Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 9 December 2012
Vigilate. Watch. Our lives are sacred, made for God, waiting for his touch, his life. In 1589 Byrd wrote his motet Vigilate, which we have just heard. The resources of the Church in Advent include all the arts, complementing each other, to express, as best we can, the interplay of human and divine. Byrd’s Vigilate takes us into Advent, a season which I often think is a world on its own, a different planet, so strange are these four weeks before Christmas, so full of promise, so rich in literary and musical expression, and yet so easily missed, as we are submerged in the Christmas rush. Let’s try an experiment this evening. Let’s try to do Advent without the Christmas rush, without the countdown. Let’s do it William Byrd’s way. Vigilate. Watch. What the motet expresses for me is energy, human energy and passion; it is as if what is being discovered through the music is a new way of living: a new way of living as watching and waiting, not the waiting in dread for the Judge’s verdict, not the sleepy sorrowful waiting in the Garden of Gethsemane, not the despairing waiting by the Cross, but a bubbling over, confident waiting, entirely patient and measured, because those who wait and watch are confident that what has been promised will happen, as confident as a night watchman who waits for the dawn – there’s the image of night leading to day which we find in Isaiah, the staple book of Advent, and in the text of Vigilate, from St Mark – we don’t know when the master of the house is returning, evening, midnight, cockrow, dawn – so vigilate, stay awake and watch. Our uncertainty over the time of the coming of the master, the return of Christ, is as nothing compared to his love for us, his return to your life, his claiming of his kingdom. This time of waiting is our opportunity for preparation, discovering the deep roots which connect us to the divine life. Advent is a metaphor for your life. This is how we are to live, but how alien this waiting is to our modern “can do” world, how difficult to do well, when the slightest delay in gratification, a broadband hitch, a supermarket queue, leaves us personally affronted. Our modern world is all about covering the distance, getting there first, reaching somewhere sooner, what the Prime Minister would call “getting with the programme”. Advent isn’t about distance, it is about depth, roots, intensity, and stopping rushing around. In Advent, all the music, all the readings, all the poetry, beg us to change our ways, to find a new way of living, a way of living in suspense between heaven and earth, watching in the dark, the dark of our inevitable doubts and fears, yet joyful because our God, as Hosea the prophet puts it, is “like someone who lifts an infant close against his cheek” [Hosea 11.4]. Vigilate. We have time; there is no rush; we have time to discover eternity.
What are we watching out for, for whom do we wait patiently? The images put before us in these four weeks are the two comings of Christ, his historical coming in human weakness at Christmas, and his final coming at the end of time. Everyone has difficulty about this second coming of Christ, either trying to work it out literally, or dismissing it as a typical church ploy to frighten everybody with the threat of a grisly judgement. But it’s actually quite simple. The second coming at the end of time tells us that our knowledge of God today will be partial, unfinished business, incomplete, still bound by time rather than eternity, yet destined for fulfilment, like the gradual coming of the dawn for which the watchmen wait. So there is a third coming of Christ for which we wait, a spiritual birth of Christ in your life, in your weakness, in your darkness and your dawning light, and the seed is already sown, that is the message of this season, you have it within you to show God’s human face to this world, to bring eternity into time, we are chosen for this, and we are asked to accept God’s trust, however untrustworthy and partially sighted we know ourselves to be.
This evening we had another reading from the prophet Isaiah. Advent is Isaiah’s month. We heard part of the well known Chapter 40, which expresses all these Advent themes: preparation in the wilderness for the coming of our God, the revelation of God’s glory, and a Christ image – although obviously Isaiah didn’t know Christ – the image of God as a shepherd leading his flock, gathering lambs into his arms. Why Isaiah in particular this month? I think it is because, by and large, Isaiah is a poetry book. Like all good poetry, the book allows a latitude of interpretation. We read things into it as well as out of it, we read Christ into the book; the poetry allows us to dream a bit. There’s not enough dreaming today. Only when we settle down to wait and to watch, can we dream. Then we can go beyond the hard limits of what we know, and allow the spirit to soar, to develop beyond itself, as in Vigilate. With a dream, there is hope. Everything is possible.
Music, poetry, literature, painting, all the arts have rules, roots, tradition, subtle yet formal connections, as in the madrigal style of Vigilate. Without the formality and the tradition, the art has no more connection with what is eternal and true, than does a throwaway remark. With the formality, with the rules, what is temporal meets what is eternal. The truth is expressed. Temporal and eternal. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God remains for ever. As with the arts, so with theology. From the pulpit and in the liturgy you hear the formal stuff, me talking about the three different comings of Christ. But these formal beliefs are an invitation, and they are supposed to be helpful, to go beyond the words and the ideas into the truth of your life, what is your truth, your meaning, your destiny, where is Christ in the tears and the glories of your world. This is what we prepare for in Advent. What is temporal, you and me, meets what is eternal, God, the Way, the Truth, the Life.
I know, because I’ve sat where you are, that it can sometimes be depressing to come to a three quarters empty church for a formal service which bears no relevance to what is going on outside. It’s a strange way to wait and watch. But you are on the edge of greatness, for you are, I hope, not asleep, but alert, watchful, watching beyond the confines of your life, beyond your own circumstances, beyond a church on a Sunday evening, for the One who will help you to transform your life and this world into the semblance of his kingdom. “And what I say to you, I say to all: watch!” [Mark 14.37] Vigilate!
Sermon preached by Fr. Julian Browning