Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Reading ‘Advent Calendar,’ a poem
by Rowan Williams, at a carol service

‘One night when the November wind / has flayed the trees to the bone’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

This evening at the Advent Carol Service organised by the students and staff of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, the students have asked me to read the poem ‘Advent Calendar’ by Archbishop Rowan Williams.

Rowan Williams included this poem in his first collection, After Silent Centuries (Oxford, 1994). It has since been included in The Poems of Rowan Williams (Oxford, 2002). ‘Advent Calendar’ was set to music by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies as one of the 44 Anthems in the Choirbook for the Queen, launched in Southwark Cathedral in November 2011. Last year, the Guardian published it as its ‘Saturday Poem’ on Christmas Eve, 24 December 2015.

Lord Williams of Oystermouth was the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, and since then has been the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He is a patristic scholar, theologian and historian, and did his doctoral work on Vladimir Lossky, a prominent Russian Orthodox theologian of the early-mid 20th century.

Williams is also a poet and translator of poetry. Of course, many other Anglican priests have been poets too, from George Herbert and John Donne to RS Thomas.

Beside his own poems, which have a strong spiritual and landscape flavour, his work includes several fluent translations from Welsh poets. Three years ago [26 November 2013], at Clare College, Cambridge, he delivered the annual TS Eliot Lecture, ‘Eliot’s Christian Society and the current political crisis.’

The Advent Collect speaks of Christ coming ‘to visit us in great humility’ and coming ‘in his glorious majesty.’ This evening’s poem, ‘Advent Calendar,’ captures the mood of expectation that marks the season of Advent, with the constant refrain, ‘He will come’:

He will come like last leaf’s fall…

He will come like frost…

He will come like dark…

He will come like child.

In this poem, ‘He will come like last leaf’s fall’: He comes to his own who do not receive him; like the last of the autumn leaves, he lies with the prophets and messengers Jerusalem has killed.

‘He will come like frost’: Christ comes with the surprising beauty of a first frost, as on that one morning when the world found itself awash in the ‘alien, sword-set beauty’ of his resurrection.

‘He will come like dark’: Christ comes on ‘a day of darkness and gloom’ (Joel 2: 2), his judgment unsettling our own. He comes, and God’s justice shines forth like ‘the star-snowed fields of sky.’

‘He will come, will come, will come like child’: Christ comes as a babe in Bethlehem, and the whole creation groans in travail for the new life of the world to come (see Romans 8: 22).

Christ comes, and it is the end and the beginning.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

The poem is haunting: austere, deep, searching, suffused with the wintry aches and longings that are particular and unique to this season. The language is as spare as naked trees, tough as hardened earth.

The four stanzas each elaborate a different simile: ‘he will come like’ the fall of the leaf, like winter’s frost, like darkness following a late afternoon flash of sunlight, like the cry of night-time. It stands in a long tradition of northern Europe poetry in which the cold short days around the winter solstice echo our wintry spirits when our light burns low.

Because this poem is truly an Advent Calendar, the stanzas taking us through the four weeks of Advent, one by one, to the point where you open those double-doors and glimpse what it has all been leading up to.

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
Has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
Wakes choking on the mould,
The soft shroud’s folding.


Week 1 of the calendar suggests a violent side to Advent. This kind of dying is not going gently into that good night, another Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, might have said. It is a sudden judgment at the turning of the year when beautiful autumn turns to bleak and death-like winter, stripped bare – like trees that are stripped bare … only to come to new life when winter turns to spring.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
Opens on mist, to find itself
Arrested in the net
Of alien, sword-set beauty.


Week 2 is quieter. The frost is stealing silently across a misty landscape that is going into hibernation. It is a tranquil winter day interrupted by suggestions that all is not as it seems. It is an arresting beauty that transfixes us, holds us in place, making it impossible for us not to pay attention, alert to God’s coming judgment.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
And penny-masks its eye to yield
The star-snowed fields of sky.


Week 3 takes us on towards the solstice and its ‘bursting red December sun.’ recalling John Donne’s weak winter sun whose strength is spent at the year’s midnight. When night falls, we find ourselves still outs in the cold, watching, waiting, wondering, longing, hoping against hope.

He will come, will come,
Will come like crying in the night,
Like blood, like breaking,
As the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.


The last stanza brings a dramatic conclusion with the fourth and final week ending in marvellous surprise. The threefold ‘will come, will come, will come’ echoes those three comings like knocks on the door. The repetition delays the revelation of what we are waiting for. It is something new – a voice, alive and breathing in a writhing and tossing world. We have been outside in the bleak midwinter, lost and helpless. But we are neither.

Christmas approaches. Like the morning Eucharist, broken and poured out, Christ comes among us as the Child. This Child who comes in love, is revealed at the final doors of the Advent Calendar.

Mid-winter snow in Cloister Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Advent Calendar © Rowan Williams

‘… earth / Wakes choking on the mould, / The soft shroud’s folding’ … snow covering the graves in the churchyard at Saint John’s Church, Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The CITI Advent Carol Service takes place this evening, 7 December 2016, in Saint Matthias Church, Ballybrack, Co Dublin, at 7 p.m.

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