29 November 2015

'There will be distress among nations confused
by the roaring of the sea and the waves’

‘This most tremendous tale of all, / Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford,

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

Sunday 29 November 2015,

The First Sunday of Advent:

11 a.m., The Cathedral Eucharist

Jeremiah 33: 14-16; Psalm 25: 1-9, I Thessalonians 3: 9-13; Luke 21: 25-36.

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

The English Poet Laureate John Betjeman loved to tell the story of a Japanese prince who arrived at Magdalen College, Oxford, as an undergraduate in 1925, the same year as Betjeman came up.

The President of Magdalen, Sir Thomas Herbert Warren (1853–1930), was known as a poet too, a bad poet although he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. He was also an insufferable snob, and Jeremy Paxman says he “was perhaps the greatest snob in England.”

When Prince Chichibu arrived at Magdalen in 1925, Herbert Warren hoped he would soon be followed by his elder brother, the future Emperor Hirohito. The prince told Warren he was a direct descendant of the sun goddess Ametarasu, and let him know: “At home I am called the son of God.”

Warren took a deep breath, coughed and put the prince in his place: “You will find, your highness, that we have the sons of many famous fathers here.”

Magdalen College, Oxford ... waiting for the son of God? John Betjeman was an undergraduate, and CS Lewis was his tutor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Our Gospel reading this morning (Luke 21: 25-36) tells the story of the arrival of the Son of God on earth, not as a child in a Christmas nativity story or in a decorative crib, but “with power and great glory.”

We are warned to be on guard for that coming of Christ and his Kingdom so that our hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch us unexpectedly, like a trap.

But, as we prepare for the coming of Christ, are we trapped?

Are we trapped in the commercialism of Christmas?

There are 12 days of Christmas. But not one of them is in November. Yet for many weeks now, we have been inundated with Christmas catalogues and advertising.

I hope I am not like the Grinch or an insufferable snob. But I cannot go into a shop anywhere in this city for some weeks now without being polluted with cheap Christmas jingles that are a travesty of the original Christmas carols they represent.

Does the decoration of our shops, even of our churches, lead our eyes to the coming Christ or away from him?

To return to John Betjeman: he spent time in Dublin during World War II as the British press attaché, and was an active parishioner in Saint John’s, Clondalkin. In a lecture to the clergy of the Church of Ireland in 1943, he said the “fabric of the church is very much concerned with worship. The decoration of a church can lead the eye to God or away from him.”

Betjeman’s poems are often humorous, with a wry, comic verse often marked by satire. He is one of the most significant literary figures of our time and was a practising Anglican, and his beliefs and piety inform many of his poems.

It is appropriate then to invite us to consider Betjeman’s poem ‘Christmas.’ In the first few verses, he describes the frivolous ways we prepare for Christmas:

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

Many people feel threatened by the present state of the world, and they are looking for hope. But is is hope that cannot be found in the shops and the magazines, in the jingles and the baubles. They have little to do with the coming of Christ and his kingdom, or how we can show that we believe in his coming and show in our actions what we think are the priorities of the Kingdom of God, how they challenge the present state of the world.

Our Gospel reading this First Sunday of Advent speaks not of baubles and fripperies but speaks frighteningly about the state of the world today, telling us how “on the earth [there is going to be] distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

It might be more accurate, and true to the original Greek to translate this verse so that it speaks about the people on the earth being perplexed by the sound and the echoes of the sea and the surf.

It is not difficult to think this morning of the people from many nations who are confused and endangered by the sea and the surf and the waves: the people fleeing war and violence and mass murder in Syria, Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan, and who are being washed up against the rocks on the treacherous shores of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea.

David Hamid, an Anglican suffragan bishop in the Diocese in Europe has warned that this is the “largest crisis that Europe has had to face since World War II.”

Us has produced prayer cards providing guided reflections for each Sunday during Advent, inviting people to pray for refugees around the world as we light our Advent candles.

Two weeks ago, I spent three days [11-13 November 2015] at a meeting of the Trustees of Us, the Anglican mission agency previously known as USPG or the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. It was a residential meeting in Westcott House, the Anglican theological college in Cambridge. And during those three days I heard again and again of the work Us or USPG is doing with refugees throughout Europe.

When people began to arrive in the parks and squares in central Athens from the ferry boats from the islands, Saint Paul’s Anglican Church and the churches in Athens responded immediately. This response has brought the churches together. This is on-the-ground ecumenism in action. Years and years of dialogue are now bearing fruit.

But Bishop David is worried that the rest of Europe fails to see that these are people who deserve basic humanitarian assistance while their status is sorted out. It is ironic, surely, that the people who are fleeing Isis in Syria, then become victims once more when they are refused compassion because of the violence Isis is now reeking in European capitals.

Winter is closing in and threatens to make the sea-crossings even more treacherous.

Freezing temperatures, heavy rains, and strong storms across Europe have not slowed down the surge of refugees. These people were desperate before they ever left. They are desperate now. And they face a winter with little protection from the cold, with no weather-proofing kits, with damaged tents, without winter clothes.

