Advent calendar 6: ‘There is No Rose of Such Virtue’, sung by the Tallis Scholars
Advent calendar 5: Sinterklaasavond, ‘St Nicholas’ Eve’.
In the Netherlands, Sinter Klaas arrives by steamboat from Spain today, accompanied by his assistant Zwarte Piet, ‘Black Peter’, who has been recoloured and refigured in various ways in recent years to try to make him less offensive, but who remains very identifiably an African slave, circa 1600. Together, Sint and Piet distribute chocolate letters of the alphabet to good children.
Then, presumably, the saint flies westward across the Atlantic to New Amsterdam. In a Manhattan phone booth (if he can still find one) he removes his mitre, lays down his crook, and snips the crosses off his red and white robes, before emerging as Santa Claus.
Advent calendar 4: from ‘The Box of Delights’ by John Masefield
'I do wish,' Maria said, 'that we could hear of a gang of robbers in the neighbourhood, come down to burgle while people are at dinner, and hear all their plans, and be ready waiting for them and then have a battle with revolvers.'
'I hope we may get through Christmas without that,' Caroline Louisa said.
'Christmas ought to be brought up to date,' Maria said; 'it ought to have gangsters and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols.'
After lunch, Kay went out with Peter to look for the Punch and Judy man. It was a dark, lowering afternoon, with a whine in the wind, and little dry pellets of snow blowing horizontally. In the gutters, these had begun to fall into little white layers and heaps.
'I say, it is a foul day,' Peter said. 'I'll go back and get a coat. You go on; I'll catch you up. Which way will you go?'
'Down towards Dr Gubbinses,' Kay said. 'But you'd better ask for the Punch and Judy man: and look for him, not for me.'
Kay went on alone into the streets. He thought that he had never been out in a more evil-looking afternoon. The marketplace had emptied, people had packed their booths, and wheeled away their barrows. As he went down towards Dr Gubbinses, the carved beasts in the woodwork of the old houses seemed crouching against the weather. Darkness was already closing in. There was a kind of glare in the evil heaven. The wind moaned about the lanes. All the sky above the roofs was grim with menace, and the darkness of the afternoon gave a strangeness to the firelight that glowed in many windows,
From the cross-roads behind him a rider came cloppetting up, the horse slipping a little, the rider bent down into a long white overall to keep the snow from blowing down his neck. ‘How d’ye do, Master Kay’ the rider cried, checking his horse and looking down upon him. Kay did not recognise the man, but he noticed that his eyes were very bright. The man suddenly put his right hand to his chin. The hand wore a pale wash-leather glove; outside the glove on the middle finger was a gold St Andrew’s cross, set with garnets.
'They tell me, Master Harker,' the man said, 'that the Wolves are Running…'
John Masefield, The Box of Delights (1935)
Advent calendar 3: from ‘Night Office’ by Simon Jarvis
Every last person in this book is dead,-
including me. I’m talking to you, yes,
thanks to my poet; he, thanks to me; my head
shakes and reverberates, while, less and less,
the waves of sound diminish, and, instead,
a lasting silence fills me, and I rest.
Now in this blackness I begin to sing.
invisible is every little thing:
all, all, invisible, but that, just there
right at the far end of the long thin room,
there where the curtain is ajar, I stare
into the night, all night, as one for whom
all locomotion is impossible, and where
the thin gap stands, I watch when through the gloom
flake after flake of trembling distant snow
falls to the ground where I can never go.
They fall so calmly and so thickly; each
wavers yet drops directly to the ground.
They drift and cluster, like the purest speech
freed from all causes of dislike, whose sound
gathers, disperses, lets its easy reach
range freely through whatever thoughts are found
left in the air, available as breathing,
or in the open page whose quick conceiving
lets all surmises leave their prints and tracks
deep in its whiteness, where their pressures write.
