Reviving Advent, Reclaiming Christmas by Ruth Grayson. Grove Books Ltd 2015
I have called this a book review but it would be more accurate to call it a booklet review. It is only 25 pages long but Ruth Grayson manages to give plenty of food for thought in this slim volume. Reading it made me realise how little thought I have given to Advent and that I have tended to see it as a countdown to Christmas rather than an important time of reflection in its own right. Grayson compares it with Lent and points out that there are many more resources to guide us through Lent than there are for Advent, which is ‘remarkable’ considering how important Christmas is in the church calendar. She suggests that this indicates a lack of time to spend in quiet reflection because the festive season is so busy, one of the problems she is keen for the church to tackle.
The aim of the booklet is to act as an Advent study, which can be used by individuals or groups and be a weekly guide or used for a day-long session. Grayson suggests that the study will bring the most benefit if started before Advent begins because Advent gets so busy. Having read it I agree that the questions she raises require considering in good time if we want to alter our Advent practices as a result. Grayson’s hope is that the booklet will help readers to reach an understanding of Advent and find a way of establishing practices for their observance of it.
There is quite a bit of information packed into this little booklet and it gives some historical context to the season of Advent and Christmas. Grayson also uses biblical passages, questions and prayers in each chapter to provoke us to think about our own Advent and Christmas observances. In just 25 pages she raises many thought provoking points and highlights the many ironies of the season. She makes clear where many of us have become theologically confused in our thinking about Advent and Christmas. This can make for uncomfortable reading as it is hard to avoid acknowledging that much of my approach to Advent and Christmas has been dictated by secular practices rather than Christian theology. In theory I know what the significance of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany are but in practice I have given little thought to it because Christmas Day takes such prominence both within and outside the church. It is helpful to read in black and white just how far our behaviour in Advent has strayed from the original intention of the church for this liturgical season. Grayson urges serious reflection on practices such as gift-giving, not saying that we should end such things altogether but suggesting that we need to think carefully about the nature of these activities and why we are doing them.
Most of the booklet is not prescriptive and encourages Christians to prayerfully reflect on their attitude to Advent. In the final chapter practical suggestions are made and these are mainly aimed at churches as a whole. I found these suggestions of particular interest as a CS as she argues for a longer Advent (to start on Christ the King Sunday) and for the 12 days of Christmas to be kept, with Epiphany, rather than the 25th December as the culmination of our celebrations. Many church activities which typically fall in Advent could be held after the 25th which would take the pressure off and create more space for reflection and meditation during Advent. By keeping the 12 days of Christmas, Christmas Day would no longer receive such a disproportionate amount of focus. Of course fellow CSs know that most of our OHs take the week (apart from Sunday services) after Christmas Day off which is generally much needed because they are knackered. Grayson refers to the ‘overworked clergy’ twice and is clearly aware that they experience a tough workload at this time. Perhaps if December was not such an overwhelmingly busy month clergy would not need to collapse by Boxing Day. Grayson also argues that lay leaders and others in the church should help with services during Advent and after Christmas Day so that it does not all fall to clergy (of course this is easier said than done depending on each church’s situation).
I think her ideas certainly deserve full consideration and hold some serious challenges for the church. It has prompted me to ask whether the church is a refuge from the pressure of Christmas or part of this pressure and I cannot help thinking that the state of many clergy and their families by Christmas Day is perhaps points to the answer. I have found it a useful resource in thinking about how our family and church approaches the season. The incredible depth to the themes of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany which Grayson points to makes me wonder why we have abandoned so much of what is truly life-giving and worth celebrating about this time in the church year. Hopefully this booklet will help more of us to revive Advent and reclaim Christmas.