About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean of Sheffield, then Durham.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Home from Exile: the lost son and the loving father

Why do we love this story so much? It’s one of the most beautifully told in the entire Bible: Luke is the supreme craftsman of the New Testament when it comes to storytelling. Think of the birth narratives or the passion story or the Good Samaritan or the Emmaus Road. 

But no doubt the subject matter has a lot to do with the way we feel about this story. I put it that way deliberately, for the parables are addressed as much to our capacity to feel and imagine as they are to our ability to think. It presents us with so many themes that that resonate within us at a profound level: our love for our parents and children and siblings; our anxiety at the prospect of being distant from those who care for us; our fear of finding ourselves in some kind of exile or estrangement; our longing for whatever home means for us and our lifelong quest to find it. These themes are universal to our human experience: family, kinship, journey, exile, homecoming, welcome, love.

The three parables in this fifteenth chapter of St Luke are all concerned with finding what was lost. The setting is the familiar grumble: ‘this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’ – familiar in the gospels, familiar across two thousand years of Christian history, for it will not do, say the scribes and Pharisees and their plentiful successors, to associate with the wrong sort. In the case of the lost sheep and the lost coin, the pattern is the same: the happy gathering together of friends and neighbours to celebrate: ‘rejoice with me, for I have found what was lost!’ And Jesus’ twice-repeated comment, ‘Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents’.

In the case of the lost son, Luke does not need to elaborate on the story, simply to tell as tenderly as he can of losing and finding, turning away and then turning round, coming home and finding joy. For repentance is metanoia, changing your mind, reorienting yourself, turning to face a different direction. This is the emotional and spiritual drama of the beloved son. His father longs for him not to leave, but go he must and make his own way in the world. Does the father intuit that it will not be for ever? And yet he gives him his share of the inheritance – how final that must have seemed as he stood and watched him disappear over the horizon. How long did it take the son to contemplate turning round? How many days, months, years are collapsed into that telling phrase ‘But when he came to himself’? And then, how much time had to elapse before he climbed that last hill (why do I always imagine the return journey being uphill?) and there was his father running to meet him?

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‘Home is where we start from’ said the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. He meant our mother’s womb, for however painful our early lives may have been, whatever loss we have known, whatever damage we have suffered, the womb was our original place of safety. Our mother was once our world. And if we were born well and had good enough parenting, the world in turn became our mother and we were at home as children of the world. Some of you will remember the 1950s advert for children’s shoes. ‘Start-rite and they’ll walk happily ever after.’ Being born, growing up, becoming an adult, starting work, every threshold we cross on the human journey is a starting-out, a fresh beginning. I am learning that in this, to me, still quite new life-stage called retirement. Inevitably, what we knew before, if it was good, takes on the aspect of what was familiar and trusted and safe, like the home we started out from. 

Yet the more we travel through life, the more we are aware that exile is a fact of human existence. I don’t mean that it’s the whole story, or that we always experience it as sharply as the bitter cry of Psalm 137. With Jeremiah (but this takes time), we learn to negotiate it, befriend it, find ourselves at home in what we would once have called a strange land. But that only serves to underline what becomes increasingly clear to us as life goes on, that ‘here we have no lasting city, but we look for the one that is to come’ (Hebrews 13.14). We long for a place of rest. We long to be held and loved. We long for home. 

It’s not primarily a matter of geography, but of the spirit. The ‘distant country’ of the prodigal may not have been further than the town across the hill, just far enough to be out of sight, but father and son both knew they were separated by a great gulf that only metanoia could bridge. And this is the point of the parable, of course, the greatness of spirit in both the father and his prodigal son that was able to cross that bridge and come home. And yes, for there was a coming home for the father too who had been in his own exile ever since his beloved boy had left. Compare them both with the meanness of the older son who, when the others rejoiced at this marvellous homecoming, refused to have anything to do with either of them. Always at home with his father, yet never at home, for ever in the far country of self-righteousness and surliness and moral rectitude. 

