The nose of a Springer Spaniel is a remarkable thing. Not simply the nose, but the overall capacity to find. Our morning walks now take place in darkness, and as I launch a tennis ball into a landscape of lesser and greater obscurity, I never doubt the ball’s return. It may take time – but another remarkable thing about spaniels is their tenacity. I watch as various search patterns are executed. There is always a careful eye kept on me, and if I start to head in a particular direction, the ground is swept from side-to-side in advance of my approach. Occasionally – very occasionally and after a long time – we concede defeat. However, almost always, the panting hound returns to my feet tail rotating in triumph, and discards the ball so that the whole routine can begin again.
In these shortening days we head towards the old feast day of Thomas, the 21st of December. As the Revd Richard Coles commented at the recent York Minster Carol Concerts, these are days when ghost-stories come into their own. Reading a section of Simon Armitage’s rendering of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (‘It was Christmas at Camelot…’), as well as A Christmas Carol, there is no doubting the antiquity of humanity’s imaginings during the days of darkness. In the Northern hemisphere this sense of gathering gloom, met with festive lights, seems an altogether fitting climate for Advent and the approach of Christmas.
The Collect throughout Advent petitions for grace to ‘cast away the works of darkness’. Looking at the world today it can feel that this call continues to go unheeded. Both cold and darkness will be the experience for many people, some of whom would never have imagined a time when they would need to choose between eating and heating. In the trenches and dugouts of Eastern Ukraine, soldiers will face winter warfare away from family and friends. In a world where wealth abounds for the few, most will struggle to find the basic securities and necessities of life. There is little need for ghost stories when the grizzly realities of life are so close at hand.
Once lost, it is never easy to retrieve from darkness the things we took for granted. Nevertheless, both Advent and Christmas feed the imagination of a better time; a more just world; and salvation from our own, dreadful, folly. Churches – at the only time of year when many people attend – are charged with holding out the vision and promise of something more worthy of our potential. To speak especially to ‘the people who walk in darkness’ and to stand with those who know their need of God. During the next few weeks we shall invite people in to taste something of the ancient hope the church is called to cherish and proclaim. More often than not, it won’t be the powerful who ask for grace so that we might live in light. As the poet Stewart Henderson puts it:
Don’t miss Christmas –Extract from: Stewart Henderson, Don’t Miss Christmas’
the splendour of it all
our brittle, gift-wrapped anthem
sleeps in a cattle stall
as the poor and lost and starving
weakly start to sing
it seems only desperate subjects
recognise their King.