Sermon for High Mass – Third before Advent (Remembrance Sunday) Sunday 12 November 2017
3rd before Advent HM sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
All three of our readings this morning are about ‘the day of the Lord’, the day when our prayer is answered and his Kingdom comes. All three readings also emphasise that we should live now in the light of what will happen then. What will be must shape what we are. Christianity is a waiting game. What matters is how we wait.
T.S. Eliot’s light verse is best known from Lloyd-Webber Junior’s musical Cats. But, like Flanders and Swann, his bestiary was catholic in sympathy; he beat them by some decades to consideration of their most famous animal subject:
The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.
Flesh-and-blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.
The hippo’s feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends,
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends.
The ‘potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Church from over sea.
At mating time the hippo’s voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church, at being one with God.
The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way–
The Church can sleep and feed at once.
That, of course is a parable, though not quite the same one we’ve just heard in the gospel. It predates Eliot’s active Christian and Anglo-Catholic period, but it demonstrates his already well-developed and uncomfortably penetrating interest in the ways of religion. There are various points of connection we could make, but my obvious link today is with sleepy bridesmaids.
Eliot’s jibe alerted me to something in today’s story from Jesus. The end of this gospel looks as though it has been added inattentively:
‘Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’
‘Stay awake’ was clearly one of Jesus’ mottos, and we are used to hearing it in Advent. But it doesn’t really make sense here. For both wise and foolish have been sleeping, like Eliot’s true church: the parable is saying, with Hamlet, ‘the readiness is all’.
We may be sleepily ready, or sleepily unprepared. Our eternal salvation does not depend upon us happening to be in the right frame of mind or even, precisely, in what used to be called a state of grace, at the moment of death. You will be tired of hearing me saying this, but it is true and it is the Gospel, so I’ll say it again: our faith is a familial relationship. Like all relationships it may grow and develop or wither and even seem to die, but like all familial relationships, it can never be entirely removed once established.
Within that relationship, Jesus urges us, ‘the readiness is all’. Those disowned at the end of the story are refused entry because they are unknown: there is no existing relationship. Making and then nourishing that relationship is the work of our lives, a work which involves necessary relationships with others to whom we are ecclesial siblings. That is hard work.
Today’s parable is in the classical form, a single point of comparison, and that point, readiness, is its message. We may, though, notice the setting, which, as often, is festal. This is meant to be a party worth joining, worth preparing for. Which leads me back to Eliot and also on to Amos, from whom we heard first.
Amos has, it seems at first, a different point to make about the appearance of God in our midst, or ‘the day of the Lord’ as he describes it. Writing 27 centuries ago he notices his co-religionists earnestly praying for the day of the Lord, and suggests that they should be careful what they pray for. His contemporaries expected a day of the Lord which would involve military defeat for their enemies. Their way of awaiting this glorious outcome was to participate in ever more frequent and extravagant festivals, to slaughter more and more sacrificial beasts, to sing still more ‘worship songs’, and to indulge in any and every form of observance that, they hoped, would confirm the Almighty’s good opinion of them and encourage him to intervene decisively on their behalf. In a word, they resorted to religion, in industrial quantities.
Amos cuts through all that religious complacency to announce that the judgement which will come on the day of the Lord will be ‘darkness, not light’; that Yahweh doesn’t actually enjoy what they are doing to worship him. Beneath this is not an anti-liturgical prejudice but a distrust of religion without morality, or as he would put it, religion without righteousness. Unready religion.
This is a live debate in our day and we are somewhat on the back foot in it: all religious institutions are facing, quite properly, harsh scrutiny and often being found wanting; the biggest discouragement of church membership (though not necessarily of faith) in our day, is the perceived lack of integrity of institutional Christians.
Some of this is unjust. Some of it is what we call, in my country of origin, a ‘media beat-up’. Meanwhile, we can’t avoid noticing that the world’s inequities are still with us. The poor are still trampled in the dust; the afflicted are still bundled out of the way, as Amos complained 27 centuries ago (2.7). The deaths in war we remember today have not ceased and our remembrance of them seems to have little impact on those who have the power to make more wars. We might uncomfortably remember that during the First World War, which we’re busily commemorating, God was enlisted by clergy on both sides with a similar enthusiasm to those religious contemporaries of Amos. Remembrance should lead to change, precisely to readiness, not nostalgia, or it is worse than useless. That is the parable of Renembrance Sunday. Remembrance at the heart of the Mass is a daily reminder of that.
We too ‘desire the day of the Lord’. We say we do every time we pray ‘thy kingdom come’. We too hope that the day we desire will be all sweetness and light. At our Festival we sang ‘But lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day.’ It shall. But by the light of that day we shall know what we have done and, perhaps more pertinently, what we have left undone. We may wonder then whether our Sundays were entirely well spent. This one, especially.
Eliot’s hippo is a parable of all those we consider outside the redeemed, those we instinctively place on the other side of everything, but who may be closer to God than we.
Eliot’s poem ends slightly chillingly:
Blood of the lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.
He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyred virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapped in the old miasmal mist.
Our gospel is a call to attentiveness in our daily lives, a reminder that Sunday, and the eucharistic Remembrance at the heart of it, is nourishment for the whole week, not the religious bit dealt with and laid aside. Pray God his first words to us will not be, ‘sorry, I don’t think we’ve met’?