Friary Advent Sunday Sermon 2016
Friary Advent Sunday Sermon 2016
Advent is a season built upon contradictions.
We celebrate Advent Sunday, and light the first light of Advent which proclaims the coming of the New, at the time of the year when so much is dying and disintegrating and falling apart. In my garden, looking out from the window of my hut, I can now clearly see again the collapsing old barns of my neighbour’s farm a couple of hundred yards across the paddock. And that is because almost all the leaves of the stout little hedge that Sam and I planted three years ago have now fallen, revealing a bare skeleton of branches of hawthorn, blackthorn, gelder rose, hazel and field maple that in the spring and summer months make it such a rich barrier. The apple trees in our neighbour’s cider orchard have similarly shed their thick summer coating of leaves, and now the apples lie rotting on the ground, and the branches are stark and bare against the greying winter skies.
The year of our Lord 2016 is dying, and so much hope seems to be dying with it.
A year ago, who would have thought we would witness such a year as this, a year when we turn our back on our neighbours, and say we wish to leave our community of nations, and paddle away on our own despite warnings from countless experts that we are going to be overwhelmed by the economic waves, and it is the poorest who will drown first. And a year in which, across the Atlantic, a man who lied, who stoked hatred, who abused women, who wants to shut out Muslims and build walls against foreigners, who has oppressed his own workers, who denies that the biggest threat to the lives of all of us – climate change – is real … and we all could go on and on … who would have thought that such a man would become the most powerful man on the planet, the President of the United States? But, barring an extraordinary upset in the counting of votes, he will.
In the midst of all this darkening, in churches across the world, priests and people, often a little child, will, in the midst of the darkness, light a small flickering fragile candle … and proclaim in the words of St John’s Gospel, that ‘the light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not’. The old Authorised Version, is for once, I think, the best. ‘The darkness comprehended it not’. It says that the darkness does not understand the power of the light … does not understand that the light is deeper and stronger … and is indeed the basis of all that is. The Light is the Grounding Reality of the universe … and so the darkness will never overcome it … cannot overcome it.
And so in the midst of our very particular darkness this simple act affirms the great Advent theme of hope even in the darkest of times.
But, right now, it does not feel very hopeful.
I wonder if you read the George Monbiot article in the Guardian about the 13 world crises we now face? For all his brilliance and insight, he is something of a despair merchant. Faced with a constant barrage of this kind of thinking, we wonder, will hope really triumph? Or are we condemned to what TS Eliot in Choruses from The Rock called ‘the perpetual struggle of good and evil’. … ‘one thing does not change’, he wrote, ‘however you disguise it, this thing does not change, the perpetual struggle of good and evil.’
The relationship between good and evil … between despair and hope … is never static but rather dynamic as the one provokes the other, though – with a news media that goes by the motto ‘if it bleeds it leads’ – we hear a lot less of the good. But remember how just after the Brexit vote a Polish community centre in Hammersmith was vandalised with the Poles who met there being told to ‘F off’ and go home. Just hours later, dozens of Londoners appalled by this xenophobic attack turned up with armfuls of flowers and cards, and the centre received hundreds of messages of support and friendship from all across the UK. And of course what TS Eliot called ‘the perpetual struggle of good and evil’ is not a struggle between two equal opposing forces – we do not live in a dualistic universe. The truth is that the good is Reality, and its opposite is the absence of Reality … is a void, an emptiness, a nothing. Think about the contrast between the young woman MP Jo Cox, bursting with life and creativity and goodness, and the pathetic empty husk of the man who murdered her.
But the absence of reality can be devastatingly destructive. And so we may ask: are we condemned to this perpetual struggle, a never ending see-saw between hope and despair, our lives perpetually on the brink, with the stakes rising higher and higher? Is that how the history of the world should be told? Do we just go on lighting Advent candles year by year against an ever pressing-in darkness … always proclaiming a new beginning … but with the cry of the psalmist resonating in our hearts, ‘how long, O Lord, how long’, and the triumph of the Light never seeming to happen?
Or … are there grounds for real hope?
One of my favourite quotations from Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Fathers of the Church – a favourite, because it so echoes my own experience – would seem to suggest that it is indeed a perpetual struggle: “we go”, he wrote, “from beginning to beginning by way of beginnings without end.”
But he prefaced this remark with four key words: “our ascent is unending”. He is saying that in the spiritual life … in the life of the world God loves … there is a moving towards greater integration, there is a moving towards wholeness. And it is in this ascent that we go ‘from beginning to beginning by way of beginnings without end’. This is how the Kingdom of God comes. But it is not a steady climb, but rather it comes through loss and disaster, through sorrow and mourning, through confession and longing, and then through waiting, and the gift of renewed hope. In other words it comes through death and resurrection. But it is an ascent. Whatever we may feel in our most despairing moments, we are moving towards the eternal city, towards the integration of all things. This is not an illusion – we do ‘ascend’, even if it is by way of constant ‘beginnings without end’.
President Obama is fond of quoting a phrase that Martin Luther King made famous: “the arc of the moral universe is long,” he said, “but it bends towards justice.” Maybe it needs amending to say that the arc of the moral universe is indeed long, and it contains an awful lot of zig-zags in it, but it does bend towards justice. The healing of the nations is happening. Christ is coming. All things are being gathered in. History is moving in the direction of hope. Though if you happen to be living through one of the big zig-zags, as people were a hundred years ago in the hell of the First World War – and maybe we are today – it is hard to believe it.
But this is what Christian faith insists. And it is not just the flight of piety or the whistling of an extensive religious tune to keep flagging spirits up, it is actually, empirically, true. In his huge book published in 2012 entitled The Better Angels of our Nature, a phrase taken from Abraham Lincoln, the psychologist Steven Pinker clearly demonstrates how violence, that is the totality of death and destruction through murder, war, and genocide, has, over the centuries (and his detailed analysis includes the 20th century with all its horrors) dramatically decreased. Today we live – and you can hardly believe it – in a far more peaceful and just world than our forebears ever knew. And this remarkable progress, which has of course many zig-zags in it, can be statistically verified. So it seems that God may indeed be ‘working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’, even if it rarely happens as this Victorian hymn suggests by a process of steady improvement, but rather through constant breakdown and catastrophe and sorrow and longing and struggle and waiting … and daring to hope again … that is, through repeated processes of death and resurrection.
So Hope is not an illusion. It is not a pious mirage. We who light the flickering candle are not flying in the face of reality, but rather we are going with the deepest reality. And so the message of Advent Sunday is that, despite everything that would bow you down and tempt you to despair, dare to go on hoping – and dare to go on in your commitment to the Kingdom … for Jesus Christ, born as a vulnerable child, dying as a broken victim, is risen …
… and will come again.