One more point about home as the place we start from. We must understand that what the younger son came back to was not the same as the home he set out from. His relationship with his father had changed, and with his elder brother too. He no longer had his inheritance. His experience of estrangement and reconciliation had shaped him in ways that nothing else could have done. Home had changed and he had changed and they had changed. He, they, all had to learn to inhabit this new place they all called home. The famous words of T. S. Eliot in the Four Quartets were true for all of them but especially for the one who had travelled furthest: ‘we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’. We may think we are going back. But we never are. And like the cherubim and the flaming sword that guarded the way back to Eden at the end of the Genesis story, it’s an illusion to think we ever can. The only way to travel is onwards. Which, once we understand it, takes real strength and courage. It calls upon the deepest resources of faith and hope we can ever summon within us. 

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How does this story of the prodigal son speak to us?

The point of the parable is of course so that we may learn what kind of God Jesus is pointing us to. It’s not so much about the prodigal son as the tender father who longs to find his beloved child once again and goes running to meet him when he returns. We don’t need to hear the words we heard in those earlier stories, ‘rejoice with me, for I have found what was lost’. We can see for ourselves the beautiful truth that there can never be more joy in heaven or on earth than when in some state of alienation or exile, we find ourselves once more, experience that change of mind and heart called metanoia, and come home to the God who looks for us because he loves us. This is spiritual work, heart-work if you like, that I need to do all my life if I want to be true to my Christian faith. And in every way I can, to reflect this divine way of being in all my human relationships, reaching out in compassion and tenderness to all whose paths cross mine, as God reaches out to me. And finding my true self as well, coming home to who and what I am, fearfully and wonderfully made by the God welcomes me and loves me. 

I have preached this text all my life. I don’t underestimate how hard it is in practice. But I think we need to hear what this story says to us collectively too. I mean our churches and faith communities especially. I believe that the ideas of home and hospitality are intimately linked. If home means space for us to find ourselves and flourish in, hospitality means creating space for others. When the loving father made space for his returning son and gave him a seat at the feast, he was doing what God did in creation, stepping back and giving space for creation to come into being and exist, and within it, for humanity to live in his image. Creation is always an act of love. Redemption in the parable means recognising how that movement of love belongs to the centre of all life where God is perpetually looking to mend our brokenness, heal our wounds, welcome us home, place us at his table, feed us at his banquet. This is the invitation we need to hear when we are beginning to find ourselves, so to speak, alienated and exiled by a virus that is instilling fear in the land we think of as home and a place of safety. If we are going to find God in this strange land of the Coronavirus, it is going to be in the acts of solidarity, kindness and care we offer to one another, and especially to those who are most vulnerable in our midst.

Are we capable of this kind of hospitality? The thing about love is that it doesn’t prescribe boundaries, draw up tests of worthiness. Only prejudice does that, precisely what the Pharisees and scribes were doing when they complained about how Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. The hardest truth about love is that it is a sea without a shore, a sun without a sphere, as all-present and all-pervasive as God himself. This is what the elder son in the parable could not bear. Love that is too generous, kindness that is too profligate, what kind of corrupt morality would that lead to! 

There are some poems that have meant everything to me in my years of preaching. This is probably the last time I’ll have the opportunity to quote one of them. Perhaps it is George Herbert’s greatest. I think it was inspired by our parable. It speaks to me about coming home to God, coming home to others, coming home to myself. 

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked anything.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat. 
                             So I did sit and eat. 

Luke 15. 11-end

Monday, 9 March 2020

A Path by Land and Sea: the Way of St Hild

 This is a remarkable gathering in a remarkable place on a remarkable day. And all because of a remarkable woman. It’s St Hild we have to thank for inspiring this celebration that begins here at Hartlepool and ends at Whitby this afternoon. Two places that cherish the memory of this great Saxon woman, and now a pilgrim path along the North Sea coast to link them, the Way of St Hild.  

You might think it’s a little eccentric to look back across more than thirteen hundred years to find inspiration for this project. But the North is fiercely proud of its saints: Aidan, Oswald, Benedict Biscop, Wilfred, Chad, Cuthbert, and Bede whose writing lovingly tell their stories and help us imagine the world they lived in. Hild was one of these men and women of Northumbria’s Golden Age who shaped the culture and spirituality of the North East, to whom we owe so much of the North East’s identity and character and its marvellous ‘sense of place’. To Northerners, these legendary saints aren’t locked into some remote and distant past. They are our contemporaries, our fellow-travellers, our friends. 

