Monday, 6 December 2010

Have we tested and tasted too much already?

With the numerous Christmas parties and activities well under way (including many of those organised by the church) it is easy to forget that Advent is supposed to prepare us for the feasting of Christ’s nativity by leading us, like Lent, through a period of fasting and penance. Given how easily the word ‘austerity’ has been recast as the universal bogey-man of western living in the last twelve months there seems little prospect of the High Street embracing a more penitential or self-denying Advent, but we might expect more of those who claim to follow the child who will be born with the government of the world upon his shoulders.

The hopeful imagination on which we reflect in this Advent blog is rarely nurtured at the table where people have already ‘tested and tasted too much.’ Knowing so much and being materially so satiated many lives can turn stale and cynical, bereft of hope or imagination. Tipped into the perpetual activity of tinselled light and jingling sound that so infects this time of year it can be difficult to anticipate the deep mysteries of Christmas or appreciate it when it finally comes, because ‘through a chink too wide there comes no wonder.’ But the virtue of a hopeful imagination is commonly found among those who inhabit the disciplined rhythms of fasting and feasting, silence and speaking, lament and celebration.

Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘Advent’ offers us the possibility of a wonder restored and indeed an innocence reclaimed … in these lines below he shares his own hopeful imagination for life lived not only in the spirit of Christmas but through the disciplines of Advent: Four weeks of reading will not exhaust its treasure or curb its challenge:

We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child's soul, we'll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

O after Christmas we'll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We'll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we'll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won't we be rich, my love and I, and
God we shall not ask for reason's payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God's breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour-
And Christ comes with a January flower.

Here is a truly hopeful piece of imagining worthy of the prophets and of our attention: that after Christmas, wherever life ‘pours ordinary plenty’ there will a new richness in our lives so that we might bin the ‘clay-minted-wages of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour’ and truly welcome the Christ who comes ‘with a January flower.’ In the mean-time we might try to test and taste with some restraint and let the wonder in.

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