This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 08/12/2017.
What the season of Advent can offer Croydon
When I was a child, the sound of the Christmas carol ‘Once In Royal David’s City’ sung by a solo chorister in a candlelit church made the hairs on my arms stand on end. Down at Croydon Minster each December, it still does. But that wasn’t what happened on Sunday 3rd December, when I attended its Advent service. It isn’t time for that yet.
I’m sad about the decline of Advent. And it’s not just because, although I nostalgically purchased a calendar for my teenage children, I know they are humouring me by pretending to care about having one. Revealingly, they no longer compete over whose turn it is to open that day’s little door. By tradition, this season is December-up-to-Christmas-Eve, and it has a great deal to offer.
Our rush to Christmas is driven by uncertainty and fear
The era of premature jollification is, of course, the work of Evil Commerce, dragging the start of Christmas into mid-October. Advent is the antithesis of this. It tells us that we’ll just have to wait, and that if we do, the approaching thing will be better – and better appreciated – when it comes. But there’s something else going on. Our ever-increasing rush to Christmas is also driven by an uncertainty and fear of the future felt by so many in Croydon and nationally. Traditions comfort and reassure us in anxious times, so it’s understandable that we reach for them. But bad things don’t vanish just because we hurry on and pretend they aren’t there.
Anticipatory but not yet festive, the words and music of Sunday’s beautiful Advent service focused on the sadness and trouble of the world for which it promised that help is coming. Beginning with the Minster in darkness, then with a male solo voice in Gregorian chant “…thy holy cities are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation…” (words from the Biblical Old Testament – the book of the Jewish prophet Isaiah), it captured the wistfulness and yearning that, historically, accompanied the approach of the Christ Mass: Christmas. This particular service drew on traditions pre-dating even the Anglican Church’s 1559 Book Of Common Prayer: back then, to quote the evening’s programme, ‘the Advent offices made a more vivid preparation’. The purpose of this season was always to acknowledge the dark.
The language of Advent is both sorrowful and uplifting
Advent looks forward to the narrative Christians attach to the ancient midwinter festival – the birth of Jesus – and, through this, to the hope of a better future. I have that hope too, and it’s taking a battering right now. So the language of Advent – yes it’s bad, but don’t give up, look ahead, we’ll get through grief and despair, then build anew – is both sorrowful and uplifting. And whilst I may not agree with the solution presented by the angels, Croydon needs to hear something. We face rising knife crime. Our poorest communities are being destabilised by the pressures of gentrification. Our rubbish-strewn streets testify to how many of us feel so disconnected from our home environment that we will trash it again and again. There’s a housing crisis, and increasing strain on our education system and health service. Some comfort wouldn’t go amiss.
I’ve written before in the Citizen about how re-connecting with our roots can strengthen our town, giving us a clearer sense of who we are and where we come from, from which can arise dignity, self-respect and greater unity. Rituals like the marking of Advent have taken place at Reeves Corner for 1,000 years. They have much to offer us, whether or not we believe in their mythology. My (early) seasonal wish would be for more of them for Croydon, in the uncertain future we are all now facing.
If you love a traditional carol, or would like to hear some, whatever your background, this year’s Old Town carols by candlelight will be a delight. It’s taking place at the minster at 6:30pm on Sunday 10th December.