One way the Church is responding to this crisis is the decision by the Anglican Diocese in Europe and the mission agency Us (or USPG) to fund an emergency centre for refugees run by volunteers at the remote Pharos Lighthouse on the Greek island of Lesvos.

The refugees arrive cold and wet having crossed 15 km from Turkey, typically in small rubber boats crowded with up to 50 people.

Often these crossings are at night to avoid Turkish coastguard patrols by day. Attracted by the beam of the lighthouse, they land on the rocky shore below, soaked through, tired and hungry. The light of the lighthouse on Lesvos can lead the fleeing refugees to either a perilous end on the rocky shore or to hope for the future provided by these volunteers.

Yet they are still 6 km from the nearest village, Klio, a six-hour walk across rugged, rocky terrain. They need dry clothes, food, medical care and shelter before resuming their journeys.

Two abandoned buildings next to the lighthouse are being turned into a changing area and a field kitchen. Tents are providing shelter and volunteers are working around the clock, seven days a week, providing food, clothing and medicines. These volunteers have also asked for ropes to help the refugees climb up the rocky shores, safety helmets and headgear for the children and babies, wetsuits, night vision binoculars, heaters, lighting and walky-talkies.

Rachel Parry, Us Director for Global Relations, sees this as just one “small but highly significant response that is benefitting hundreds of very vulnerable refugees at a critical stage of their journey.”

I listened to these stories in Cambridge over those few days, those stories of how Us and the Diocese in Europe are trying to be lights of hope in this dismal, dark winter.

Throughout Advent, Us is appealing for donations to fund the Diocese in Europe as it reaches out to refugees throughout Europe, and the Diocese in Europe has asked Us to be the official agency for Anglican churches on these islands to channel donations for its work.

The Advent candles on the Advent wreath represent the Patriarchs, the Prophets, Saint John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary, all pointing to Christ in the midst of darkness, despite the disasters of famines, earthquakes and wars.

We can be beacons of hope. We can show in how we live our lives this Advent that we believe, that we want, good to triumph over evil, and to show that the Light of Christ shines in our hearts.

In the last three stanzas of his poem ‘Christmas,’ John Betjeman proclaims the wonder of Christ’s birth in the form of a question: “And is it true...?”

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

‘God was man in Palestine / And lives today in Bread and Wine’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on 29 November 2015.


Almighty God,
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 and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our deliverer,
Awaken our hearts
to prepare the way for the advent of your Son,
that, with minds purified by the grace of his coming,
we may serve you faithfully all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Luke 21: 25-36

25 Καὶ ἔσονται σημεῖα ἐν ἡλίῳ καὶ σελήνῃ καὶ ἄστροις, καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς συνοχὴ ἐθνῶν ἐν ἀπορίᾳ ἤχους θαλάσσης καὶ σάλου, 26 ἀποψυχόντων ἀνθρώπων ἀπὸ φόβου καὶ προσδοκίας τῶν ἐπερχομένων τῇ οἰκουμένῃ, αἱ γὰρ δυνάμεις τῶν οὐρανῶν σαλευθήσονται. 27 καὶ τότε ὄψονται τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐρχόμενον ἐν νεφέλῃ μετὰ δυνάμεως καὶ δόξης πολλῆς. 28 ἀρχομένων δὲ τούτων γίνεσθαι ἀνακύψατε καὶ ἐπάρατε τὰς κεφαλὰς ὑμῶν, διότι ἐγγίζει ἡ ἀπολύτρωσις ὑμῶν.

29 Καὶ εἶπεν παραβολὴν αὐτοῖς: Ἴδετε τὴν συκῆν καὶ πάντα τὰ δένδρα: 30 ὅταν προβάλωσιν ἤδη, βλέποντες ἀφ' ἑαυτῶν γινώσκετε ὅτι ἤδη ἐγγὺς τὸ θέρος ἐστίν: 31 οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς, ὅταν ἴδητε ταῦτα γινόμενα, γινώσκετε ὅτι ἐγγύς ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ. 32 ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται. 33 ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ παρελεύσονται, οἱ δὲ λόγοι μου οὐ μὴ παρελεύσονται.

34 Προσέχετε δὲ ἑαυτοῖς μήποτε βαρηθῶσιν ὑμῶν αἱ καρδίαι ἐν κραιπάλῃ καὶ μέθῃ καὶ μερίμναις βιωτικαῖς, καὶ ἐπιστῇ ἐφ' ὑμᾶς αἰφνίδιος ἡ ἡμέρα ἐκείνη 35 ὡς παγὶς. ἐπεισελεύσεται γὰρ ἐπὶ πάντας τοὺς καθημένους ἐπὶ πρόσωπον πάσης τῆς γῆς. 36 ἀγρυπνεῖτε δὲ ἐν παντὶ καιρῷ δεόμενοι ἵνα κατισχύσητε ἐκφυγεῖν ταῦτα πάντα τὰ μέλλοντα γίνεσθαι, καὶ σταθῆναι ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.

25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

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