An Advent Prayer Walk

At Eastview we enjoyed walking our outdoor prayer labyrinth during Advent last year, so I determined to do something again this December. Thanks to all the wonderful resources on the internet, and in books I have been collecting up over thirty-plus years, there was a wealth of possibilities. I decided to go with a kind of "stations" approach, and found I ended up with nine, for no theological reason at all - I laughed when one of our elders said he followed it up with a nine station prayer walk of his own, round a local golf course! For any one not familiar with the notion of stations, they come from St Francis of Assisi's devotional practice of marking the final hours of Jesus. During the 15th and 16th centuries the Franciscan monks, who tend many holy sites in Israel,  began to build outdoor shrines in Europe to duplicate their counterparts in the Holy Land.  From the seventeenth century on they also erected the stations inside churches. The number of stations then varied between eleven and thirty, but later the number was fixed at fourteen. The object of the Stations is to help believers make a spiritual pilgrimage, focussed on the chief scenes of Christ's suffering and death. It has become one of the most popular Christian devotions for Lent, and most Catholic and some Anglican churches will have 14 of these positioned around the sanctuary. 

Our Advent Prayer Walk comprised a series of small tables placed around the edge of the main auditorium, moving into our (side chapel) prayer room, and ending up on the platform, where the December worship team had already set up an artistic installation  which suited very well as the endpoint. Each table had an open Bible with a passage highlighted, a wall poster with some words and images and in many cases other worship aids to touch the senses. I will take the time to describe each station here, as I freely pillaged other people's ideas and offer these to be utilised by anyone else. (I will try and add hyperlinks where I have them.)

Station One: 
The Surprise. 
Scripture: Luke 1: 35
Two paintings of the Annunciation were included: a brilliant glowing image from Tanner and a more muted one from Rossetti. Both portray a supernatural presence bringing the surprising, shocking news of Mary's selection as "mother of God". The poem on the wall is a version of Luke 1: 39 - 53 by Janet Morley and on the table, in the presence of an angel, is an Advent Reflection from Cloth for the Cradle by the Iona Community Wild Goose Worship Group. This piece asks the Lord to open our eyes to what he is doing in our lives and in our world. The Question provided at this station is 
"God,  for what are you longing in my life? Can I say Yes to it today?"

Station Two: The Girl. 
Scripture:  Luke 1: 42

The table is laid with a beautiful turquoise pashmina that speaks of the deep regard in which Mary has been held down the centuries.  Another image of the Annunciation  is here accompanied by an explanation of the artist Antonello da Messina's approach to this common devotional theme. Artists of that era often displayed their skills by painting "a ravishingly beautiful angel."   But this Italian Renaissance painter elects not to show us the angel or even Mary's home.  The angel may or may not be a physical presence in the room.  It’s not really an important issue for Antonello, because it is clear that Mary is certain of God’s word to her.  And Antonello doesn’t want us to be distracted by the angel’s magnificence.  For him, the truly noteworthy element of the story is Mary’s implicit trust in God’s vision of her future. On the poster there is also a poem by John Bell, beginning "What is this seed which God has planted?" and a prayer by one of my favourite contemporary prayer writers, Nick Fawcett. Taken from his little collection called Touching the Seasons (p12) , it is called The Expectant Mother and compares the certainty of a baby's arrival with our certainty of Christ's return. My question for this station is:
For what am I waiting, in my family, in my work, in my faith? How will I know when the time is right?  

Station Three: The Carpenter. 
Scripture:  Matthew 1: 19
On this simple home-made table we have tools of trade of Joseph the master craftsman: a hammer, plane and file. The image on the poster is Georges de La Tour’s Christ with St Joseph in the Carpenter’s Shop, an endearing glimpse of  man and boy at work by the light of a candle, and all the resonances that brings. The poem is called "Is this not Joseph's son?" a meditation, via the painting, on Joseph's fathering role, and is taken from another Iona book I  used a lot this year, Doing December Differently. (page 195). Also on the poster is a prayer adapted from a novena to St Joseph, a nine day Catholic devotional
O God, you love your people
and bless the ordinary lives we quietly live.
As you blessed Saint Joseph, bless what I do, 
however hidden and simple it may be,
and let all I do be done with love.
And help me trust in you, as he faithfully trusted,
In the name of His Son, Amen

Station Four: The Stable. 
Scripture:  Luke 2: 7
This station was the focus of the prayer walk and was set up on our largest table, the one we use for Communion. A ladder leaned from the table to a position just under a wall light. On it are laid a baby shawl , several worn nappies/diapers, and a plush toy lamb. A Greek sung litany, from the sixth century honours Mary  as "the heavenly ladder by which God came down." Next to the ladder is part of a Nativity scene, a lovely carved olive wood one I brought back from Bethlehem in 2000. On the wall are two images - an ancient icon of the Nativity, which is taken from an excellent discussion I found on, and a section of Ferdinand Arizti's contemporary painting. The focus of this 1989 image is an African human being released from the hand of God. In his explanation, Arizti says “God made man” portrays Jesus as an African American, to emphasise that the great gift of the incarnation was for all people of the world in time and space. The whole painting is hugely interesting and can be seen with comments at Hopeful Imagination. Also on the wall is a poem for Christmas, This tonight is the meeting place’ again from Wild Goose Resources' Cloth for the Cradle.  A book of children's Nativity puzzles added to the visual array and was meant to engage the attention of any kids accompanying parents on the walk. I forgot to mention that we also tried to have instrumental Christmas carols playing when people were in the sanctuary but our system doesn't have a continuous loop option!
A Christmas Prayer by Robert Louis Stevenson
Loving Father,
Help us remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the song of angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the wise men. Close the door of hate and open the door of love all over the world. Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting.