St Hild would have known intimately the route that bears her name. As Abbess first of Hartlepool and then of Whitby, she must often have made the journey between them, whether walking or riding the marshlands and the high cliffs, or viewing them from afar as she plied the highway of the great grey ocean. What’s more, her family links to the Northumbrian royal house at Bamburgh and to the mother house on Lindisfarne would have taken her to the northern reaches of the kingdom too, past South Shields where there is another church dedicated to her and where she may have founded her first convent. 

‘All who knew Hild the handmaiden of Christ called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace’ says Bede. He writes about her as ‘a jewel in the land’, a shining light as a Christian leader, teacher, reconciler and healer. Her name means battle and she did indeed live through turbulent times. A Synod at Whitby in 664 at which King Oswiu presided called for leadership skills of the highest order when church and state were bitterly divided. She died full of years in 680. On her deathbed she urged her brothers and sisters ‘to preserve the gospel peace among themselves and towards others’, to live out the virtues of service to others as she herself had done throughout her life. 

Our new Way of St Hild sets out to tell her story and celebrate her legacy. It does this not only by referring back to the events of her life, but by setting her in the context of her times, of the natural landscapes her path traverses, and of the events that subsequently changed the world she knew, sometimes, we can safely say, beyond anything she could have imagined in her lifetime. The natural environment of salt marsh and estuary and cliff top, the profusion of birdlife and wildlife, the fossil memories from aeons past she would recognise today. The sound of the salt sea crashing against the old eternal rocks would always have been music to her ears, for it was this that she taught Caedmon the cowherd to sing about as he found his voice to praise the Creator. 

But what would she have made of the heavy industry of Teesmouth, the comings and goings of rigs and tankers, the steel, iron and alum works on the edge of the moors, feats of heavy 
engineering like the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge, or facilities along the coast dedicated to tourism, sport and leisure? One of the fascinations of creating this route has been the extraordinary contrasts you encounter on the Way of St Hild. And inviting reflection on what it could all mean to men and women of our twenty-first century. So this pilgrim path is as much a celebration of human activity and achievement – with all its dilemmas and compromises - as it is of the beauties of the natural world and the life and times of one of our greatest saints. 

It’s a remarkable collaboration between Hartlepool Council and neighbouring local authorities, the churches, tourism agencies, the Royal Navy, and people and organisations that care for and interpret our natural and built heritage. Hild would have liked that spirit of common purpose. And given her adventurous spirit, she’d have liked, I think, the digital access to the pilgrimage that’s been created through augmented reality stations, so that people with limited or no mobility can still be pilgrims and walk the route on their smartphone. 

It’s appropriate to be doing this in 2020 as our contribution to this ‘Year of Pilgrimage’ that’s being observed by cathedrals and pilgrimage sites across the land. Durham Cathedral is the focal point of a cluster of new pilgrim routes being launched this year, one of which connects with the Way of St Hild here on the Headland at Hartlepool. The capacity of saints and holy places to inspire pilgrimage is evidence of the interest being awakened today in what’s being called ‘religious tourism’. Stories like Hild’s are Christian in origin. Yet like the pilgrim routes to Compostela, Jerusalem and Canterbury, interest in pilgrimage is alive in people of many faiths and of no faith in particular for whom the spiritual search is a fundamental aspect of being alive. I don’t hesitate to claim that Hild’s faith prized inclusion as a basic Christian value. That’s the spirit in which we have tried to create this pilgrimage.

Which brings me to my final point. The more I study Bede’s writings about St Hild and her legacy as a Christian leader, the more remarkable I find it that a woman should have been entrusted with the authority conferred on her as a medieval abbess by bishops and kings. Saxon monasteries were not primarily places of retreat but centres from which the land was Christianised and ruled, and affairs of state were managed. Politics and religion were inextricably intertwined in places like Hartlepool and Whitby. The woman whose memory is enshrined in our pilgrim path belonged to the front rank of leaders in the Saxon world. No wonder Bishop Aidan ‘loved her heartily for her innate wisdom and her devotion to the service of God’.

So you’ll not be surprised that there was a fond wish to launch The Way of St Hild on International Women’s Day 2020, Sunday 8 March. This year’s theme is Generation Equality, meaning the empowerment of women and girls not only for good citizenship but also for leadership in the worlds of today and tomorrow. Like Ruth in our first reading, Hild speaks to us across the centuries of all that represents the best and noblest in human character, giftedness and service. She is a woman for us all to be proud of, and whether as women or men, to emulate as we ask ourselves what it might mean to serve God and our neighbour in whatever capacity he calls us to at just such a time as this? 
St Hilda, Hartlepool
Sunday 8 March 2020

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Be Born in us Today


One of our wedding presents we still use is a leather-bound visitors’ book. It’s much battered now, after forty five years; but it is a precious record of guests whom we have welcomed into our home – family, friends, strangers, and who knows, perhaps even angels entertained unawares. The shifting patterns of our personal relationships are traced through its pages: people we have worked with; people we were once close to; people who have died; people we have grown to love increasingly over the years. 

