‘What I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’ (Mark 13:37)
In our society New Years’ celebrations are usually quite cheerful affairs, sometimes featuring a staggering amount of food, drink, and fireworks; all of this in order to break as much as possible with the old, and usher in the new. And once the partying ceases, we make improbable New Year resolutions wishing to become that new person who is as different as possible from our old self.
Then, perhaps, we might find it odd that the new Christian year opens by repeating the gospel message we have been hearing for some time now. Last week the Feast of Christ the King brought the Sunday cycle of the Christian year to an end with the reminder of Jesus sure return as Lord and Judge of all creation. But as today we officially begin a new liturgical year, Mark’ short parable – about the man travelling abroad who leaves his servants in charge of his household – takes us back, not only to last week, but also to a number of other parables we have read recently. And it’s meaning, like that of all those previous parables, is quite clear; when we will find ourselves face to face with Jesus, he will judge each one of us according to our deeds; according to our trustworthiness and commitment to him. But, perhaps, we may find it even more surprising that the new Christian year should open with sombre notes and reduced singing, rather than with a loud bang and cheerful noise. In this, Advent looks a little bit like Lent. Both Advent and Lent are marked by a pressing call to prepare ourselves for that which it to come. Both of these seasons are defined by the colour purple (or violet), the colour of penitence, introspection, and repentance; and the singing of the Gloria, like the flowers that usually adorn our church get put away. So much for New Year cheerfulness!
Even the Scripture readings set before us are geared up, not so much towards the joy of Christmas, but rather towards the more sobering thought of being confronted by our faults.
This morning the prophet Isaiah holds up a mirror to us all, and gives us a talking to, as it were.
‘We were all like unclean people,
- all that integrity of ours like filthy clothing.
We have all withered like leaves
and our sins, like the wind, have carried us away.’ (Isaiah 64:6)
And Jesus then says,
‘What I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’ (Mark 13:37)
This combined message is simple enough and yet difficult to hear at a time when we are all so busy with shopping, parties, and making everything just perfect in time for Christmas. Nevertheless, Advent calls us to assess candidly the state of our society so that we might wake up from injustice, consumerism, and selfish behaviours to prepare our world for the coming of Jesus, and so be found ready to meet him when he will come to us as our judge. We must stay awake in a spiritual sense, so that through prayer and good works, we may be prevented from sleepwalking into the hidden snares of vice.
The collect from the BCP for this season helps us to put the Advent message into prayer…
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.
On this mountain God will destroy
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever. (Is 25:7-8)
There are a number of things people say to us when we are grieving the loss of a loved one as they try to console our aching hearts, and shield us from the reality of death. They many share their memories of the deceased with us, and tell us that they wouldn’t want us to cry. They may try to comfort us with well-meant thoughts of a spiritual nature saying things like, “He’ll be watching over you”, or “She’s one of God’s angels now”. Even lines from popular funeral poems may be used such as, “He only takes the best”, or “death is nothing at all”. But the thing is, after a while, everything starts sounding like empty platitudes. When the passing of time makes us angry because our memories begin to fade, when the silence of an empty home can seem to drown out every poem or song… In these moments the sadness and harshness of death can leave us even more confused than before. Then, where do we turn?
The Bible does not try to shield us for the sorrow of death. In the Scriptures death is often seen as heart-breaking, but to this sadness is the Bible contrasts the hope, and yes, even the joy, that we can find in God – because it is only through God’s mercy, that this harsh reality of human existence does not have the final word over our lives and over the lives of those who have gone before us.
