How to have a prayerful Advent


St John Henry Newman did not temper Christianity to suit his readers’ delicate sensibilities. I was reminded of this when reading a recent Herald article by Michael Pakaluk, “Advent is a time to think about Christ’s Judgement”, which is a reflection on Newman’s own Advent sermon: “Worship, A Preparation of Christ’s Coming.” Pakaluk reminds us of the “Four Last Things”, death, judgement, hell and heaven; very present to Newman’s religious vision but rarely alluded to in sermons today.

Advent Reflections: Meditations for a Holy Advent, edited by Brandon McGinley (EWTN), collects together a variety of different meditations by English priests, including two bishops and one archbishop, from talks on the Catholic TV channel EWTN. They are a kindly reminder of the theological importance of Advent, less stringent than Newman but still a call to retreat from the world of Christmas shopping to the real world of our divine destiny.

Archbishop Michael Neary reminds us that “We do not know the time of judgement. We must wake up now” adding, the advice that “Fidelity in the present is the best preparation for the future.” Fr Ronald Creighton-Jobe points out that paganism, in all its manifestations, modern as well as ancient, means “darkness, hatred, envy, fear” – everything that Christ’s coming changed for good for those who follow Him. “Scripture tells us to have confidence, to believe, to persevere and above all, to be children of light” – quite different from “the world of nonsense and darkness in which we live”.

Bishop Alan Hopes points out that the Church, in its creative genius, “co-opted pagan practices”, translating the former “adventus” of the god and the anniversary of the accession of the emperor, alongside the “dies natalis” – the celebration of the “unvanquished sun of the winter solstice” – into a profoundly Christian preparation for the birth of our Saviour.

Fr Pat Lombard refers to the great Marian Feast of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated in the second week of Advent, proclaimed a dogma in 1854 but observed by the faithful from the 7th century onwards – an ancient reminder of why we love and show reverence towards Our Lady. Fr Gerald Skinner offers a reminder for readers to remember to pray to their guardian angels, recalling that “the angels and saints are present at the sacrifice of the Mass.”

Perhaps at this time we should also pray for the souls of those who do not know Christ or who have rejected him. I think particularly of Sir Jonathan Miller, the highly influential director of opera and the theatre for many decades, who died last week. On Sunday Radio 3 rebroadcast a 2009 interview between Miller and Norman Lebrecht, the music critic, in which Lebrecht , who introduced the director as an “outspoken atheist”, asked Miller what he thought about when directing the Saint Matthew Passion by the devoutly Christian composer, Bach.

Miller, of secular Jewish parentage, conceded the force behind the story of the death of Christ on the Cross but remained unmoved by anything other than its artistic and human implications; we can all understand about betrayal, treachery and disloyalty, just as we all regret our misconduct and our misdeeds. “The whole sequence is as powerful when it is secular as when it is religious”, he stated. Lebrecht forbore to press him further – but Christians might politely beg to disagree with Miller.