In our book, there are four entries from 1977 to 1983.  Those guests couldn't write their own names, so we did it for them when they crossed our threshold for the first time, long expected and already much loved. I needn’t tell you that they are our four children. The book brings it all back: the long months of waiting, the careful preparations, the sense of expectancy - joyful, but tinged with anxiety in case things should not be exactly right, or we might not be good enough parents, or we might not have enough love to give to this infinitely fragile creature who will be so dependent on us. There is nothing you would not do to welcome a child. And if that child does not arrive, or the visit is cut short, the pain would be unbearable. There is no loss like the loss of a child.

Each year in our churches and homes we prepare the crib to receive its honoured guest. It is an act of love, for there is nothing you would not do for this Child who comes to visit us. And like the preparations you make for any birth in the family, it is not just that we want everything to be outwardly right, though that matters. We want everything to be inwardly right too. The crib becomes a picture of our own lives being put back together, made beautiful for Christ.  St Teresa of Avila talked of the Interior Castle of our lives; but she might have spoken of the Interior Crib, with the heart as the manger-throne to receive the King of kings. 

How do we prepare this inward crib of ours? I said that there is no loss in life like the loss of a child. Yet our society has, in a way, lost a child, and Christmas brings it home with particular force. Who is this child we have lost?  I think it’s the child within us capable of expectation and wonder, happiness and delight.  Once upon a time, those qualities were in full flower in us.  We call it innocence, which perhaps means the capacity to be open the world in all its beauty and generosity and see into the life of things.  It’s a capacity that in many of us grown-ups tends to unripen until it is has shrivelled to a bud.  
I think I know 
Where all children come from but the puzzle
To me is, as they grow up, where they go.
Love, wonder, marvellous hope. All these can wither
With crawling years like flowers on a stalk;
Or to some piper's tune vanish for ever
As creatures murdered on a morning walk.

This year I have felt it again, the way Christmas erodes to the tired, tinselled routine, a thousand miles away from the simplicity and mystery of this wonderful festival.  Perhaps only the very young, the very poor, the very lonely and the very hurt understand Christmas: they have nothing to get in the way.  So what does it mean to say that Christmas is a time for children.  How do we acknowledge that in us all is an infant crying for the light? Don’t we yearn for that child to emerge from the dark and start playing? Don’t we ache to feel what we feel as we gaze as if for the first time on the ox and ass and shepherds and Mary and Joseph and the baby?  

If someone said, on Christmas Eve
‘Come, see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
 
We can hear this as nostalgia.  I see it more as a longing for meaning, the kind of meaning that children more easily grasp than adults.  Jesus says that unless we become like little children, we can never enter the kingdom of heaven.  And what is that but to rediscover not only the lost child in ourselves but the holy Child of Bethlehem.  If only we could find him again!  But Christmas says he is not far from any one of us, the one who brings truth and love into our world.  He comes as the stranger we do not recognise, yet he is the friend who cares about us.  He comes as the sovereign of the universe, yet he is the humblest of subjects.  He comes as the almighty creator, yet he is the slave who empties himself to be among us as one who serves. He is nearer to us than our own souls.  He asks for house-room in our crib.  He stands at the door and knocks, and waits to see what we will do with him.  
The fourteenth century mystical theologian Meister Eckhart said: “We must all become God’s mothers, for God desires to be born in each of us.” A poem a friend wrote a few years ago for her Christmas card captures beautifully the ‘how’, the ‘what’ and the ‘where’ of Christmas, the three life-changing questions we put to the nativity and the nativity puts to us. 

How should I best prepare?  Coming at you
with a running jump I might easily
just miss you altogether; land instead
where earth’s turn must face me with a shadow.

What if I lose the way, arriving late
to bend my knee; will all the food be gone,
leaving scattered embers and camel dung?

Where shall a baby safely lay his head
and not be overlooked or trampled on?

