Looking out over the Weald of Kent as leaves turn with the autumn season my heart also turns to give thanks for all this natural beauty, the springs and autumns of my life. Christian theology, spirituality and art history have been the wells that I have explored and drunk from all my adult life. Married with four grown children and working as a lay university chaplain at Kings College London my life is pretty full. It has been a joy to take time to look and see with my eyes and heart and prepare these Advent meditations.
I am writing from my background in the Roman rite where for the season of Advent the liturgical colour is a deep royal purple as we await the coming of our King. On the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday, rose vestments may be worn and the question is asked: "Quomodo Veniet?" - How will he come to us?- the answer being the seven O antiphons sung from the 17-23 December to accompany the Magnificat at Vespers. Each antiphon invokes Christ's presence with his Old Testament name:
Sapientia (Holy Wisdom) Adonai (Holy Lord) Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse) Clavis David (Key of David) Oriens (Morning Star) Rex Gentium (King of All Nations) Emmanuel (God-with-us)
Taking this as my beginning I invite you to come with me as we look and pray with Byzantine icons portraying Christ coming to us this Advent:
First Sunday of Advent: Christ Pantocrator. Second Sunday of Advent: John the Baptist with Christ and the Mother of God. Third Sunday of Advent: Christ in Glory. Fourth Sunday of Advent: The Annunciation. Christmas Day: The Virgin Eleousa (tenderness).
I have written these visual meditations to draw on phrases and images from the lectionary readings for the particular Sundays of Advent they belong to but mainly have used the opportunity to write an Advent retreat that helps me! And my thinking is that our healing/saving journey home this Advent is also the fullness and completion of our life in Christ. As much as any retreat becomes so.
So I think it is helpful to look closer at the holy readings of Advent that help someone (me) begin to make sense of the Divine mystery beyond all our comprehendings. My hope is that this contribution will challenge and encourage others to see that the gratuitous gift of the Incarnation is all about growing in our capacity to welcome Christ into our lives and grow into him. Something that happens in a circular motion with unexpected transformations that lead us into other dimensions of our hidden selves. Fr Thomas Keating has written about contemplative prayer as a spiral and I think this works. We return to the same place, the same date in the diary, like the start of Advent, but are in a new dimension of receptivity, self-knowledge and God-given identity on the spiral.
I am moved by the Second Coming connections made by the early Church Fathers with the Transfiguration and in the meditation for Gaudete Sunday I thought it would be interesting to show old/new connections between sacred images and feasts that we don't always make. Our own personal salvation history is never linear but more an extraordinary interconnecting spiral. As are the traditional contemplative stages of purgation, illumination and union; St John of the Cross' Dark Nights; and St Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle. It is possible and probable that one may be in or near the seventh mansion and yet still battling with the "demons" of the earlier mansions. Perhaps this is because our spiritual life is about an ever deepening and growing capacity to surrender to and receive God who is "all in all". Hence our Advent is also our spring Lent and our summer Lent as the early Irish Church so deeply understood.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that I hope and pray the Holy Spirit will guide our hearts and minds as we prepare ourselves to bear Christ for the world this Advent and as we look forward joyfully to His final coming.
The Icon above: Archangel Gabriel - 13th century (tempera on wood) from the Holy monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai. 105 x 75 cm