Deliver us from evil by the blessing which Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clean hearts. May the Christmas morning make us happy to be Thy children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus' sake,
Station Five: The Shepherds. 
Scripture:  Luke 2:8 
The next table is covered with grass matting, and has the shepherds and sheep from the olive wood creche. An art book lies open at the discussion of a painting by Ghirlandaio of the Shepherds gazing at the newborn baby. On the wall poster is an introduction by Muriel Kurtz to the cultural background of the Shepherds. She notes that  "they were the common people of their day, hardworking, dutiful people who kept strange hours....unlearned and unwashed, but wide-eyed with wonder, they were the first to see the Child." The poster also introduces the notion of Las Posadas, with a painting by Carmen Lomas Garza of a Christmas Procession in Mexico; that it includes a pinata of a lamb links it with this station for me. Young pilgrims, often in costume, go from house to house seeking shelter. Householders open their doors in welcome and the people in the procession are invited in to share food. People use the symbolic journey to help them recall all those who are travelling or far from home, including refugees and the homeless. Las Posadas offers us a way to ditch the insipid sentimentality of so many Christmases and explore how to “do December differently”. The question for this station is:
Who must I make haste to tell?

Station Six: The Visitors. 
Scripture: Matthew 2: 1 - 2
The sixth Station brings the Wise Men into the picture; the olive wood figures number three, though we know that number is tradition rather than Scripture. The artworks displayed here include an ancient mosaic from Ravenna and a Persian miniature by Behzad, who was rescued from a life of drunkenness by conversion to Christ. The lyrics of John Henry Hopkins' 1857 carol We Three Kings describes the prophetic gifts in helpful detail. Also on the poster is a poem from Nick Fawcett, about Christmas Crackers and how the Christmas season itself can prove to be a let-down, promising much yet delivering little. Some crackers and their contents are displayed, and the Magi's gifts of rich perfume (myrrh and frankincense)  are recalled with the offer of use of a fragrant hand cream. The Tony McLelland poem called "You Shouldn't Have" was particularly incisive and prompted some requests for a copy.

Station Seven: The Town. 
Scripture:  Luke 2: 16 - 17
Station Seven gave me the chance to pursue a contemporary justice agenda, with a focus on the Bethlehem of today, closed off from Jerusalem's jobs and resources by a huge concrete wall. On the table was a stole made by  women in Bethlehem, and a newsletter from Bethlehem Bible College, where I sponsor a Palestinian student. On the wall poster a piece by Dorothy Weaver tells how Bethlehem is still suffering and women are still "weeping for their children." The 2001 painting of the Biblical Massacre of the Innocents (scanned from Christ for all People) is by Zaki Baboun whose family home had recently been hit by a missile; I was in Jerusalem  in 2000 when the second intifada began, and can still recall the night sounds of helicopter gunships and missiles attacking nearby Bethlehem. O Broken Town of Bethlehem, a parody of a Christmas carol by Martin Nicholls,  challenges us to tell the "awful truth" today (update in 2016, the town is just as broken).

Station Eight: The World
Scripture: John 3: 16
The challenge for today is continued at Station Eight which brings the Christmas message into our own world. A globe is on the round table with a candle and a prayer journal, for writing in. On the poster is the Howard Thurman piece about the work of Christmas:
 When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock, the work of Christmas begins:To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others, To make music in human hearts.                       
Also on the poster is a twentieth century image of a gilded wooden icon, called Mother of God of Chernobyl. John Solowianiuk (Poland) has portrayed The Madonna weeping,  grieving for children with deformed limbs as a result of nuclear accident, the innocent victims of human arrogance. On her veil and shoulders are symbols of nuclear contamination, the background is studded with missiles, and Mary's  right hand is outstretched in protest and accusation. On the wall is a Helen Jesty poem reminding us that we need to "make time for tears to fall", as many of us "can't play happy families" in December. The flyer for our Christmas offering to Baptist Missions is also displayed.

Station Nine: The Way
Scripture: Philippians 2
The last station , was, as I mentioned, up on the stage, and was best viewed kneeling. A lit cross was draped in red cloth and surrounded by table lamps, while the hayfilled manger was adorned with red flowers. The poster included a Christmas prayer from the NZ Prayerbook, and another Nick Fawcett poem called Christmas Shopping. People were invited to write a thankyou prayer on a star in response to a litany to "Jesus the light of the world". My own poem "A sword-pierced soul" was there for reading, accompanied by another gem from the Iona Community beginning "When the world was dark.. you crept in" and ending "Do the same this Christmas, Lord." 

That has been not just my prayer but my experience as I created this contemplative journey. May God richly bless you in this New Year. 

Welcome, welcome, Jesus Christ our infant Saviour,
baby who makes every birth holy.
May we who like the shepherds have witnessed in the stable a new kind of love,
return to our work with joy.
 May we, for whom the heavens have opened to proclaim that God is with us,
go out to be instruments of your peace  day by day,  Amen. 
A New Zealand Prayer Book