By the Revd Canon James Mustard
It’s sometimes argued that, at this time of year, churches spend too much time on colluding with the consumerism and razzle-dazzle of commercial Christmas. That instead we should focus on the time of watching, waiting and preparation that is more properly associated with the season of Advent.
This year feels very different. Not only does it feel as if, due to the Pandemic, we have never really left the penances of Lent, but we now face a decidedly downbeat December. We’re doing the best that we can, of course, but this month, is not going to be the usual round of parties and gatherings we are used to – and which some of us badly need! Instead, this is an Advent season marked by restraint, by modest movements and – thanks be to God (and the art, dedication collaboration and skill of scientists) – the future hope of vaccinations and a gradual return to more normal and social ways of living.
As a Cathedral, then, we are having solely to offer hope. We can’t offer much else this year. But, happily, that is exactly what this season is for: preparation, expectation and hope. This season, however dispiriting it may be – the cold and darkness are certainly bearing down upon us – leads us towards light, the Light of the World, breaking into creation as one of us: God’s Word made – in all its strange messiness – flesh.
Advent has been at the heart of this Cathedral’s identity since it was established in this location, in 1050. Our first Bishop, Leofric, brought with him is library, and in it the Exeter Book, a collection of poems written in Old English. The first section of the book consists of meditations upon Advent, upon what it means for God to come into the world as one of us. Much of the imagery concerns buildings – the Saxon hall was the centre of community, of worship, of story-telling. The Hall became an allegory for individuals, society, the church. In a Cathedral, the Quire was intended to be a place of near perpetual worship and song, an image of heaven in this city – an extravagant, elaborate version of that Saxon hall, our place of community, storytelling and worship.
Over recent months, thankfully, public worship has resumed. But we are still not in the Quire of the building, its spiritual “heart”. It stands mostly darkened and as a socially-distant vestry for the choir. Its golden gates firmly shut. So, this passage of the Exeter Book’s Advent poem VIII “O true and peaceful, King of all kings…” has a particular resonance for me and is helping to keep me going, as we wait for the joyful return to the Quire. I’m sure all of us have a similar hope for “normality”, too.
ond þa gyldnan geatu, þe in geardagum
ful longe ær bilocen stodan,
heofona heahfrea, hat ontynan,
ond usic þonne gesece þurh þin sylfes gong
“Mildly bless this middle world
With your advent, Saviour Christ,
And those golden gates, which in former days
A long while stood locked,
Command to be opened, O High Lord of Heaven,
And then seek us by your visit,
Humble on earth. We need your grace.”