Chris McDonnell shares his ‘Catholic Times’ Advent Reflection

This Advent Coming

Chris McDonnell CT

In the Northern hemisphere, the weeks before Christmas are often dark and dank, “the ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of winter” as Eliot wrote in his poem The Journey of the Magi.

So Advent, the Coming, a time of preparation for the Christ Saviour is a time of waiting, a time for getting ready. The Liturgical year begins with the First Sunday in Advent this weekend; we begin again the story of our Redemption with days that lead to the birth of a Child.

The following pieces, one written for each Sunday in Advent are formed in the structure of the Japanese Haiku: 5 syllables, then 7 and then 5.

Read them slowly and then read them again and in the space between reflect on the enormity of the story.


Four Advent haikus

Advent 1

Fog found December days

in chill expectation

of the Lord’s Advent


Advent 2

Days of waiting

in anticipation of the birth

of Him who comes

Advent 3

Four flames shape my song

that this very earth must sing

fire in the desert

Advent 4

Touch again the stones

that your open hands wear smooth

each silent morning

As we begin our Advent journey this year, we do so in a different mood. It is a mood of confinement and limitation of our usual activity at this time of the year. It is a challenge to accepted norms, what we have come to expect year in, year out, is suddenly called in question.

Maybe we should consider again the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote – “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”

It is certainly true this year that many of us are troubled in soul for our equilibrium has been disturbed and we have had to face many questions.

With the growth in worldwide infection rates and a rising death toll contributing to a huge strain on medical services, the purchasing and sending of cards and presents seems somehow out of place, almost trivial.

We still don’t know if we will have open access to our churches in the coming liturgical season of Advent, let alone the days to mark the Nativity of the Lord, usually even in these years of doubt, the occasion of packed churches.

The Sundays of Advent have been marked by the lighting of the four purple candles on the Advent wreath culminating in the lighting of the fifth candle of Coming on Christmas Eve. The Advent wreath is a recent tradition begun in Germany in the early 19th century. The options for continuing the practice this year are not encouraging.

The Advent calendar is another traditional companion for children to mark the days of December when, with each passing day, another window is opened.

The essence of Advent is waiting for the fulfilment of promise, a memory of the Old Testament promise fulfilled in the Christ and an expectation of his Second Coming. The theologian Karl Barth wrote “If anywhere at all, then it is precisely in the light of the coming of Christ that faith has become Advent faith, the expectation of future revelation. But faith knows for whom and for what it is waiting. It is fulfilled faith because it lays hold on the fulfilled promise.” It is only in the shadow of Advent that the miracle of Christmas can be fully understood and appreciated, and it is only in the light of Christmas that the Christian life makes any sense.

The gathering of families is part of our traditional celebration of the Feast of Nativity. Given our present circumstances it is unlikely to happen this year with limited numbers allowed to assemble round the table. Neither, beyond our homes, will the usual office and workplace gatherings take place.

The buzz and excitement of Christmas shopping may also well be missing whether or not we are in lockdown. There will be hesitancy in mixing with crowds of people, masked or not. Maybe this year will bring a simpler approach to our festivity. With the razzmatazz tuned down, we will be left with the essence of Nativity and the story of a Child, left with the challenging question ‘Child where have you come from?’ The development of mystery can so easily become cluttered with trivia and the simplicity of the gospel narrative ignored.

The mid-Winter loneliness of December days in the Northern hemisphere offers time for reflection, time to revisit the stories of our faith. The countless Nativity plays that have marked these days in our schools have told this story year after year. Parents have gathered to see their young children take part, wearing countless tea towels and cloaks, forgetting their lines and enthusiastically waving when parents and grandparents are spotted in the audience.

The singing of carols may not grace our Advent days with their usual familiar tunes, their very absence invoking memories. A few years back I wrote these few lines one morning in a crowded coffee house.

‘Words do not call a sharper tune,

the sky is grey and overcast, the air is chill.

