I’m trying to take Advent seriously this year by immersing myself as far as I can in the rich symbolism of watching and waiting, of light and darkness, of hope and fulfillment. So naturally it had to begin with this evening’s Advent Carol Service.
As part of this service we were all invited to come to the front to have our tea-light lit and put on to a circular tray of sand (flames in church can be risky – twice in my life I’ve been at services where there were individual candles in sort of cardboard shields, which caught fire!). When you are taught to meditate, a burning candle is often suggested as the focus, the point to which you return when your mind goes off track.
In the privacy of your own home, this will usually be a steady, still flame. But in a draughty Victorian church, and with lots of tea-lights in close proximity, you get a far more flickering, dancing effect. You can see here what I mean.
As the service went on, I started to see these lights in a very different way. At the beginning, however, the whole service – the candlelight, the familiarity of the ritual and of the readings, the hymns and choral pieces – was lulling me into thinking I was in a place of safety; the effect was like a warm duvet stuffed with tradition and promise and comfort. This was pulling me away from the questions I’ve wrestled with this year, and indeed for many years now: questions about how the church can be more relevant to the rest of my life and the lives of those we serve; questions about inclusion, and about how the church can welcome people who feel rejected because of their background, their race, their gender or their sexuality.
But these questions didn’t go away entirely. Where they resurfaced particularly was when we sang as our final hymn ‘Hills of the North, rejoice’. It’s the product of a particular period’s obsessions. A 2011 article by Susan Kermas describes how, in contrast to America, in England the “increased awareness of social injustice especially amongst the Evangelicals” didn’t lead to hymns that focused on justice, other than some missionary hymns which are “often modified or totally excluded from hymnals today because of their racial overtones”. The two examples she gives are Heber’s ‘From Greeneland’s icy mountains‘ (1819) – its reference to the “benighted” is pretty uncomfortable today – and Oakley’s ‘Hills of the north, rejoice’ (1864). As for ‘Hills’, back in 1984 Janet Morley commented that it was “clear that this old missionary hymn has been not merely emended, but extensively rewritten, so as to remove its neocolonial assumptions.”
As my friend Catherine Rowett wrote ten years ago now, you need to be careful with ‘Hills’. There are all sorts of variants around (and as ours tonight was on a printed separate service sheet I am not sure of its provenance). The New English Hymnal, for example, changes “Shout, while ye journey home” into “Shout, as you journey on”, thus missing any sense of traveling towards death and into life after death. Today we had the ‘home’ version. NEH’s insertion of the “sons of earth” had in this evening’s version become “the universe”, which sounds to me like an improvement, and also changes the theology quite a bit, from human beings to the redemption of all creation. Thinking about the points where the familiar words with which I had grown up had shifted over my lifetime made me realize again that we change; the sense of tradition and the duvet effect is illusory, as our hymns have altered both because of new theological understandings and because of changes in society.
And what about the flickering tea-lights? As I watched them move, they looked more like souls in torment than the light which shines in the darkness and which the darkness can never extinguish. They looked fragile, disturbed, and perhaps rather closer to the realities of the lives of those in the congregation. I started to wonder about the powerful symbolism of light and darkness, day and night, which permeated the church service. In our lives, it isn’t light and dark; what we experience is more often a mixture of both, or a dawn that doesn’t quite break.
And what about that circle around the lights? The more I looked at it, the more disturbed I was by the wall which was formed. And there across from them was another wall, with its own lights dancing crazily inside it. Maybe, I thought, those of us who shelter behind the wall of the church aren’t very different from those who shelter in other communities, other groups to which people go in search of meaning. What would happen if we got rid of our walls and started to talk?