The first Sunday in Advent is tomorrow, and as we plunge into the madness of Yule festivities, it seems a good idea to remind our selves of the hidden realities of the season. These few paragraphs are from the essay 'Barking at Angels' in Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding, London: BRF, 2011; and Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2013.
Barking at Angels
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
A few years ago the Bodleian Library published a Christmas card that showed the Annunciation to the Shepherds—or rather, to one shepherd, who is standing on a hillside shielding his eyes from the glory of the herald angel. Beside him, his cheeky dog is doing what good sheepdogs do: barking at the strange intruder. It is not hard to imagine the poor shepherd, in dread and awe of this staggering vision, trying to get the dog to shut up long enough to hear what the angelic messenger is saying.
I often wonder if all the fretful, frenetic activity in our lives isn't a human way of barking at angels, of driving away the signs that are everywhere around us; signs that are calling us to stop, to wake up, to receive a new and larger perspective, to pay attention to what is most important in life, to behold the face of God in every ordinary moment. These signs press on us most insistently at the turning of the year, when earthly light drains from our lives and we are left wondering in the dark.
The church from ancient times recognised the spiritual value of this winter span of darkness and created in its liturgy what we might think of as a three-months-long Night Office, beginning with the Feast of All Saints on the first of November and ending with Candlemas on February second. This season is a vast parabola of prophecy and vision, a liturgical arcing of eternity through the world's midnight.
The readings—especially those from Isaiah and Revelation—do their best to subvert our perceptions of time and space in order to plunge us into the great stillness at the heart of things, the stillness necessary to make space for what is 'ever ancient and ever new' to break through the clamour of our minds, to open our hearts to the Beloved, to annunciation, and to fruition. Eternity is our dwelling place even in time if only we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the heart to welcome. 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,' cry the seraphs, their voices shaking the foundations even as their ineffable wings fold us into the stillness of God (Isaiah 6:3).
Only in this stillness can we know that eyes are being open and ears unstopped; that the lame are leaping like deer and those once silenced singing for joy; that water is springing in the parched wilderness of our pain. Only as we are plunged into the depths of this obscure stillness can we know the wonderful and terrible openings of the seals and the book; the rain of the Just One; the heavens rent by angels ascending and descending; the opening of graves and gifts, of hell and the side of Christ.