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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, 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. 

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Values for Advent 1: Longing

Each year, Advent puts a question to us.  It asks us what our values truly are.  This is because at no other time of year does liturgical time seem so dislocated from secular time.  Even against the backdrop of political turmoil when the future is uncertain, this is not a time of year when reflection is easy.  The traditional Advent focus on the Last Things, death, judgment, hell and heaven sits uneasily alongside Christmas fayres and lights and shop windows.  We wish we could sustain for these brief weeks what Philip Larkin called the ‘hunger to be more serious’, for then what a joy Christmas Eve would be.  Will we achieve it this year?

It’s easy for preachers in Advent to rally to the cry against consumerism and the plea for a less materialist and a more charitable, frugal, spiritually aware way of celebrating Christmas.  But we need to be careful, because we are all implicated in the values of our society and its febrile, often superficial approach to this season that prefers frippery and feel-good to real depth of challenge and possibly some pain.  So without pretending that I have any easy answers about how to observe a good Advent, I should like in these coming weeks to suggest values that could focus on its deeper meaning for us as Christian people and help us on the path towards spiritual intelligence. 

My first value is longing.  Longing, hunger, desire, is basic to the human condition.  We would not be human if we did not long for what we do not have to enjoy.  I am not speaking of selfish gratification here – I trust we have moved beyond that.  Globally, we long for a safer, more peaceful world, an end to human cruelty and the kind of terror we have seen in India in recent days.  We want to see the endemic needs that diminish the lives of so many met in a lasting way: poverty, hunger, disease.  In our nation we long for wholesome communities where neighbours care for one another, where there is a more developed instinct for what is right and just in our midst.  More personally we long for fulfilled intimate relationships, satisfaction in our work, the healing of what is broken within us, the feeling that our lives make some kind of sense.  

We long for these things.  And when I say we ‘long’ for them, I mean more than that we merely wish for them or sigh for them.  True longing engages our passions and our wills.  It involves the commitment of our entire being.  It does this because we know that human life is marred and flawed without the things we long for.  More than that, our very longings themselves are signs that we still have the capacity to envisage a better future for others and for ourselves.  Not to long for a better tomorrow would mean to settle for the compromises and shortcomings of today.  

Advent presents us with the prospect of the future.  It is, as theologians say, eschatological.  Its thrust is tomorrow, what is coming upon us and upon the world, and how tomorrow influences and shapes how we think about today.  But ‘tomorrow’, for Christianity, is not what blindly evolves out of today as events unfold.  If we thought we were at the mercy of the relentless chain of causes and effects, we would be better not to dwell on the future too much, for we would be overwhelmed with hopelessness and possibly despair.  But to focus on God’s tomorrow is to ponder how he intends to shape the world and us with it in order to bring about his good purpose.  So Advent challenges our habit of thinking about the future as somehow inevitable, whether it is the march of progress towards an ideal utopian future as much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries assumed, or whether it is the collapse of civilisation into the dystopian abyss of anarchy and chaos.  The optimists and pessimists are both wrong: neither the best nor the worst will happen come what may.  Instead, the Bible gives us the vision of a re-imagined God-shaped future and invites us to begin to craft our present in the light of it.

When Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, this is what he meant.  He believed, as his contemporaries did, that God would shortly bring history to an end and usher in the new era of righteousness and peace.  Some of you standing here will not taste death until you see the kingdom of God come’ he said.  So is our New Testament reading, Jesus finds a donkey and comes riding into Jerusalem on it, deliberately fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah that this is how Zion’s king would arrive in his city.  And the crowd’s hosannas, culled from an acclamation in one of the royal psalms, tell us that the people knew exactly what they were seeing and celebrating.  ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’.  The kingdom is upon us.  The old is about to be swept away and with it, all that depraves and corrupts human life.  Behold, the new is here.

I said that the people knew what they were caught up in.  The truth is that they did and they didn’t.  This is the critical point.  They thought that this messianic act was nothing less than the inauguration of the eschaton.  The last days had arrived, and with them, the overthrow of Roman political power and the reinstatement of Israel as the kingdom of the saints, ruled over by one like the Son of Man coming on the clouds in power and glory.  And when the man on the donkey wreaks havoc in the temple precinct, and goes on to speak about how not one stone of the temple would be left standing upon another, his messiahship seems assured.  How could anyone doubt that their ancient longings were about to be fulfilled before their very eyes?

But we know, as they did not, that less than a week later this messianic hero would be nailed to a tree.  And for those with eyes to see, this gave a wholly new meaning to words like ‘messiah’, ‘king’, ‘Son of Man’.  It radically re-defined what it meant to pray ‘thy kingdom come!’.  And if so, then it inevitably put a question against what the people had shouted for on the roadside into Jerusalem.  ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’ – indeed; but not like the great stone of the apocalyptic writings hurled from heaven to crush to dust the great world empires.  Rather, to confront humanity with the truth and for the sake of that truth to die.  The crowd thought it knew what wanted.  But the passion unfolded a more excellent way.  This was to do with altogether more profound hungers and desires, deeper than the crowd could ever glimpse or dream of.  It exposed the shallowness of what they shouted for.  The very fact that it took just days for the cry of hosanna to be poisoned into crucify tells us this.

I am saying that it is good to have longings and hungers, but by itself it is not enough.  We must educate our desires, learn to hunger accurately, so that they become aligned to God’s own longing for the world and the redemption of the human race.  It would take a Saint Augustine to explain what this means.  But we could meditate in Advent on his profound insight that all our desires are fundamentally desire for God.  It’s only that sin has twisted and distorted them so that they become focused not on the Creator but on the creature with all the self-absorbed disordering consequences that idolatry always leads to.  Advent, I think, comes as an invitation to look at what we really want out of life, and what we want for the world, and to set it alongside and allow it to be interpreted by what Christian faith tells us is the source of true and lasting joy.  Advent can help us not only to understand and befriend our desires, but to try once again to focus them on God and his good purposes.  

This is how we shall learn how to cry hosanna to the king and to welcome him when he comes.  This is how our hearts, so restless at this edgy time of year, will find their rest in him who is the hope of creation and the Desire of Nations.

Matthew 21.1-13