"The cathedral's great glory is its Saxon crypt which dates from 672 AD and is one of the oldest in Europe. The crypt, less than 10 feet high and 7 feet wide, is part of one of England's first stone churches. This was founded by St Wilfrid in the middle of the 7th century to be the guardian of the Christian faith in the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria."
This description from an internet guide to Ripon Cathedral gives something of the sense of spiritual history which enfolds visitors to this tiny Saxon crypt. Yet it cannot convey the feeling of simply being within this sacred space and opening oneself to the promise of God which hangs profoundly in the air. Buried deep beneath the cathedral this small holy space holds a faith memory which pervades one's soul like cold, deeply-penetrating damp. Whilst the hyper-active, instant gratification, destructively unfolding twenty first century goes its digital way above, here in this place, below ground, still and quiet, a living truth older than our Advent texts awaits those who seek themselves, and light for dark times.
The light shines in the darkness. Shines with the same promise in the twenty first century as it did in the seventh. And the clue lies in the wall of the crypt, there in the top right hand corner of the photograph. Here the theological spectrum of the light is made plain. It's enlightening purpose is exposed. The end-point of Advent emerges from the darkness.
Here is the risen Christ emerging from the enclosing darkness of all that besets humanity. Saxon faith meets digital spirituality in an image which illuminates the promise at the heart of Advent.
Standing here it is as though the ancient stones hold within them the timeless answer to John Betjeman's question "And is it true?" And this is an answer that can only ever come to light within the darkness of our suffering and yearning. It is birthed not in dispassionate logic but in tears and trust.
Jesus says, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)
And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
John Betjeman Christmas