28th Nov, 2004

The First Sunday of Advent

8am Low Mass, 10.30am High Mass with Litany in Procession

Lections:
Isa 2:1-5 come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord
Roms 13:11-14 the night is far gone, the day is at hand
St Matt 24: 36-44 the Son of Man comes at an hour you do not expect him

In Memory of Brother Michael Fisher, Bishop and Franciscan Friar, late Minister General of the First Order of the Society of Saint Francis

There is a poem by RS Thomas the Welsh priest and poet, which might be regarded as a solemn warning to preachers. Thomas wrote:

Moments of great calm
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for God
To speak:
Prompt me God
But not yet. When I speak
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting

Well, it is hardly summer, the Fall is here and winter is just around the corner, under the cloths the altar in this church is wood and these old stones have stood for almost a century of waiting. These stones waiting for God to speak- and these stones waiting for us as well.

So we come here day by day, Sunday be Sunday, week by week, season by season, waiting for God to speak- though much of the time we crowd him out with our own words of course. So much information given to God- who knows it all, and has known it all from time and for eternity. Church can become a place of impatience, don’t you think? I mean these days you can surf the internet, or get on the phone or use a fax and you can obtain all the latest news, information and answers to your every query and question- it’s there instantly, in the click of a mouse train timetables, airfares at reduced rates, hair thinning remedies, even boyfriends and girlfriends are immediately available- so, with all the other things I’ve got to do in the next twenty minutes, all the busyness of my life, and all the other problems I’ve got -couldn’t God just hurry up a little bit, get on with the job and give me the answer I want right now?
That’s if we even dare call on God’s name? Thomas has another poem entitled simply ‘Waiting’:

Young, I pronounced you, older
I still do, but seldomer.
Now, leaning far out,
Over an immense depth letting
Your name go and waiting
Somewhere between faith and doubt
For the echo of its arrival.

How much of life is taken up in waiting. There’s that excited waiting when you were a young child for your best friend’s birthday party or that vacation away from your ever watchful parents- longing for that day to arrive. But as an adult, oh the intolerable tedium of time that passes so, so slowly- ticking off the minutes, the hours, the days, or the waiting with fear, for examination results or that blood test. The thinly veiled tension of the household expecting university entrance examination results or that letter after the job interview and casting couch with Disney or Paramount.

Nothing speaks so eloquently of the possibility of wasted space in life than the ubiquitous waiting room- doctor’s surgeries, dentists and lawyers waiting rooms, “I hope you don’t mind waiting, sorry to keep you waiting, I’m afraid it will be a while longer- no I can’t tell you for how long.” Empty hours stuck on the 405 Freeway, that unnatural rage, shared fear, anxiety, or even almost cosmic dread as we all rush from one place to yet another pressing engagement.
By contrast, one of the most discerning books on the spiritual life, by the late Father Bill Vanstone is called ‘The Stature of Waiting.’ Father Vanstone suggests that this power of waiting was an essential characteristic of Christ- and that in his waiting, he permitted the disclosure of God to us- ‘leaning far out, letting God’s name go, waiting somewhere between faith and doubt, for the echo of its arrival.’ What is true for Christ is true for us- made in God’s image. Vanstone says ‘to humanity, as we wait, the world discloses its power of meaning. Humanity becomes, so to speak, the sharer with God of a secret- the secret of the world’s power of meaning.’
You see, perhaps the meaning CAN lie in the waiting, a waiting that is filled not with emptiness but with everything. Your Vestry and Clergy are taking time each day, reading the Rule of St Benedict, that Rule in which silence, waiting, patience and listening play a central role. I am reminded that there is an Anglican Benedictine nun who was for many years the Abbess of the convent in which she has lived all her life since she went there as a very young girl- and she in now over ninety years of age. Two weeks ago she was told that she has an inoperable cancer. When someone tried to comfort her she replied: ‘but darling I’ve got to die of something, and there is so much I can do.’ All of her life waiting on God- great, long stretches of silence, dropping God’s name and waiting for the echo of its arrival. An echo that is repeatedly reflected in the daily psalms of that Order, “My soul truly waiteth still upon God, for of Him cometh my salvation.” So you see, for that blessed Benedictine seventy years of waiting in that one convent and she finds it to be the very gate of heaven.

You might say “what an awful waste” or “OK Father, but that’s her vocation as a Benedictine isn’t it. God called her- and anyway, she’s a long way from where we are with all the nitty gritty of Hollywood and Los Angeles where everything has to be done by yesterday.”
Hmmm, I wonder, it’s worth remembering as you hurtle along the Hollywood Freeway at seventy miles an hour, well, ok, as you crawl along at five miles an hour bumper to bumper, just remember that within a few hundred yards there are the enclosed Dominican nuns who are doing just what the Benedictine is doing, waiting, listening, contemplating, watching, silencing the corporate clamour for instant answers- leaning far out into the depth and attuning the ear through the raucous noise for the echo of the arrival of God’s name.┬áThe testimony of women down the ages is of something very different from the rush-rush, busy-busy, work-work, bang-bang of our culture. It seems that if we are ever to understand the stature of waiting, our involvement in the meaning of the world, we need to turn to just such a woman as that Benedictine and such places as provide space and room for waiting. Only then perhaps will we grasp those strange lines from St Matthew that we must watch therefore and be ready for the Son of Man comes at an hour we do not expect- and what will we be doing when the Son of Man comes?
Waiting can be lonely. All those failed assignations- ‘I’ll meet you in the French Market at two o’clock’- so it is in the Christian life, the spiritual journey. We can wait, it seems for hours, and God still didn’t turn up. RS Thomas says that praying is like throwing pebbles up at the casement of the loved one’s window- you throw those pebbles hoping to attract his attention, hoping he’ll realize that you’re here- Thomas says he’d have given up throwing those pebbles years ago if it wasn’t that he’d seen those curtains twitch with the flicker of recognition- the faint, distant echo of God’s name.

All of this is what Advent is all about- the purple for our sorrow for our sins, the lean, spare waiting in those long litanies, the lack of flowers to remind us that not every Sunday is meant to be the jamboree entertainment of a crystal cathedral, but each day, hour by hour, minute by minute gives rhythm and pulse and pause to our impatient hearts.

TS Eliot, East Coker
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, the hope and the love are
All in the waiting.

True waiting and listening is the ability to see the beauty of the butterfly wing in the ugliness and the creepy-crawliness of the caterpillar- perhaps it’s also being able to see creativity and beauty even when other people see boredom or despair or pointlessness and would rather do something more exciting or they simply want to just give up. [That is what the Archbishop of Canterbury is trying to get all of us to do in the Anglican Communion- it's tough, it's difficult and it won't come easy, it won't come in a sound bite, but the beauty can be seen if we persevere and actually talk and listen and hear.]

Sometimes, if you’ve got the eyes to see and the ears to hear and the heart to wait- the silence is that most fertile soil in which love and grace and hope not only flourish and grow.

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