Advent 3 at Westminster Abbey16 December 2007
What did you go out into the wilderness to see, a reed shaking in the wind, a celebrity in fine clothes, a prophet? St. Matthew 11: 7, 9
How, I’ve been asking myself, would Jesus address us this morning|? What have you come to see, to hear? Why are you here? What are your expectations, your hopes? What is your deepest desire? By ‘you’ I mean all of us.
I don’t do Christmas, said one of my friends last week at the west end of the abbey. Well, it’s a bit hard to avoid it within these walls. The Advent message is brimming with joy and hope and expectation: ‘Lift up your heads your redemption is drawing near.’ ‘Joy with great rejoicing for your Saviour comes to you.’
Listening to the BBC News headlines yesterday morning I began wondering what in these days would grab the nation’s attention as John the Baptist did 2,000 years ago by the River Jordan. How about this?
Crisis at the Abbey. Archbishop refuses to comment. Dr. John Hall, Dean of Westminster skinny dipping and preaching by the Thames under Westminster Bridge. Crowds converging on Westminster. MPs request he be moved a mile east down river and that traffic be diverted over Lambeth Bridge. Stunned Canons give their support. ‘An embarrassing episode’ says Head of Communications, ‘but possibly good for publicity.’
Not quite like that, but you get the drift. For centuries the voice of prophecy had been silent and now it was heard loud and clear by the River Jordan, embodied in a man who does not conform to convention. John was asserting that God was moving in a special way among his people, new relationships were possible both human and divine. God was to be met in the here and now in judgment and in mercy and forgiveness. The message was not for Jews alone (nor Christians come to that) this was a God without frontiers, whose love was for ‘all flesh. As the Bible has it. The Powers-that-be in Jerusalem were frightened, so Josephus the Jewish historian tells us, much as those occupying the seats of power in the Houses of Parliament would be if the fantasy incident above took place.
But in today’s story here is John languishing in prison, lonely, disillusioned, fearing that perhaps he had been led up the garden path, for Jesus seemed to be failing in the role he had assigned him.
In John’s agony, his crisis of faith we might call it, we can see mirrored those we encounter in ourselves. Faith matures in struggles with doubt and darkness- like the seeds now underground but germinating happily in the dark earth.
Is there a hope
I may be growing
Towards that wisdom
That is not knowing. (Angelus Silesius)
When Michael Ramsey was Archbishop of Canterbury a young priest wrote in distress telling him that he had lost his faith. Michael wrote back and said something like this; if at the moment you cannot believe in a personal God or one of goodness, don’t worry at all, but keep on going to Communion and keep on going to your prayer and say to Christ, Give me a part in your courage, give me a part in your love. That will be enough for the present.
All the Advent texts and music tell us that God who is to be birthed again is one of benevolent intent, of love and goodness, who loves us to bits. That is a trifle hard for some of us to grasp, it is easier to hold back and leave trust to the lucky others.
In Sydney a church, St. Barnabas’ Broadway near the University, has a notice board on which each week, as I remember the rector used to put up a faith-enhancing message. Opposite is a Pub, The Broadway, where the landlord Arthur, a friend of Robert the Rector had his own notice board on which he commented each week on the current message opposite. It made interesting reading. One week the church notice board said, He’s got the whole world in his hands. Arthur opposite wrote, But what’s he got up his sleeve?!
What are our expectations and hopes this Advent. What have we come to see, to hear. Have we expectations of this celebration of the Birth of Christ or is it all stale? We have heard, some of us, the Christmas story so many times, can there be anything new for us this year? ‘You never step into the same river twice,’ said the philosopher Heraclitus, ‘for fresh waters are always flowing over you.’ It may all sound and look the same but it isn’t, it won’t be.
God is doing a new thing, said John. Our engagement with the story of this birth will be different each year because we are not in the same place as we were last year. How shall we respond? Shall we merely hear the story or engage with it dynamically?
Christ could be born/ a thousand times in Galilee
But all in vain/ unless he be born in me. (wrote Angelus Silesius 17th Century physician and mystic)
Meister Eckhart, the 13th Century Dominican theologian seems to go even further:
What good is it to me if the eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place in me?
What good is it to me If Mary is full of grace
If I am not also full of grace?
What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son
If I do not also give birth to him in my own time and culture?
This then is the fullness of time when the Son of God is begotten in us.
In case we consider this to be utterly self-regarding and mystical mumbo jumbo, I recall that the great contemporary German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, tells us that the rebirth of our small unimportant life is linked with the divine future of humankind, thinking of the Bali Conference, with the whole of creation. Our life thus transformed by the Christ-story can become a sign of hope for the future of the world. Jung using psychological concepts says much the same thing, ‘If things go wrong in the world this is because there is something also wrong in us, therefore if I am sensible I shall try to put myself right first.’ Isn’t this the conversion preached by John the Baptist.
During these final days of Advent we may feel mince-pied and carolled-out but we can be quite simple and make the prayer of the early Christians our own, Our Lord, Come, repeating it gently whatever we are doing and whatever we are feeling. Our Lord, Come. Who knows what miracles might follow?
We anticipate with joy the new birth of Christ within and among us; and so may the Sun of Righteousness rise upon us and scatter the darkness from before our path; to whom be glory now and forevermore.
Sister Judith CSC