The point of Advent (which begins the new Christian liturgical year, and itself begins today) is threefold, as I understand it.
It will be seen, that apart from merriment and indulgence, Advent is a season of fasting and prayer. Not on the scale of Lent, before Easter, and barely half the duration of Lent; nor filled with the quality of sorrow and ashes, that marks the Lenten season. Still, fasting and prayer. There will be time enough to celebrate through the twelve days of Christmas, when irreligious men and women are recovering from their own celebration of they know not what. (“They have their reward.”)
In previous years, I made something like these points at Christmas, but it strikes me now that the first Sunday in Advent would be a more appropriate moment to express regret, and exhortation.
In England, once, I was invited for Christmas to the house of old family friends in north Oxfordshire. I was very poor then, and had thus had a sober and humble Advent, if largely against my will. It was in fact my first Advent as a believing Christian.
The train ticket I’d bought, to take me London to Banbury, was a major expense, and a luxury. Surprise: the train stopped at Oxford town, twenty-something miles short of my destination, and I was turned out on the platform. I hadn’t realized that, under the laudable old socialist regime that Lady Thatcher later swept away, all British Rail trains shut down in a kind of general strike, wherever they happened to be, as midnight approached on Christmas Eve.
Don’t get me wrong: it is one of the things about socialism I miss. England in the 1970s was quite dysfunctional. This made it cheap to live there. And around, you could see the decay of what had once been a great capitalist nation, and the seat of a vast Empire. There is beauty in decay. I miss the chill of the English winter, when the coal miners all went on strike. I miss the candlelight, when the electricity went down. I miss the rotting Brussels sprouts from New Covent Garden. I even miss the pomposity of the working class heroes, running the country into the ground. I remember it all through the pink lens of nostalgia. Ah to be young again, and in England.
And on that platform at Oxford. The couple of miles from Banbury to my friends’ cottage in the village of Adderbury would have been a fine evening’s stroll. But I would now have the pleasure of walking right through the brisk clear winter night, without even the companionship of the crescent moon that was sinking on the western horizon. I found the Banbury Road, and set along on foot. There were no cars on it, either. None.
I remember it as one of the happiest evenings of my life. Just me, and the stars, and the dark world around me, mediaeval under starlight. And the sense that I was walking towards Christmas. (Which of these is the star of Bethlehem?) When I was cold, I sang carols to myself.
I arrived in Adderbury, some time towards dawn. Having no watch, I could guess the time only by the constellations. I knew it was too early to knock on my friends’ door. The whole village was sleeping, and the only light was in the sacristy of the ancient church. I went into the churchyard, among the gravestones. I felt at one with forty generations of the English dead.
Suddenly there was a peal of bells, some miles away in the direction from which I’d come. Then another, nearer, at Bloxham. And then, right above me, the bells of St Mary the Virgin, Adderbury, pealing out, deafening in their joy. Bells, everywhere — right across England! The bells were pealing, to announce Christmas Day.
This is what I want to share today — the bells of Christmas morning — with my reader, who is Christian, or lapsed; or never having been a Christian, wonders what it might be like. To hear their glory, we must fast and pray.
David Warren. "Advent." Ottawa Citizen (December 3, 2006).
This article reprinted with permission from David Warren.
David Warren, once editor of the Idler Magazine, is widely travelled — especially in the Middle and Far East. He has been writing for the Ottawa Citizen since 1996. His commentaries on international affairs appear Wednesdays & Saturdays; on Sundays he writes a general essay on the editorial page. Read more from David Warren at David Warren Online.
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