‘Within the manger of your heart,’ he said.

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The first text quoted is from Charles Causley’s poem ‘School at Four O'Clock’.  The second is from Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Oxen’.  The final poem is by Sheila Bryer, ‘Advent’ (© S Bryer 2007, used with permission).

Friday, 20 December 2019

Values for Advent 4: Illumination

‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’  The seventeenth century metaphysical poet John Donne puts that question in one of his Divine Poems.  He was much exercised by thoughts about the end of the world and about death, the end of his world.  ‘This is my play’s last scene, here heavens appoint / My pilgrimage’s last mile’;  ‘Oh my black soul!  Now thou art summoned / By sickness, death’s herald, and champion’; ‘Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste, / I run to death, and death meets me as fast, / And all my pleasures are like yesterday’.  And with death come thoughts of darkness, for his was a troubled soul.  ‘To see God only, I go out of sight: / And to ’scape stormy days I choose An everlasting night’.  

For Donne, the Winter Solstice held powerful significance: the shortest day, the ‘year’s midnight’ as he calls it.  This precarious axis of the seasons when the sun’s light almost fails is for him a metaphor of his spiritual condition: wondering, hoping but not always expecting that the light will grow strong again, half believing that it might not.  Midwinter raises anxiety about the last things: solstitium: the sun stands still in the sky, the light burns low, and life is short, and nature holds out no promise that she will ever renew herself or that this pale sun whose rays barely penetrate to earth could ever warm another living thing.  

For most of us, the Solstice (at 4.19 am on the morning of Sunday 22 December) will pass unnoticed.  We are insulated from it not just by electric light and central heating and the ceaseless flow of online activity, but by the business that occupies us in the days before Christmas.  But those whose lives are tuned to the rhythms of the seasons and the rise and fall of light pay attention: Pennine farmers, market gardeners, seafarers, meteorologists, astronomers, poets.  For billions in our world, less burdened by technology than we are, these primal rhythms are close to what it means to sustain life, hold out the prospect of a tomorrow as well as a today.  ‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’ is not the private fantasy of a morbid soul.  It is the question to ask when the planet is spinning relentlessly towards an irreversible climate catastrophe.  The first victims to suffer will be the poor and voiceless of the developing world.  The world’s last night is no longer the fantasy of a fevered imagination.  The apocalypse is now.

In these days before Christmas, you may wish I’d lighten up (an apt image for the solstice if you think about it).  But while modern Anglican texts soften as Christmas approaches, the Book of Common Prayer maintains a tougher Advent focus.  Sunday’s collect is one of the most majestic in the book: ‘O Lord, raise up thy power and come among us, and with great might succour us’: we call on God as those who are helpless because he alone can rescue us.  In the Prayer Book communion rite, both the third and fourth Sundays of Advent give us gospel readings about John the Baptist, hardly comfortable reading for Advent.  The Great O antiphons of Advent are a crying for the light at this dark time of the year: ‘O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death’.  And when Advent at last utters the name ‘God with us’ in the antiphon of the final day before Christmas Eve, it is longing and desire that run through it: ‘O Emmanuel, our King and our Lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: come and save us O Lord our God’.  Come…. Come….It is futures that we fasten on in Advent: futures promised, futures glimpsed, and yes, futures feared as well.  

At the Solstice, people used to kindle fires to keep light and warmth alive and cherish them for the long year ahead.  Perhaps it is the distant origin of fairy lights and Christmas trees; perhaps we still need to echo our forebears and in ceremony and symbol act out the issues of light and dark. In many cathedrals and churches, the traditional Advent procession moves up the church from west to east: a movement towards the light, at first experienced partially, brokenly, as if it might be swallowed up again by the immense darkness in which we stand and wonder and wait.  Gradually that fragile light is established; it grows until it reaches its full strength, luminous, radiant like the heavenly Jerusalem, the city that ‘has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.’ ‘Eternity’s sunrise’ to quote Blake’s famous phrase.

Yet the hope remains future.  We don’t yet possess it.  We still pray ‘Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!’, for the kingdom is not yet present and God’s purposed not yet fulfilled.  We ask every day in Advent that we may ‘cast away the works of darkness’ and that God may put upon us ‘the armour of light now in the time of this mortal life’.  We glimpsed the light of God’s presence in that great climax of the Advent Procession, but then it was taken from us again: for it was but a glimpse of glory given for a while.  It had to subside, for at the end we have to go outside again into the night, like the winter sparrow in Bede’s parable who flies into the warm lit hall only to fly out again into the cold and dark. 

