John Betjeman: Advent 1955

As today is the first Sunday of Advent, I had been hunting around for some time for a suitable poem with which to mark the day. Similar to the way in which one might search about looking for new clothes and then find a warm, well-worn and perfectly fitting jumper already there in the cupboard, I eventually (and thankfully) stumbled across John Betjeman’s Advent 1955, perfect for the occasion not just because it actually has the word ‘Advent’ in the title, but because it conveys (in typically comforting yet deceptively astute Betjemanian fashion) a good deal of what Advent is all about – true conversion of spirit, effected by gratitude and expressed in generosity.

The poem begins by bringing to mind the particular weather that exists at this time of year (particularly in Britain), where the crisp air of autumn begins to take on a bit of an extra bite and the nights grow darker still. Betjeman here manages to conjure up in marvellously vivid fashion that feeling of winter weather ‘setting in’ – in the landscape around, in the growing wildness of the season and in the feeling of the cold beginning to reach into one’s very bones. There is also at this time of year a sense of time quickening – something that Betjeman contrasts to the prolonged and languid days of summer, and which evokes the dominant theme of Advent; that of expectation and of a growing sense of meeting what the future holds in store for us.

At this point Betjeman has some of his beloved church bells announce the time of Advent, and uses this as a platform from which to ask us the questions – what are we looking forward to, and how do we prepare for it? He then produces a litany of the many ways in which we subvert this period, cheapening it with commercialism and confirming ourselves in petty parsimony. By drawing our attention to these things, so prevalent amongst us yet so antithetical to the spirit of Advent, we are prepared to see precisely how we really should be behaving instead. Preparation for reflection on the Birth of Christ and his Second Coming should involve cultivating within ourselves a spirit of gratitude and generosity, and, as Betjeman’s concluding lines submit, the latter of these should flow from the former.

In the Incarnation, God gave us His very self, uniting His divine Person to our human nature, drawing to Himself all our weaknesses and affording us the opportunity to enter into the riches of that life which we have rejected. Furthermore, in doing this He showed us His true nature – One who yearns to draw close to His creatures, and is thus willing to humble Himself in order to do so. During Advent, as we look forward to the image of the Child born into poverty, in straitened circumstances and (in a double sense) distant from home, we look to a God who greatly desires that we know Him and who comes to deliver us from the selfishness of sin – it is our gratitude for this great gift that should inspire us to give of ourselves as Our Lord gives to us, and it is the extent to which we, in love, pass on the gifts we have received by which we will be judged when He comes again:

 

The Advent wind begins to stir

With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,

It’s dark at breakfast, dark at tea,

And in between we only see

Clouds hurrying across the sky

And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry

And branches bending to the gale

Against great skies all silver-pale.

The world seems travelling into space,

And travelling at a faster pace

Than in the leisured summer weather

When we and it sit out together,

For now we feel the world spin round

On some momentous journey bound –

Journey to what? to whom? to where?

The Advent bells call out “Prepare,

Your world is journeying to the birth

Of God made Man for us on earth.”

            And how, in fact, do we prepare

For the great day that waits us there –

The twenty-fifth day of December,

The birth of Christ? For some it means

An interchange of hunting scenes

On coloured cards. And I remember

Last year I sent out twenty yards,

Laid end to end, of Christmas cards

To people that I scarcely know –

They’d sent a card to me, and so

I had to send one back. Oh dear!

Is this a form of Christmas cheer?

Or is it, which is less surprising,

My pride gone in for advertising?

The only cards that really count

Are that extremely small amount

From real friends who keep in touch

And are not rich but love us much.

Some ways are indeed very odd

By which we hail the birth of God.

We raise the price of things in shops,

We give plain boxes fancy tops

And lines which traders cannot sell

Thus parcell’d out go extremely well.

We dole out bribes we call a present

To those to whom we must be pleasant

For business reasons. Our defence is

These bribes are charged against expenses

And bring relief in Income Tax.

Enough of these unworthy cracks!

“The time draws near the birth of Christ”,

A present that cannot be priced

Given two thousand years ago.

Yet if God had not given so

He still would be a distant stranger

And not the Baby in the manger.

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