a few dry sticks and logs. How can we open ourselves to the Spirit to relight our fires? How can we feed our own fires and each other as we approach the festival of light?
49 Jesus said to his disciples: ’I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! 50 There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress till it is over!
O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light, Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger; Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right, To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger: Furnish and deck my soul, that thou mayst have A better lodging then a rack or grave. From Christmas by George Herbert.
George Herbert was an Anglican priest who died in 1633, during the reign of Charles I of England, those were troubled times. This is an extract from his poem, Christmas. That little star we looked for on Sunday is now a glorious, but contracted light, powerful enough to transform a dark soul into a better lodging for Christ – a better lodging than the rack which in Herbert’s time had replaced the Cross as an instrument of torture; a better lodging than the grave that only held Christ until the third day. Christmas and Easter are parts of the same story.
Lord, do not be a stranger to me. Shine your light into my soul. Help me to follow the star this Advent, however many distractions get in the way.
Let us pray,
God and Father,
to those who go astray you reveal the light of your truth
and enable them to return to the right path.
Grant that all who have received the grace of baptism
may strive to be worthy of their Christian calling
and reject everything opposed to it.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever.
We can all, each and every one of us, go astray; indeed, we all do go astray, day by day. Let us consider one miss-step we have made today, and turn again from it back to the path: Repent!
If you were in church yesterday, no doubt you’ll have seen the Advent wreath with a single candle burning. Do you have one at home? There’s still time to make one, or you could just light a candle. Mrs Turnstone and I have ours on the dining table and we would hold hands around it with the children and sing grace. We now do the same with the grandchildren. We also sing the chorus of the Advent hymn:
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, oh Israel!
This story is from Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘The House of Unexpected Sisters’.* Mma Ramotswe is ready to serve the evening meal to her husband and two children. Perhaps we could revive the practice of saying grace this Advent, and be ready to find new forms of grace to remind us that all we have is God’s gift, and the greatest gift is the One that came at Christmas.
‘Dinner is ready now, I think.’
She ladled stew into four plates, and placed these, one by one, on the table. Once seated herself, Mma Ramotswe bowed her head and said grace. ‘We give thanks for the food our country gives us, and we think of those who do not have what we have. We give thanks for Africa and for the good things that Africa gives its children.
This little star is hidden away in a locked cemetery chapel, all that remains of a French Jesuit community that decamped to Kent when religious persecution was raging at home. Among its members was a young Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who was to become a stretcher-bearer during the Great War.
He was attached to a North African regiment and stayed with the men, refusing promotion that would have afforded him greater personal safety. He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur as ‘an outstanding stretcher-bearer who, during four years of active service, was in every battle and engagement the regiment took part in, applying to remain in the ranks in order that he might be with the men whose dangers and hardships he constantly shared.’ The example of many priest stretcher-bearers helped bring about a reconciliation between state and Church after the war.
He wrote to his cousin Marguerite on Christmas Eve 1915, “I must tell myself, and I think I’ll come to feel it, that no Christmas night will ever have meant more to me than this one I am about to spend on the straw this evening, by the side of men.”
Far from our commercial Christmas, closer to the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.
Lord, help us to see the star of wonder that will lead us through this Advent to the straw and hay of Bethlehem.