It’s in that half-light of daily existence that the prayer, ‘Come thou long-expected Jesus’ becomes most real. It breathes desire, expectancy, hope.  We know we can face the night, for this vision will sustain us, Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun who is the glory of the nations.  We know that though we walk in darkness we have seen a great light and need not be afraid.  In midwinter the darkness envelops us again, fraught with ambiguity. The bright clear long light of summer is but a memory.  For now. But darkness is not necessarily ominous and bad.  In the Bible clouds and darkness are where you find the presence of God. ‘There is in God a deep and dazzling darkness’ says the poet, drawing on a long Christian mystical tradition.  ‘Churches are best for prayer, that have least light’ says Donne.

It was on Christmas Day in Durham Cathedral ten years ago that the ‘new creation’ high altar frontal was unveiled.  It shows the rising sun, its golden rays penetrating to and animating the extremities of creation.  It rises out of a blue sea, as if to remind us of Advent and waiting for the God’s purposes to be fulfilled.  For even the birth of Jesus is not the end but the beginning of our world’s redemption, the dawning of the light.  The sun has yet to rise completely and fill the sky.  Across the frontal is a thin red arc, almost invisible until you come close to it, the thread of pain and passion stitched across glory which is the cost of it, the destiny of the Holy Child.  On Solstice day, which this year falls on the first day of the week that we call Sun-Day, we celebrate the light that is coming among us while at the same time we hold in our hearts those who in the dark places of pain and passion wait each day for deliverance.

‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’  Only when we ask John Donne’s question for our world and for ourselves can we begin to hope.  It is a clarifying question, for it tells us that there is work to do and darkness to dispel and lives to change.   There are four days of Advent left to us.  We must make the most of them, especially as after Sunday the days will start getting longer again, and the light become stronger; for ‘the night is far spent and the day is at hand’, the day of Christ whose glory fills the skies. 

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Values for Advent 3: Joy

This month I’m reflecting on some of the values that might help us keep these short precious weeks of Advent with what I suggested we might call ‘spiritual intelligence’.  You can find my previous offerings below this one on the website. The first was longing, when we looked at how Advent is meant to focus our desires on God and to nurture our hunger to see his kingdom come.  Last week’s theme was contentment, which I saw as rooted in thankfulness, the only way to cure the relentless drive to possess that is so evident before Christmas.   Today I want to look at a third value that I believe is fundamental to Advent.  That value is joy.  

‘Rejoice always’ says St Paul. In all things, let the watchword be joy.  Joy is the particular focus of this particular week. Last Sunday, the third of Advent is known as Gaudete from the opening word of the traditional introit at Mass: rejoice!  But joy is meant to mark all of Advent.  It is not a penitential season like Lent when we sing Miserere and lament the brokenness of things.  Rather, it’s a time to take up the ringing acclamations of the Hebrew scriptures that Zion’s ancient longings for God’s coming are about to come true.  ‘Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy, for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.  Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 52.8-9).  And this glad expectancy is not only for human beings, still less the religious.  The whole creation utters its inarticulate song of joy at what is coming on the world: ‘let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar and all that fills it.  Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming to judge the earth’ (Psalm 96.11-13).  And when the time comes for the forerunner to arrive, his birth brings not fear but delight: ‘you will have joy and gladness’ the angel tells his father Zechariah, ‘and many will rejoice at his birth’ (Luke 1.14).  

The word in Greek is chara, close to charis, grace, and eucharistia, thanksgiving.  So joy belongs both with God’s generosity (which is what grace means) and our response to him of gratitude.  The capacity to be joyful, then, flows from the capacity to recognise, celebrate and embrace God’s acts as our creator and saviour.  We are what we are, a people of joy, because of what he is, a God who is all-justice and all-goodness.  Augustine says that ‘the authentic life is to set our joy on you, grounded in you, caused by you’ (Confessions 10, 32).  For God has made room for us in his world.  He has given us all that is lovely to enjoy.  He has come among us as our Saviour Immanuel.  We find ourselves re-orientated towards his own life and love, like a sunflower being turned towards the sun and opened up by its light and warmth.  In all this, our wellbeing, our shalom, is secured.  What we call gladness, joy, happiness, delight well up within us because we know that ultimately all shall be well.  

