Sermon for Third Sunday of Advent HIGH MASS Sunday 14 December 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
I knew an elderly couple who were living with the husband’s increasing infirmity due to a debilitating degenerative disease – Parkinson’s. The wife was not a naturally happy person, utterly devoted to her husband but weighed down by the inevitable grinding chores of looking after him at home and weary of being unable to get out very often. On one of the last visits I made to them while he was still at home, already unable to speak very clearly, he was desperate to communicate something to me. I didn’t understand what he was saying until about the fifth attempt, which was frustrating for him and embarrassing for me. But I finally understood that he was saying this: ‘She needs to rejoice’. It felt like an odd and strangely moving statement, made at the cost of so much effort to communicate.
Then I learned that, every morning when she opened the door to his bedroom, his first words to her were always: ‘This is the day that the Lord has made’, to which she was expected to answer, ‘Let us rejoice and be glad in it’. She gave the response, but often she was just mouthing the words. The postscript to that story is that his death, though drawn out and painful, over several years, was serene and peaceful; hers, ten years later, was, following a short illness, an angry struggle.
That story is about my parents, which is doubtless why it stays with me so vividly. Popular psychology would probably suggest that if my mother’s inability to rejoice or accept things still bothers me, then I am probably more like her than I want to admit.
‘Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice! The Lord is near’.
At the beginning of Mass today we heard [part of] the ancient entrance antiphon for this Sunday which gave the day a name: Gaudete (‘Rejoice’) Sunday. We know that this title and theme for the day came to be reflected in the custom of wearing rose-coloured vestments, in place of the sombre purple or dark blue of this season.
In times past this visual cue reminded people that this Sunday signalled a lightening of the fast which had come to be associated with Advent by analogy with Lent: an encouraging pause in the rigours of preparing for a great festival. In our time such rigours are more imaginary than real. But we still mark the passage of the season with a point of change from old to new dispensation. John the Baptist is the pivot of this season, the last prophet of the old Israel and the first of the new. That’s why we met him last week and again today. Next Sunday the focus moves to Mary, as we draw close to the Incarnation.
So the joy of Advent is, as the ancient Introit insists, in God’s near approach, his inseparable proximity, perpetuated for us in his great gift of the sacrament of the altar. Advent joy, today‘s rejoicing, is the joy of anticipation.
And yet exactly what are we anticipating? As T. S. Eliot’s Magi ask:
‘…were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? there was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
And, as we used to sing at Epiphany.
In stature grows the heavenly Child,
with death before his eyes;…
There is ambiguity in this moment, as often in joy.
John the Baptist, perhaps not best known for his jolly personality, is surely looking forward with anticipation. But there is one element in what we hear of him today that isn’t always noticed. John has a sense of what is to come as unknown: you could call that a sense of adventure, which is a sort of joy I suppose. He says that the one to whose coming he points forward is ‘one whom you do not know’.
And throughout this, the fourth gospel, Jesus remains one whom people either do not know or do not understand. Nicodemus (3.4) and the Samaritan woman (4.11-12) understand his words but not their meaning. The High Priest understands him only as a threat to the status quo (11.45-53). Pilate gives him the right title, but for the wrong reasons (19.19-22). Even the disciples constantly misunderstand, in ways which (though we solemnly listen) the writer often intends to be comical.
John’s proclamation of Jesus as the one who is unknown challenges the church to acknowledge its presumptuous assumption that it does know who Jesus is. Whether we portray Jesus as an innocuous infant, a dispenser of salvation (however currently understood), a revolutionary leader, a spiritual guru, or in any of a dozen other ways, the Church claims to understand Jesus. But like so many characters in the fourth gospel these are often shafts of refracted light.
As we wait in the season of Advent, anticipating the birth of the infant Jesus; as we rejoice today in the nearness of God, it is good to recall the startling fact that Jesus continues to make his appearance in ways that are surprising, unexpected, even unwelcome. The gentle baby of the Christmas story shortly becomes the one who challenges the religious authorities, overthrows the temple’s comfort zones, offers the people teachings which make little or no sense to them, dismisses his own family and finally provokes the murderous suspicion of the government.
I introduced my father’s funeral Requiem by saying something I knew to be true of him: that he regarded death as an adventure, the last new experience of this life. We can struggle to hold on to what we know, or we can rejoice to accept the risk of the future with God. I don’t find that particularly easy. But today we are clearly invited to rejoice in the risk. Reflecting on the death of my parents, 20 and 10 years ago this year, how it was for each of them, one serene, the other angry and confused, encourages me to embrace the joy of the unknown, in the faith, as my Father would have said, that God makes the universe a safe place for us.