In our first reading the prophet Isaiah calls death for what it really is. We read that death is like a ‘shroud that is cast over all peoples’; it is a sheet – a funeral cloth – under which everyone is lives; and finally, it is a ‘disgrace’. But, the prophet also says, God will destroy death forever, and he will restore life to his creation. And when we come to end of all things, there is a banquet, a feast, waiting for God’s people where the Lord himself will wipe away every tear form our eyes, as a parent would do consoling his children.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines. (Is 25:6)
I was recently at a funeral of a friend of mine at St Albans Abbey and the Dean used a beautiful phrase; he said, ‘When we are at the Altar we are not defined my death’. Tonight, as we come to this holy place to remember and to pray for our loved ones, we come to the mountain described by Isaiah, to the place where God prepares a feast for his people. The Mass we offer for those who have died and the holy food we receive break the barrier, as it were, between this world and the next. At the altar, we meet in spirit with those who have gone before us, and we are given a pledge of what is to come – of the joy and celebration of being reunited with our loved ones in the presence of God for ever.
So, the message of tonight’s service, much like the slogan for Sky, is “Believe in better”. Don’t let those well-meant poems and those platitudes that are often used at funerals delude you. Put your faith in the words of the Scriptures, in the words of Jesus, and in the Mass we celebrate tonight.
On this mountain God …will swallow up death for ever. (Is 25:7-8)
Isaiah 56:1; 6-7
‘Thus says the Lord,
“…my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples”’ Isaiah 56:7
One morning, as I was getting ready for Mass is St Ives, I was approached by a long-standing members of the congregation called Hellen who proceeded to grill me about one church issue or another. In her usual abrupt and unapologetic way she rattled my cage, and, in retaliation, I probably pushed a few of her (deeply protestant) buttons. To cut the long story short, we ended up having some words and getting quite cross with each other to the point that I wasn’t quite sure how we were going to handle exchanging the sign of peace later in the service… But of course, I needn’t to worry about that, because even before we got to the peace, what was reading set before us by the lectionary? It just had to be Matthew 5:23-24; ‘if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.’ Similarly, the morning after a break in into his vicarage a priest friend of mine was presented by the lectionary with the reading of Matthew 24:43 ‘If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.’
Indeed, the lectionary quite often has a wonderful and bitter-sweet way of recalling us back to the things that actually matter, to what God has to say about the way in which we live or about what goes on in the world. And, I believe, this is happening with today’s readings…
Among the stories of racial hatred we hear from Charlottesville, the howling shrieks of far-right movements and intolerance across the Western world, the resurgence of anti-Jewish propaganda, the cowardice of those who should be confronting evil, among all these dreadful things our readings recall us to God’s vision for humanity, God’s purpose of the one, single human race.
To those who publicly incite anti-Jewish hatred, and to the creators of silly Jewish jokes, the Lord says about the people of Israel in our second reading, “I will never take back my gifts or revoke my choice” (Romans 11:15). Religious justification for anti-Jewish hate is always a misinterpretation of the faith, and a blasphemy in the eyes of our God who chose Abraham to be the father of many nations, and to be one of our fathers in the faith as well.
To white supremacists, to full-time and not-so-casual-casual racists, the Lord says in the first reading “…my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples”. My house – not your house, but the house in which you stand on equal footing as any other believer of whatever ethnicity, nationality, or background, this my house – is a house of prayer for everyone, and in my house everyone is welcome, so you better make peace with it.
To those who barricade their hatred and discrimination behind blinkered, holier-than-thou religion, Jesus presents the example of great faith given by a Canaanite woman. She belonged to a different culture and nationality than Jesus, she was a descendant of an enemy people, she didn’t believe in Jesus in the same articulate way his followers did, but she nonetheless had an instinctively stronger, deeper, and more resilient faith in the Lord than the best of his disciples; so much so that her unorthodox faith cooperated in the healing of her daughter.
And to us all, the Lord gives a reminder about the task we signed up for at our baptism and confirmation; the task of hastening the coming of his Kingdom as one humanity finally made into a true and beloved community where racism, unjust discrimination, and hatred find not room at all.
Today the lectionary recalls us back to what is really important. May we listen to its voice and strive to build us the Church as a house of prayer for all nations, and as a positive example of community for the world to see...
Elect from every nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth,
Her charter of salvation,
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.