St Augustine is a great theologian of joy because he is not afraid to explore his own human experience of pain and pleasure.  Here, you feel, is a man who has truly lived, who knows his own hungers and drives, satisfaction and disappointment, has tasted both sensuality and emptiness. In his Confessions, he lays bear a soul discovering how the experiences of human life and relationships both point to the secret of lasting happiness while at the same time withholding it.  He learns how to see into the life of the things so as to discern the God who beckons us there to know and love him.  He glimpses how our ordinary joys point to a larger, enduring joy.  ‘When I love you, what is it that I love?  It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odour of flowers and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh: it is not these I love when I love my God.  Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God - a light, voice, odour, food, embrace, of my inner man, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satisfaction can part.  That is what I love when I love my God.’ (Confessions 10, 6)  Was ever delight more movingly or sensually expressed?

But Augustine knows, as we do, that even the best we enjoy of God in this world is partial and fragmented: fugitive pieces of a larger picture that still eludes us. In the Confessions he recalls his habit of looking for happiness in the wrong place, how he has had to learn that joy has a future tense that keeps waiting and longing alive: ‘Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new, late have I loved you. You were within and I was living outside and looked for you there, and plunged into the lovely things you had made. You were with me but I was not with you. Those things kept me far from you…. But you called aloud and shattered my deafness.  You were radiant and beautiful.  I drew in my breath and now I long for you.  I tasted you, and now I feel hunger and thirst only for you.  You touched me, and now I am on fire for the peace which is yours’.  The paradox of Advent is that its joy is both now and not yet: both with us but still to come.  Only the future brings with it a joy that is without end.  

This is why, when Jesus came proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, ‘the common people heard him gladly’ as the gospel puts it.  They knew that only God’s future could bring what they longed for, only his kingdom of righteousness and peace could usher in true and lasting happiness as the Sermon on the Mount makes so clear.  So it’s right to come back to the last things which ought to be our focus in this season.  What we look for in Advent is nothing less than a new world, God’s final word of judgment on all that is evil and wrong and the establishment forever of the kingdom of Immanuel in righteousness, joy and peace.  ‘God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes; death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away’ (Revelation 21.4).  


This is the faith we confess in the climactic words of the Nicene Creed that ought to make our spirits dance and summon up a rush of joy every time we say them: ‘I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’.  Expecto in Latin – not just hope for but look for, which is what New Testament hope is.  At the eucharist, we celebrate the risen life of Jesus in our midst and proclaim his death ‘until he comes’.  And that reminds us, even in the midst of so much that makes us afraid, to hold in our hearts and our hopes the consummation of all things at the end of the age, when hope is emptied in delight, and we know him as he is.  It is the source of the joy that sustains us.  It’s the joy that no-one can ever take away.     

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Values for Advent 2: Contentment

I am offering a series of reflections in Advent in which I am suggesting some spiritual values we might cultivate during this precious but demanding season.  Last week I spoke about Advent as a time to of longing and desire.  Today I want to explore the value of contentment.  

At first sight, contentment seems to be incompatible with longing; after all, if we desire because we do not yet possess, it follows that we must be discontented in some way because of something we lack.  There is certainly a paradox here, for we know that we should be content with what we have and are, yet we hear the gospel promising us something that in St Paul’s words is ‘even better’.  We know that everything in this life is provisional, here only for a time.  At the Lord’s coming, it will be changed and we with it. It will become God’s new world; and we are taught to long for that day and to pray for it.  This is the focus of all God-given desire.  And because our condition falls so far short of what God would it to be, there should indeed be a divine discontent in us that throws us back on his mercy and recalls us to depend completely on his help and grace.  

At the same time, we are taught to recognise the goodness of things and to see in them God’s generosity and kindness.  We know we must learn how not to crave what we do not really need, nor to invest more than we should in what we are given.  Immanuel Kant’s insight helps here: ‘we are not rich because of what we possess but because of what we can do without’.  And by riches I don’t simply mean material things.  I mean any gift that promotes wellbeing and gives us pleasure or fulfilment, whether in the body, the intellect, the emotions or in our faculty for spiritual awareness that we call the soul.  Perhaps we can’t be content unless we could renounce even the best that God has given us.  