Voices echo in the surrounding space.

Late November will soon be here and gone,

herald of Advent days and urgent ways of journey.

Each time, setting out from one place

to another, walk the lonely path.

Stable-shelter for the night

till time of delivery, arrival of life’s fragment

amid strife and argument of bedded beasts.

Strip away the gloss and glitz

of countless years realise face to face

this Child’s testament of tears.’

One positive outcome might be achieving a rebalance between the feasts Christmas and Easter, feasts of birth and resurrection that tell the story of our Christian Faith.

Christmas is often associated with the plight of the homeless, those forgotten by an affluent society as we cross the road to avoid a challenging reality. Given the pressures of lockdown, their story poses a tragic reality.

This year, as you walk the Advent days that herald the new Liturgical year, the experience will be different, secure footfalls hard to find. Yet still, in this stripped down story, the essence a story will be retold, as it has been again and again down the years. The prophet Isaiah, the prophet of Advent, continually calls on us to welcome the Christ Child, Emmanuel, God with us. We do so this year with heavy hearts and anxious voices but still with hope for future days. Pulled up short on our journey we have a new reality to face, uncomfortable questions disturb our peace. But always we should reflect on the words from Ecclesiastes:

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: … A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

Those words were memorably used by The Byrds in their song Turn, Turn, Turn first released in 1965.

Living with present uncertainty, this is our time of discernment, may we use it well.

Advent blessings!

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  1. Kevin Walters says:

    “Child where have you come from?

    Brightest of star in the darkest of night
    The Spirit of God revealing His light

    Innocence lay on bed of hay
    Is this what his gentle eyes do say?
    All wise men play their part,
    When searching for His light within the dark
    Gold frankincense and myrrh
    Within the righteous heart do stir
    Truth is love this must be understood
    No manmade decree
    It is the action of Truth that sets mankind free
    Deception and deceit are trod upon
    By His holy feet
    Humble of heart, placid moon, twinkling star
    All mankind shall know who you are

    May the light of the new-born Jesus
    Dwell in our hearts
    May its radiance embellish its self within us
    And the gift of His joy (Holy Spirit) be ours
    This Christmas time and always

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. Kevin Walters says:

    Yes !

    “Living with present uncertainty, this is our time of discernment, may we use it well. One positive outcome might be achieving a rebalance between the feasts Christmas and Easter, feasts of birth and resurrection that tell the story of our Christian Faith.”

    In the early fifties when I was a young child the vast majority of Christmas Cards depicted themes from the nativity, nowadays they are almost non-existent. (This might not be so in Ireland.) I wonder why I have never heard within a sermon, encouragement given to use this medium to help keep alive the Christian message. I usually (almost always) send Christmas cards with a Christian theme, for not to do so, would deny my own Christian witness.

    My discourse with Timothy on another site in America:

    “Thank you, Timothy, for your comment. It is good to hear that you send authentic Christmas Cards. I am unsure how to comment to “And when we receive “Frosty the Snowman” Christmas cards from some friends or relations, we do not display them. We toss them out.”

    Hi! Timothy, in my last comment to you I did not fully respond to this part of your post “And when we receive “Frosty the Snowman” Christmas cards from some friends or relations, we do not display them. We toss them out.” As I needed to reflect upon the full implication of the said statement. I initially asked myself this question, how do we judge the intent of the sender, as most of us receive cards from neighbours and colleagues, to bin them (toss them out), could be seen as a form of bigotry.

    I personally do not bin them rather I give pride of place (main fireplace mantel) to those with an authentic Christmas theme. But now after reflecting upon your post, I will augment this by placing all the authentic cards around the simplicity of a small crib, that we display over the Christmas period, while putting the others close to the Christmas tree, with its baubles and other forms of trinkets. This will ensure that any visitor will understand our values, while not becoming ‘Frosty the Snowman’.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  3. Eddie+Finnegan says:

    ab initio
    erat Verbum. The rest are
    words in a haiku.

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