“Wintering out the back end of a bad year, swinging a hurricane lamp in some outhouse,” lines from Seamus Heaney’s poem Servant Boy are the only ones I have found adequate to the mood of the moment. The grey, damp darkness of the dog end of November expresses the monochrome shadowy existence to which life has been reduced for many millions of people.
Talking with young people, they express a sense of gloom, a sense of oppression, a sense that there seems no end to the the months of restrictions, monotony and anxiety. Perhaps the issues are more psychological than practical, no-one is going to starve, no-one is going to be deprived of their home, no-one is going to be deprived of health care or education, but there is a palpable feeling of despondency. There is also a growing resentment towards authority and anyone whom they deem responsible for the constraints in their lives.
For centuries, the season of Advent was a time to lift the mood of the cold and dark days. In times before the secure food supplies now enjoyed by developed societies, the winter presented a real threat to the survival of the poor. The countdown to the winter solstice was a countdown to the returning of the light.
The supplanting of the pagan midwinter festival by the Christian feast of Christmas meant the possibility of clothing the story of the Nativity in the symbolism that surrounded the former solstice celebrations. Light became the theme of the Christian celebration, Christians would come to gladly assert that the light has shone in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. They would read the words from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah exhorting people to arise and shine because their light has come.
Were it not for the lockdown, it would be possible tomorrow to step inside the walls of Worcester Cathedral as the afternoon light died and to sit transfixed as the voices of the choir cut through the gloom and the advent candles brought a magic in the darkness.
Perhaps the greatest lack in the life of those to whom I talk on a daily basis is a sense of the magical, a feeling of transcendence. All that matters is the here and now. Among most of the boys, all that matters is the electronic games to which they devote their every spare moment. When the context of their day to day existence becomes misshapen, when the shops are closed, when they cannot go to the houses of friends, then they become isolated, marooned, disillusioned.
To winter out the back end of this bad year is the best to which most people would aspire.
Were the church of relevance to people’s lives, it might do something prophetic, something that pointed to the story of Jesus, something that demonstrated his giving of himself. I long ago gave up hope that the church could every be capable of the sort of faith that really brought light into darkness.
In ordinary times the sound of “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” tomorrow afternoon would speak of a mystery that transfigured life. In the current times, the only sound will be of traffic trying to get to the few shops that remain open.