Then, just as surely, these determined blacks
are filled by flake and flake, until the light
unthinking action of the snow conceals
every last record, and the gazer lacks
all means to know their having been. The night
welcomes and hides them: what each thinks or feels
is as obliterated as a name
drawn in the soft sand when repeated waves
delete at one stroke its uncertain fame,
leaving these empty flats. The corner where one shaves
is still invisible. The mirror in its frame
glimmers more darkly, where its pool just saves
the snow’s dim lights into its silver, and
they fall more slowly over by the stand.
Advent calendar 2: from Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979)
Advent calendar 1: from ‘Still in Darkness’, Jessica Martin
The season of Advent speaks to the enduring human condition of lack and longing, an unsteady state of being in which people live all year and for many years. The long vistas of Ordinary Time from which we have just come might be described in such a way, a kind of unstable semi-pilgrimage uncertain of the contours of its journey or of the location or true identity of its destination. The features of the land we travel may be clear enough in themselves, but we walk them in the dark.
The metaphor the scriptural poets of expectation employ is basic: darkness and light; the night that looks towards dawn. My soul waits for the Lord; more than the night watch for the morning; more than the night watch for the morning (Psalm 130).
It’s also, again in the most basic sense, a daily metaphor. The cycle of light and darkness is the most reliable of all our circumstances. Until there are no more days tomorrow is always another day. But the experience of the long night of waiting and watching is fraught with tension and saturated in human pain. A bad night can take a long time to be over, and the coming of the dawn can seem an impossible gift. People die at night; or are for ever changed. ‘When you went down into the water,’ writes Cyril of Jerusalem of the sacrament of baptism, ‘it was as dark as the night, and you could see nothing. But when you came up out of the water, it was like coming up into the day. That moment was both your death and your birth; that saving water was both your grave and your mother.’ The metaphors of darkness and light are often juxtaposed with those of saving water – with streams in the desert and the river of the water of life, with the chaos of the waters upon which the first light fell; with the metaphors of dawn and drowning which combine in Psalm 130.
The canticles of mercy and judgment are said every day; they mark unique events which spread out in front and behind the particular time in which they took place; they cannot be replaced or erased. The day-spring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness. And yet we human beings are still spending more of our lives in waiting and groping and searching than in felicity or in encounter. The cycle of dark and light marks promises, but what will come to us when we call?
When the crowd cries out, ‘Give us Barabbas!’, it is only probable, not inevitable, that we shall join in.
Thoughts for ‘Writing Faith’ seminar with Marilynne Robinson, King’s College London 28/11/13
The easy part of representing Christianity would seem to be the part to do with representing it as a human, social activity. Whatever else they are, churches are groups, tribes, institutions, with particular rules and habits of relating, and micro-politics — and hierarchies both of the formal kind and of charisma and informal authority — and with demanding ideals of behaviour that most probably will stand in temptingly ironic contrast to the actual behaviour of the people involved. All of which is rich fictional material in exactly the same way that the life of any defined group provides rich material for stories. We like hearing about villages, we humans; and maybe villages stirred up by some principle, to give a narrative tug to events, as ironic as you like, we enjoy most of all. This is the recipe for Trollope’s explorations of the cathedral close at Barchester, and for Barbara Pym’s novels of spinsters at evensong. It would seem that you could enter into this fictional territory without any metaphysical commitments, equipped only with a descriptive curiosity and a broad imaginative sympathy. Representing faith this way would be only as difficult - i.e. fiendishly difficult, but let’s not be downhearted - as representing any other idea-influenced piece of human activity. It wouldn’t pose a particular problem.
But although people go on writing this kind of story of religious life all over the planet, there hasn’t been a lot of Trollope or of Barbara Pym produced locally, lately; not in Western Europe, not in England. And I think our position in a culture where the religious tide has gone a very long way out, by global standards - leaving us on these secular mudflats, surrounded by interesting shells and rusty bicycles — shows us something that may not be apparent in other places, which is that the apparently descriptive, merely curious, village-life novel of faith, did in fact quietly depend on a metaphysical commitment.