In Advent, we are preparing our hearts and our lives for the birth of Jesus. Some of this preparation will be joyful but, as with any new birth, there will also be apprehension: this new birth, more than any, is life-changing, world-changing. John's Gospel speaks of Jesus' birth as the coming of the light (John 1.2), without which nothing can live, but also in which nothing can hide.
Blake's The Ancient of Days shows God leaning out from the sphere of light which is God's home to begin to measure out creation. Light is symbolic of all that is God: it is life, it is truth, it is warmth, it is active, it pushes darkness away. Blake shows us all of this with superb economy.
This was one of Blake's favourite images, and he used it in several different forms. The phrase 'Ancient of Days' or 'Ancient One' comes from Daniel 7 (vv. 9, 13, 22), and describes a strange, dense vision, piling detail upon detail, and combining hope and judgement in equal measure, in a way that strongly echoes our Advent themes.
As God measures out the shape of the world in the picture, God is also 'measuring' the world in other ways. The extended compass is not just setting up boundaries, but also, perhaps, checking if the world is reaching its full potential, fulfilling its calling. We are watching both birth and death in Blake's picture, as we are at the cradle of the one born to die for our sins.
Blake helps us to see what Daniel meant by the phrase. This is no old man, but a timeless one, both aged and yet full of vitality. God is older than time, more 'ancient' than any human thought or life. The white hair streams in the force of creative energy as the powerful figure pours out light into the chaotic darkness around. What God begins to measure out echoes the sphere of light behind and around the reaching figure.
The world is going to echo the dwelling place of God. See how God's long fingers merge into one of the arms of the compass: this is no distant creative process we are watching, but one where the energy of God begins to light up what is being made.
The creating hand is bony, almost skeletal, as though death is reaching up, being admitted into the divine vitality. God is creating time, so now alongside God's own eternity there will exist endings as well as beginnings. The very act of creation makes that inevitable.
Most of us simply identify the 'Ancient of Days' in this picture as God, and read into it the Genesis story of creation. We might go further and see the Christian creation account here, as we find it in John 1. The creating figure is human, and John tells us that everything comes into being through the word, the one whom we come to know in Jesus. The world will have a kind of logic and rationality to it because it flows from the God who chooses to be accessible to us, it flows from the Jesus-shaped God. As we explore the world and discover more and more about its inbuilt patterns, in mathematics, art, music, poetry, we can see Blake's compasses at work – the creation is meant for us to delight in and at least partially understand, say those compasses. They are instruments that human brains and hands will encounter.
Blake himself was more ambivalent about the interaction of divine and human creativity. For him, this picture might illustrate his sense that the divine is opposed to human flourishing. He wrote: 'And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, And binding with briars, my joys & desires.' Then the reaching compasses become threatening, rather than full of potential.
Advent is a good time to face that challenge. The child who is waiting to be born demands a response. Blake's The Ancient of Days shows us God's own preparations for this birth, preparations that go back before time, back to the very heart and nature of God. This 'Ancient One' is full of power and purpose, shaping the world for us, but not necessarily as we might wish it to be. Jesus, through whom all things come into being, is coming to claim the world again.
For reflection or discussion
Are there areas of your life that you are afraid to open up to the light? If so, what can you do this Advent to prepare to let God in?
What aspects of faith have you found liberating and what have you found constricting? What can you do this Advent to make your circle more welcoming?
Lord, giver of life, creator of light, give us courage to turn to you with hope and trust. As we await the birth of your son, Jesus Christ, may the renewing Spirit teach us to trust your purposes of love, and to allow the new birth which will set us free. Amen.
An extract from Jane Williams' new book, The Art of Advent: One Painting a Day from Advent to Epiphany, out now from SPCK.