Advent Firesiders

Journeys (2005)

Near the beginning of Isaiah there is an enigmatic reference to a virgin conceiving and bearing a child and then more than 50 chapters of almost unmitigated gloom. Of course, there are occasional moments of hope, like that at the beginning of Chapter 40 which is read on Gaudete Sunday; but there is always a gloomy background.

I start my journey in gloom. I know that the light will come; of course I have seen it before; but that does not prevent the gloom at the beginning of the journey. Almost as if I was a child, Christmas seems so far away when we light the first purple candle.

There are two moments when the balance shifts; and they do not always occur in the same order. One moment comes when we light the pink candle, the day of joyful hope, when we are some way like half way through; this year we are exactly half way, next year it will be 2/3. From this time I begin to look forward. The other moment is when we recess at the Advent Carol Service to Lo, He Comes; I feel so emotional about this hymn that I can hardly sing, that my eyes fill with tears, that I almost choke. At last the crucial link is made between Advent, Christmas and Easter; the Manger and the Cross; the birth and the death; Mary's labour and Christ's wounds; the incarnated God, unborn and risen.

Then come the days of the Antiphons - O Wisdom, O Morning Star - and the triumphant, visionary, closing pages of Isaiah. This year the last purple candle is lit and we sing our carol service next year it will be the other way round. I like this last Sunday, as it is this year, to be early so that there is a long gap before the big day; Christmas Eve. I like a few days to remember what it was like for Mary and Joseph; but I also like waiting rather more than arriving.

We have almost completely lost the capacity to imagine such a journey as was made by the pregnant Mary, Joseph and the donkey. Nowadays we have suitcases on wheels, private cards and public transport, roads and hotels; whatever applied to the three kings in Eliot's poem applies even more harshly to these peasant folk. We have phones to see how the people are back home and we make arrangements for stand-ins at work. WE are stretching away from our usual centre but we are still connected.

In the time of Mary and Joseph a journey caused a radical break. Joseph's trade was stopped. The people left behind just had to wait anxiously. And the people on the road were in constant danger both from bandits and from occupying soldiers and Herod's militia. But they were poor, so it was probably not worth bothering them; there was nothing worth stealing and no bribe money.

And although pregnancy was thought of then as a natural hazard, there would be no doctors or midwives on the way. The baby only had a 40% chance of living past the age of two.

So the people of Nazareth - if that's where it was - waited for the return of the young couple and hoped they would be bringing a baby.