28 November 2010

‘In my beginning is my end’

‘Now the light falls ... I said to my soul, be still, and wait ...’ autumn sunsets turn to winter at Skerries Harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 28 November 2010

The First Sunday of Advent

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

11 a.m.: The Cathedral Eucharist

Isaiah 2: 1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the Church Year.

How do we begin our beginnings?

In Alice in Wonderland (Chapter 12), the White Rabbit put on his spectacles.

“Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Advent is the beginning of a new Church year. But this morning we seem to start at the end. As we set out on another year of following Christ, from the manger to the grave and beyond, we are at the end of the calendar year and in the lectionary we are at the end of Christ’s life.

But this is our beginning. For Advent is the time we prepare for the coming of Christ, not just as the cuddly child in the Christmas crib, but for the coming of Christ as king, and the ushering in of the Kingdom of God.

Our end is in our beginning.

TS Eliot’s “East Coker,” the second of his Four Quartets, is set in late November and ends: “In my end is my beginning.”

But it opens:

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation …

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane …

Wait for the early owl.

The geographical setting for our Gospel reading this morning is the Mount of Olives. Christ has been with the disciples in the Temple in Jerusalem, where he has been teaching each day in that closing week.

Now we move to the end of the day, when he is on the Mount of Olives, looking back across the valley towards the City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. In the valley below are the tombs of prophets, priests and kings, one of the most breath-taking scenes I have seen.

Even to this day it is the burial place of pious Jews and political Jews, rabbis and radicals, prime ministers and monarchs, buried there waiting for the arrival of the Messiah, so that they can rise up with him on his arrival and join him as he makes his way down from the Mount of Olives, sweeps across the Valley, and up into the city of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.

It is a setting that provides the dramatic backdrop for this reading, which is full of apocalyptic imagery as Christ talks about his imminent return. Christ warns the disciples to be ready for him, to be constantly on the watch and waiting, to stay awake and alert, to be prepared and ready. Sleepers awake! Yet, these same disciples will fall asleep in the garden, even when he asks them to “stay awake with me” (Matthew 26: 36-46).

How often do we live our lives in a carefree, happy-go-lucky manner? Careless and without a worry about what the future might bring? Almost asleep and oblivious to what is going on around us? Asleep while the world groans, content while the world suffers?

And so the Gospel reading is linked with what we should be waiting for, awake for, hoping for: for out of Zion, from Jerusalem, shall come the word when Christ comes to judge between the nations, and arbitrate for many peoples: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (see Isaiah 2: 3-4).

But this is apocalyptic literature. And, like all apocalyptic literature, hope comes with a warning; merely waiting for peace, rather than preparing for it and working for it, augurs doom. And this visionary expectation is conveyed through drama and poetry and poetic language.

The words of Christ in our Gospel reading this morning are rich with the language and the rhythms of poetry and drama.

For example, there is poetry in verses 40-41, which is missed in translations that treat these verses as prose and narrative, and run them together as consecutive sentences:

δύο ἔσονται
ἐν τῷ ἀγρῷ,
εἷς παραλαμβάνεται
καὶ εἷς ἀφίεται:

δύο ἀλήθουσαι
ἐν τῷ μύλῳ,
μία παραλαμβάνεται
καὶ μία ἀφίεται.

Saint Matthew invites us to be ready for the coming, the παρουσία (parousia, verses 37 and 39), a word used by him alone among the Gospel writers. Translated into Latin it gives us the word from which we derive the name of this season, Advent.

Παρουσία means the presence, or the coming, the arrival, the advent, the future visible return of Christ, to raise the dead, to sit at the last judgment, to judge between the nations, to arbitrate for many peoples, to set up formally and gloriously the kingdom of God.

The coming of the Son of Man is going to be divisive for all society. Kingdom values are not merely counter-cultural – they are socially divisive. For the values of this world should never be confused with nor identified with the values of the Kingdom of God.

The visionary images in this passage can be compared with the apocalyptic visions throughout the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament.

But these images are full of promise too. The wedding feast is a recurring image of the heavenly banquet and the coming kingdom. The parting of pairs, whether in the field or on the threshing floor, is a reminder that the word of God is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4: 12). In the apocalyptic language used by Saint John, writing on Patmos, from the mouth of God comes a “sharp, two-edged sword” (Revelation 1: 16; 19: 15).

The division cuts through visible and apparent distinctions. We can stay with the values of this world, or be taken into the values of the Kingdom of God. But we cannot have both. Take it or leave it – destruction or the kingdom?

Watch, therefore, and be alert.

What is capable of stealing away your heart, your commitment, your values? Be alert for these.

What, in the midst of uncertainty, can rob you of hope?

Be alert for this too.

Be aware of making comfortable choices when it comes to the poor and the unemployed, the marginalised and the minorities, the oppressed and the stranger, small children and the elderly – for these are the ones Christ uses in his teachings as examples of the Kingdom of God.

The future holds apocalyptic fear for many in our society today when we consider the civic and political and economic disturbances that are possibilities and potentials.

For the widow who has lost her savings as she saw the value of her bank shares collapse; for the pensioner who worries that the coming budget may take away his health care; for the middle class couple who fear losing their home as they fail to meet their mortgage payments yet face having to pay a property tax too regardless of their ability to pay; for the student who knows her unemployed parents cannot afford next year’s fee increases; for the low-paid worker who sees his job under threat or his wages losing further value because of the misbehaviour of politicians and bankers; for these and for the many, waiting and watching means waiting and watching in fear.

Is the coming future a comfort or a challenge?

The radical author, professor and preacher, Robin Meyers – once described by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as “scholarly, pastoral, prophetic, and eloquent” – has written: “Life itself passes daily judgment on the idea that [God is in control], that good deeds and righteous living exempt us from mindless tragedy, or that the meek will inherit anything other than a crushing debt and a dead planet.”

But in a sermon some years ago in the First [Congregational] Church in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on this day, the First Sunday of Advent, his colleague, Mary Luti of Andover Newton Theological School, responded:

“Nonetheless, and hoping against hope, today’s scriptures emphatically encourage us to stand firm, to refuse to throw in the towel. God really is in charge, they assert, and one day you won’t have to take that on faith … the first Sunday of Advent intends to make a pre-emptive strike on despair as the Church sets out on another year of following Christ from manger to grave, and beyond.”

And once again, I call to mind TS Eliot in “East Coker”:

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God …

And yet, in this apocalyptic visionary, poem, Eliot is neither all doom nor all gloom:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

And so, may all we think, do and say be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

A terrace of almshouses in East Coker ... the village that inspired TS Eliot was his ancestral home and his ashes are buried at the parish church ... “In my beginning is my end”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached in Christ Church Cathedral on the First Sunday of Advent, 28 November 2010.

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