Just before 7am on Thursday morning, a blackbird began to sing – I am not sure where it was, but one often picks a spot on the church roof just near the church hall. Already this autumn I had heard a late evening chuckle from deep within a hedge, but this was the first concentrated burst of blackbird song since the dawn chorus fell silent in the summer.
For me, a blackbird’s song, which frequently bookends the day by piercing the dark just before dawn and making a return at children’s lullaby time, is a great bringer of joy and hope. Eleanor Farjeon felt the same when she wrote that great hymn:
Morning has broken
Like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird.
People don’t always notice that at this time of the year – the church season of Advent – the dawn chorus splutters back into life. It is quieter and more subdued, but just like the trees shedding their leaves, which also allows the fresh buds to emerge, this is a lull with a purpose. It marks a subtle but vital step in seasonal change.
By the way, blackbirds also make an unacknowledged appearance in ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, as the ‘calling birds’ of day four were originally the coal black birds, so I can justify this extended reflection at least on seasonal grounds.
That hidden blackbird, whose insistent song from within the darkness made me turn off the distracting chatter on the radio so I could listen and come fully awake, seems to me a perfect harbinger for the arrival of the season of Advent, and a symbol that illuminates its most prominent themes.
The Gospel this morning is about the unexpected but glorious return of Christ. In it Jesus reinforces his message that to be ready for the Kingdom of God requires a constant wakefulness – as in the parables we have been thinking about over the last few weeks, such as the parable of the ruthless boss (otherwise known as the Parable of the Talents) and of the Last Judgement where the sheep are sorted from the goats on the basis of how they treated the vulnerable in society. A message summed up, perhaps, by the pithy phrase of Jesus that he will return like a thief in the night.
The eminent New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has argued forcibly that this call to alertness is not meant to create an attitude of fearful panic but a transformation of values and priorities. Advent has a double edge, of course, because it is also a time of preparation for our celebrations of the birth of Christ – Christ who, due to the powers gathered against him, came into the world, if you think about it, if not like a thief, then like a fugitive in the night, almost immediately being taken by his parents to safety in Egypt!
Traditionally, Advent has been a listening time, a contemplative time, and a preparation time – not for the busy and mixed up winter festival that Christmas has become – but for the meaning of it all. For how Christ shapes and can deepen the lives we lead in a very discordant and noisy world – a world that constantly conspires to distract us.
To use one of the images most deeply associated with Advent, this is a time to look to the light that can guide us through the darkness. And to use another, ‘to listen’; in the language of hymns: ‘to hark’. As in two of the best known Advent hymns.
Hark! A herald voice is calling:
‘Christ is nigh,’ it seems to say;
‘Cast away the dreams of darkness,
O ye children of the day!’
Hark the glad sound! The Saviour comes,
The Saviour promised long!
Let every heart prepare a throne,
And every voice a song.
I think I will leave it there this morning.
Just, finally, to return to my image of the blackbird singing in the darkness before dawn. At this time when every year we think most about carols, and in this year when we wonder whether we will be able to sing them, maybe our silence can help us listen out for God’s song – in our deepest thoughts and yearnings and in the grace, kindness and beauty of the people we might tend to rush by in ‘normal times’!