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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

What are we Building For? Heritage, Advent and Mandela

What will become of all this? What will become of us?

The time will come when we are just a memory; and maybe not even that if the psalmist is right that ‘we fly forgotten as a dream flies with the opening day’.  And if life is transient, so are its most enduring monuments, even those that outlive us by centuries.  In the gospels the disciples are overcome by the size and beauty of the temple in Jerusalem.  ‘Look Master, what wonderful stones and wonderful buildings!’  And Jesus tells them that the day is coming when not one stone will be left standing on another: all will be thrown down. 

We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t marvel at wonderful stones and buildings, least of all when we are sitting among them in a World Heritage Site.  But that doesn’t mean that it lasts for ever.  Buildings, like people, are mortal. What Jesus says about the temple is also true of this place.  We can hardly bear to think of these wonderful stones and wonderful buildings lying toppled one far-off day in a heap of rubble.  And yet, in aeons to come, when the sun is in its death throes and planet is swallowed up in a vast red expanding disk, and the history of the human race is done, the Cathedral, like everything else we have built and cherished, will be dust and ashes.  To claim anything else would be idolatry.  St Paul says that what is seen is transient; it is what is unseen that is eternal. We need to judge accurately where eternity belongs. Temples have their day and are gone: in the celestial city, says the Book of Revelation, there is no temple.

This Advent has brought good news for this Cathedral in the form of a Heritage Lottery award of nearly £4 million.  This means we can press on with our Open Treasure project to enhance this Cathedral’s mission in the way we welcome guests here, and open up our wonderful medieval spaces round the cloister so that they can see and enjoy and understand and love the treasures of which we are guardians. And this means not only buildings and artefacts but this environment of lived Christian experience as it has been down the centuries and as it is now here in Durham and the North East. 

We need to make intellectual and theological sense of this word ‘heritage’ if we are not to have an uneasy conscience about being awarded so much public money. Our legacy from the past and our commitment to be good stewards of it, isn’t just a matter of buildings, artefacts and landscapes. It means fostering respect for what our forebears bequeathed us, whether in religion, culture, public life, ideas, literature, industry and art, everything that human beings do that has enduring value.  We are blessed with the capacity to treasure memory and draw on it to invest in the future, and where they meet in the present, to honour goodness, truth and beauty. Heritage connects us in tangible ways with our past and makes us aware of the passage of time, so it puts us in our place, reminds us what we owe to those who have gone before.  It instils a proper sense of our dignity.  It opens our eyes to the wisdom and insights of our ancestors and invites us both to celebrate and emulate them in our day.  To acknowledge our debt to our forebears and imitate their achievements is one aspect of the virtue the classical world called piety.  We must not neglect it.  

But we can’t be satisfied with piety alone, important though it is. To build and to renew are not ends in themselves. They are symbols of a larger aspiration, metaphors of what we should be doing in deeper ways. When we build, what are we truly building? When we conserve and renew what is old, what are we truly investing in? We must answer those questions in the light of why we are here today, which is to worship a God who has larger purposes for us and the human race. So when we talk about building, it should ultimately be to create the kind of human society that embodies the goodness, truth and beauty our structures exemplify. When we talk about renewal, it should be the renewing the life of all humanity, and our part of it, the church, so that it is fit to play a transformative role in re-creating a world as God would have it. This lies at the very heart of Advent as we contemplate the future and pray to be delivered from all that is disfiguring, degrading and false. So we need to know that our investment in our treasure from the past will make a difference to what is to come, open up in new ways the treasure of God’s good news for the world.  

In our gospel reading we heard about John the Baptist fearlessly crying out that the kingdom of heaven has come near. It takes courage to summon a brood of vipers to repentance. These past few days we have witnessed the death of a latter day John the Baptist, like him giving his life to say no to evil and injustice.  It’s been deeply moving to see the worldwide outpouring of admiration and love that has followed Nelson Mandela’s passing. There are few men or women of any century who have had his power to touch so many millions in every place, an old man who never lost the capacity to dream dreams. We are privileged to have lived in his times and seen for ourselves the life-changing effect of a life dedicated to forgiveness, reconciliation, generosity and hope. If we needed an answer to our question, what are we building for, surely he gives us it. In his inaugural address as South Africa’s newly elected President in 1994, he said this:

The time for the healing of wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us…. We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just and lasting peace….We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

There is our mandate. I see our project, indeed everything we do in this Cathedral, as focused on nothing less than building in the way Mandela spoke of.  Our mission as a Christian church can never be less than this: building a just and true society, raising up a kinder, more Christ-like world where all are reconciled to one another as God in Christ has reconciled us to himself; renewing ourselves in the service of a God who is always reaching out to us in the Son whose coming we long for in Advent. A New Testament letter speaks about God’s people being ‘living stones’ in the temple he is building out of us.  Only the virtues of faith and hope and love can build for eternity, can renew our life together here and now, can make the dry bones of our stones and buildings come alive so that they become sacraments of grace and truth. 

Yet as our gospel reading said, God is able out of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. This place will one day will be no more. But precisely for that reason, it points beyond itself to a heavenly city where there is no temple, where the wolf shall live with the lamb and a little child will lead them; to the one who comes as the Desire of all nations and who even now implants hope in the breasts of millions’; to the time when the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.  Here in this sacrament where God welcomes us to his table, we walk tall with no fear in our hearts. We gladly seize the whole of the life God holds out to us, and to build a glory that lasts for ever. And we begin by opening the gospel’s treasure to all who come within these walls as we utter the Advent cry of every longing heart: Maranatha!  Come Lord Jesus.

8 December 2013
(Isaiah 11.1-10; Matthew 3.1-12) 

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