We need to lay alongside each other these two strands that run through the Bible.  This means learning how to desire God himself in all things and above all things.  We know that nothing less can ever ultimately satisfy.  So contentment and longing are held together when we see how it’s as much about appreciating the Giver as the gift, and that being content is to glimpse how every gift is a kind of sacrament of God’s loving generosity, not an end in itself but another means to knowing and loving him.  To turn it round, as St Paul does in the early chapters of his Letter to the Romans, the cravings and sins that lead human beings into depravity and destructiveness have the effect precisely of making the creature the ultimate end of our concern rather than the Creator.  The Bible consistently calls this idolatry.  Augustine describes sin as being ‘curved in upon oneself’, the ‘worth-ship’ that properly belongs to God our ultimate Source and End being deflected instead into the penultimate, the created, the transient.  Perhaps idolatry is surrender to a perverted kind of discontent that can never rest in the goodness and worth-ship of another.  And when we give our lives to these ends, we are, says St Paul, as good as dead already.   In an image of St Francis de Sales, we are like a bride who pays so much attention to her wedding-ring that she never even notices the bridegroom who gave it to her. 

What is the secret of contentment?  How do we achieve it in our western society that is so hungry to possess, whose besetting sins are so blatantly laid bare and played upon in this run-up to Christmas, the sins of avarice and its close relative, envy?  

St Paul has a key passage about this in his Letter to the Philippians.  It comes just after the well-known Advent exhortation to ‘rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice’.  He has spoken of his joy in the Christ whose coming is near and then says: ‘I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed, and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need’ (Philippians 4:11-12).  This owes more than a little to the Stoic philosophers whose ideal was to reach an inward contemplative stability by becoming more and more indifferent to outward circumstances.  The soul’s health, they said, did not depend either on prosperity or adversity, and to allow good fortune or bad to influence it would be to regress to a childish, even infantile state.  St Paul gives Christian meaning to this by saying that Christian stability is found not within but beyond himself.  ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me’ he says.  ‘My God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4.14, 19).  Like everything else, it is given.  We cannot achieve it on our own.

We can, however, cultivate a mentality that makes it more possible.  The clue, I believe, is thankfulness.  This means more than merely saying thank-you, though the words are important.  It is about being thankful at the core of ourselves, as when the psalmist begins his praises by saying ‘I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth’ (Psalm 34.1).  This is a worshipper for whom thankfulness and praise are a habit.  For him it is as natural to bless God as it is to sleep, eat and breathe.  This is fundamental to Jewish spirituality.  Everything in life is made holy, not by blessing it but by blessing God for it: ‘Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the Universe: you make this new day to dawn.  Blessed are you for the sleep I have enjoyed; for this food and drink, for the sabbath, for our homes and those who love us, for our lives and the hope that sustains us’.  

This is what Jesus did at the Last Supper.  He blessed God for the bread and the wine and commanded us to do this in memory of him.  His command was much more than an instruction to celebrate the eucharist.  It was a summons to be eucharistic in our own selves, to develop the habitus of always and everywhere blessing God for the goodness and mercy shown to us and to all living things.  The word eucharistia simply means thanksgiving.  It defines the man or woman or faith.  To be eucharistic people, men and women for whom thankfulness is a way of life, is to be on the path of true contentment.  

I have met a few people in whom I have glimpsed this.  When I became an incumbent in the early 1980s, I followed a priest who had died of a brain tumour without warning.  He was not even the age I am now, and had only been in the parish for a few months, yet in that short time he had earned a good deal of respect and affection.  When my wife and I went to the vicarage to measure up for carpets and curtains, we met his widow who was on the point of moving out.  We stumbled around as you do, trying to say something appropriate, but the words wouldn’t come.  But she said to us: ‘when John was alive, he taught me that the only real way of living well is to be thankful for everything.  And when we are, we find that sense of gratitude sustaining us even in the darkest of times.  I have so much to be thankful for in a lifetime of memories together.  It doesn’t take away the pain or the loss, but it does carry me through it.’  I have never forgotten it.  

As the General Thanksgiving says in its incomparable poetry, we are to bless God ‘for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life, and above all for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory’.  We could hardly do better than to pray that prayer every day in Advent, as retailers try to ratchet up our hungers.  It will help us keep Christmas with integrity, for we shall have begun to learn both the virtue of contentment, and with what gratitude to receive the greatest of all gifts when he comes.