Sermon at Hilfield Friary, 18th December 2016, the 4th Sunday of Advent.
Eleven years ago, when visiting the brothers of the Community of the Divine Compassion in Zimbabwe, I travelled up to Harare from Johannesburg by long distance coach. That journey had its own adventures, but I reached Harare safely and then had to make my way to Nyanga in the Eastern Highlands about 250 miles away where the brothers were based. This part of the journey was going to be more difficult because there was no bookable transport and one had to rely on local buses – very full, belching out black diesel and often leaning to one side because of broken suspension. I had arranged to stay with Fr John, a parish priest in Chitungwidza and a former CDC brother, who had promised to take me to Mbare Bus Station and help me find the right transport. We arrived at Mbare early in the morning, at 5.30 am, but already there were huge queues for buses. At last, at 8.30, a bus destined for Nyanga pulled in. ‘You’ll have to forget that you are a brother’, said John, ‘and fight your way on board’, and so with John’s help I managed to get a seat. More and more people piled into the bus, packed into the aisle, till suddenly there was a load crack and the front windscreen of the bus fell out under pressure of the crowd. We then all had to disembark and there was I, left standing in Mbare Bus Station, by this time without my helper. How was I to get to the brothers in Nyanga?
I must have been looking particularly lost and disconsolate because a young man came up to me and asked, ‘Where do you want to get to, brother?’ ‘I’ll find transport for you.’ Remembering the legendary danger of Mbare Bus Station I was anxious that I was going to lose my bag, my wallet, my passport, but he came back after about ten minutes to say that he had found a minibus going down to Mutare on the border with Mozambique which would take me a good part of the way. The only thing was that when we reached the minibus it was already well over-full. I had to clamber over people, their children and their luggage and ended up on the lap of a large lady surrounded by her bags, with my bag on top of me – but I did have a place, and this massively over-loaded vehicle set out on the road. Eventually, we reached Rusape, the junction for the road to the brothers, where I was deposited and from where I hitched the last 40 or so miles on the back of a lorry – enormously grateful for the young man’s kindness in finding me a place, and to the other passengers who made room for me on that minibus.
‘Making room’ is what this last Sunday of Advent is about: Joseph and Mary making room for an unexpected child, for this particular child – ‘immensity cloistered in thy dear womb’ – as John Donne puts it in his poem ‘Annunciation’; immensity seeking space, a dwelling place. With twelve young refugees staying with us this weekend – from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Uganda, Somalia, Albania – I’m very conscious of the need, the desperate need, for a place, a dwelling, a home. I’m conscious too of the tensions and fears in our country about immigration. It was reported last week that of the 3000 under-age refugees who were in the camp at Calais until last month just over 800 had been admitted to the UK; 1900 had been turned away. ‘We’re just a small country’, people cry, ‘we are already over-crowded; look at the strain it’s putting on our housing, our schools, our jobs, our culture.’ True, it is having an effect, but most of us living in the UK don’t have a clue as to what real over-crowding, having absolutely no home, no place, is truly like.
Life in community, any kind of community – the world community, national community, church community, local community, family community, and of course a community like ours here – always and essentially involves making room. It involves making room for the other – physically, but also emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and culturally – making room for the other who is different from us. We can determine to defend our borders, fighting for dear life to keep what we’ve got, trying to secure our own space, but in the end, if we are to live and to survive in this world, territory has to be surrendered; there has to be some self-withdrawal in order to make room for the other, a ‘cloister for immensity’. Women are generally better at this than men; it’s called ‘mothering’.
This ‘making room’ is what contemplative prayer is about, just sitting there in silence, letting go of the clamour, the busyness of the heart in order to make room for ‘immensity’. And, paradoxically, the more space we make for ‘the other’, whether it be in silent prayer, or in our community life, or in our church or nation, or in ecological awareness of the rest of creation, the more territory we surrender – the more space we discover: ‘You have set my feet in a fair ground’ rejoices the psalmist. For this is the way, the mysterious way, of the immensity which fills the womb of Mary: ‘he emptied himself’ says the hymn which Paul quotes in his letter to the Phillipians. God is a God who continually empties himself in order to ‘make room’. Creation itself is not so much an outpouring of Godself as a withdrawal, a self-limitation, in order to make space for what is not God, that we and every creature may be enfolded within the life of the Blessed Trinity. One of Malcolm Guite’s Advent poems runs:
‘Be folded with us into time and space,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
and make a womb of all this wounded world’
I suppose that the challenge for the world towards the end of this extraordinarily turbulent year, at this Advent time, at this Kairos/critical time, is to make room, to make a space, a womb for the immensity of the other in order that we and the world may discover and know the immense spaciousness which makes room for us.