Sermon for First Sunday of Advent HIGH MASS Sunday 30 November 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Advent 1 – ‘All time belongs to him’
I once spent a happy summer holiday as the Chaplain of Taormina in Sicily. We hear a lot these days of the Celtic idea of thin places, shrines where the distance between heaven and earth seems almost to vanish. Sicily has some of that but also an extraordinary sense of the past as present. We know that much Christian practice, especially the church calendar, was made over from existing pagan and secular celebrations; and we know that is entirely appropriate, because of the incarnation. If God was prepared to take human form, then we may be reassured that all human activity belongs to God; the Bible teaches us that creation is good and humanity is sanctified by God’s action in us.
In Sicily, the repository of so many succeeding civilizations, you can see and touch the past everywhere. In Syracuse, for example, the church of St Lucy (who was martyred there, tho’ Venice has the body) is very obviously a Greek temple with walls built between the columns and an altar added. Deep in the dry centre of the island ancient sites of the mother-goddess Demeter have been made over into churches honouring the mother of Christ. And even in Taormina there were plenty of examples of the past breaking through into present life, from the Roman amphitheatre playing host to a concert conducted by Ennio Morricone, to the feast of St Pancrazio which I have only just properly understood.
San Pancrazio (probably not the same as our almost-neighbour, St Pancras), is a very early saint – possibly even 1st century, who was bishop of Taormina, where his relics remain. The Duomo or principal church of Taormina where the relics are kept, is dedicated to someone else, but there is a little ancient church of San Pancrazio which only opens on his feast day. In Sicily if your saint’s feast falls at a cold season you sensibly find an alternative date in the summer when the fiesta can be a real party. So it was that in July I witnessed a fascinating procession (with a band, playing Sicilian opera tunes) from the Duomo to the church of San Pancrazio. The ancient retired Archpriest, and his housekeeper, joined the procession in a tiny Fiat; the present Archpriest (and his housekeeper) led the procession bearing a life-size bust of the saint in which the relics were housed. When we reached San Pancrazio’s church, a little wooden railway had been built, sloping up from the church door to a throne above the altar. The reliquary was placed in a cart and the men of the town took it in turns to pull on ropes, with a great pantomime of straining and panting, to hoist the saint up to his throne, where the archpriest (without his housekeeper) placed him; cue more opera music and fireworks.
This was all hugely enjoyable, but I only realised recently that this was a very ancient custom Christianised, and relevant to our celebration today. The word advent – adventus – is of pagan origin: pagans (and indeed, probably, the more primitive ancestors of Judaism) observed a festival of the divinity coming to dwell in his temple at a certain time each year. The feast was called adventus – the coming of the god [Greek παρουσÎ¯α]. On these days the temple, usually closed, would be opened and a statue of the divinity would be solemnly brought into the main sanctuary. The adventus was a return, an anniversary of presence. Once the cult of the emperor spread, a feast of his adventus was kept each year in the places which he had visited. That was what they were doing with San Pancrazio (who no doubt replaced some previous local deity).
What could be more apt than to co-opt this word adventus to the visit of the Son of God to earth in the Temple of his flesh? Christians used it to emphasise that this was the true coming of divinity into the world. Put together with the origins of Christmas (the winter solstice feast of the birth of sol invictus, the unvanquished Sun, the re-turning of the year towards light), this adventus was originally a month-long celebration of the coming of God among us. As our calendar developed, the Christmas season was lengthened into another month, January, eventually concluding with a second, more literal adventus, the coming of the child Jesus into the Jerusalem Temple (Candlemas).
At the same time, Lent was developing as a preparation for the greatest feast, Easter; so Advent began to be treated like a lesser Lent: a preparation for the birthday rather than a long celebration of it. Here’s why we shouldn’t despise the Christmas celebrations that begin so early all over our country: if we join in, we can reclaim the feast; we can do what our Christian ancestors did to their secular festivals: joining in can produce dividends.
So, although we keep these four weeks in sombre purple, like a little pre-Christmas Lent, this isn’t supposed to be a time of introspective gloom; its supposed to be a time of rejoicing and, yes, wakefulness, as the gospel recommends. The purple is in tune with the darkest month of the year; the white and gold of Christmas celebrating the first spark of the lengthening days, lit by Christ, the new unvanquished Sun.
All this reminds me of the Easter Vigil, when we celebrate the Christian Passover, the Lord’s passage from death to life, his re-birth, if you like, and ours too. At the Vigil one of the first ceremonies is the blessing of the Paschal candle: that candle which stands here by the pulpit in Eastertide and there by the font for the rest of the year (to remind us that baptism unites us to the risen Christ; birth and rebirth). In the blessing of the candle these ancient words are used:
Christ yesterday and today
the beginning and the end
Alpha and Omega
all time belongs to him,
and all the ages;
to him be glory and power,
through every age and for ever. Amen.
‘All time belongs to him’: that’s what our calendar and seasons are all about; that is the message of our Christian New Year, which begins today. He is not past but present; even the darkness of winter we are to be awake to the light, to signs of his presence with us, here at the altar, and all around us in his world. We are all, in the words of today’s gospel, doorkeepers to the Temple of the Lord. Doorkeepers need to be alert to whatever is happening around them, not focussed on themselves to the exclusion of others; their task is to welcome the Master of the house, but also to make sure everyone else can get in to meet him. That is our first task as members of this and every Christian church.
‘And what I say to you I say to all’: ‘keep awake!’
‘All time belongs to him’