Thanks to the Covid-19 restrictions I’m managing this Advent to completely abstain from alcohol with not a single lapse.

I always try to follow the practice of the Eastern Church which fasts during Advent as well as Lent in preparation for the feast to come. But in a ‘normal’ year it’s not so easy. With all the carol concerts and early Christmas events and gatherings and meals the temptation to have a glass of mulled wine or some other little seasonal tipple often gets the better of me. This year, though, has been one of enforced fasting from all sorts of things that we usually take for granted: travel, meeting up with family and friends, physical touch, communal singing, communal anything. The crime-writer Ian Rankin was saying on the radio how he was looking forward to going abroad again to a beach: “Just to be able to walk on the sand and swim in the sea.”

Whilst I’ve very much welcomed the environmental benefits of reduced air travel I think I might be in the queue at the airport with Ian Rankin once such a thing is possible again. Mind you, I’m lucky in Canterbury to have easy access to the sea to the North, the South and the East. And unlike the beaches near Edinburgh where Ian lives you can actually go in the sea near us without catching hypothermia! One of the unexpected gifts of this year was having two of our children back with us for six months, and each Saturday during the summer our youngest son Sean and I would cycle to a different bit of coastline and have fish and chips on the beach. What a feast we had every week.

One of the Advent readings from Isaiah (Chapter 25) speaks mouth-wateringly of the feast being prepared for all peoples: “A banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines, of food rich and juicy, of fine strained wines.” The gospels as well, especially that of Luke, contain many references to eating and drinking and great banquets, and in Luke 14 we are given the interesting advice: “When you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” I can imagine that Jesus liked nothing better than to share food and drink, and probably stories and a good laugh too, with those who found themselves a bit on the margins of ‘respectable’ society.

We’ve been unable this year at the Irish Chaplaincy to hold our usual Traveller events in prisons, one of the highlights of which is often a bacon and cabbage meal. What feasts we’ve had. And I’ve experienced at those events such kindness, as well as good company, from people who have very little: an extra mince pie given to me at a Christmas do or a last slice of soda bread, which I love. And one of the most uplifting events of last December was a carol concert we put on in St Teresa’s Care Home in Wimbledon. I’d begun with a little impromptu Irish set for the mainly Irish residents and that led into the carols and finally we feasted on tea and mince pies and one another’s company. And I’ll never forget the parting words of Sheila from Kerry: “We were expecting carol singers and then you fellas turned up! The singing was heavenly. You had us lifted out of our chairs and flying through the air like angels. You’ve made our Christmas perfect.” This year we’re preparing some virtual carol concerts to share with St Teresa’s and other places and next year, please God, we’ll be back there in the flesh.

These times will pass. And what a feast we’ll then share together.

Eddie Gilmore

Author Eddie Gilmore

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