Wake and Watch
Preacher: Canon Ralph Godsall, Precentor (2001-2008)
27 November 2005, 10:30 (Advent Sunday)
Television and radio weather forecasting is an art-form in itself. I was brought up in Hereford on Laurie West and Associated Television. The tools of his trade were heavy magnetic clouds which he clapped onto a map and which he could open up to reveal black smudges and rain pouring down. On the radio the art-form is more developed still. So much depends on the tone of voice rather as in the reading of the football results – Gillingham 1 Sheffield Wednesday 4. The day will start sunnily, but it will cloud over later – the voice deepens.
Imagine the forecaster being faced with the sort of material we encountered in this morning’s gospel we just heard from Mark: ‘....the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven....’ We would hardly expect him to follow this with: ‘The rest of the country will have sunny intervals and scattered showers.’ The real difficulty here is that to expect either of these sentences to follow the other is to misunderstand the literature of the gospel. It is not a divine weather forecast. Similarly, if we read the Book of Daniel or the Revelation to John, we shall not expect the beasts we encounter there to be found in the Natural History Museum.
What, then, is the source or reason for this strange literature in today’s gospel? The answer lies in the history of Palestine in ancient times. The Palestine of ancient Israel lay at the cross-roads of the ancient world. North and south, east and west - during the course of time great kingdoms came and went – Egypt and Babylon, Assyria and Persia, Greece and Rome. Furthermore, if conflict came, as often it did, Palestine was frequently the venue. Like some great amphitheatre, because of its strategic position, Israel’s territory was often the scene of the match. In the Palestine of antiquity the uncertainties this produced were mirrored in the nation’s religious consciousness. Written in a time of great suffering, the Book of Daniel, for example, depicts the world as falling victim to one conquering kingdom after another. In the end, God would break in and establish the final and eternal kingdom. It was such a period of violence and uncertainty that gave birth to this literature.
That passage from St Mark is of the same genre. Such literature was known as apocalyptic and that word has itself taken on a life of its own. If we were to label a forecast – weather or otherwise – as apocalyptic we should expect terrible times ahead.
It was into precisely this sort of world that Jesus was born. There’s little doubt that Jesus believed the world would end very soon indeed. Paul did too. At one point he paints the end in vivid colours: ‘The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command – and then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.’ It’s heady stuff, and it was the general belief abroad at the time.
It is not, of course, how the majority of us see the world today. To hear people talking in this way suggests either that they dabble in astrology or that they are part of a way-out religious sect. Furthermore, those who purvey such beliefs frequently find themselves revising their predictions. Less reliable than weather forecasters, the end of the world is retimed regularly. Even that phrase we repeat constantly in the eucharist: ‘Christ will come again’, is subject to reinterpretation in the minds of believers.
If all this is true, then, what do we make of Jesus’ teaching, if the end he expected did not come? How do we understand Advent? If one part of his teaching was manifestly mistaken, does the rest fall with it? Must the baby be disposed of along with the bathwater? To make such an assumption is to respond to the gospel of the incarnation far too shallowly. The intervention of God in his world in Jesus runs at a far deeper level than the imagery of the apocalypse. These pictures and images we need to see as the clothing of the message at the time. Every age understands the world differently. Different images and myths are used. In 500 years time, the mythology of Sigmund Freud or Karl Marx will look just as quaint as talk of the ‘world’s end’. What, then, is encapsulated in the message of Advent? Part of the answer lies in the final line of the gospel this morning. ‘And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.’
It is the keynote of the gospel today – all the dramatic imagery presses it home. It is there too in Paul – we are called to be awake and to watch. The great Advent Collect talks of ‘casting away the works of darkness and putting on the armour of light’. The theme is one of watchfulness, but that is a theme that runs deep within the entire ministry of Jesus. Only a little later in the gospel of Mark the theme is repeated most solemnly and powerfully of all in the garden of Gethsemane. Again and again the command is given: ‘Watch and pray’. It is repeated like the insistent rhythm of a march. It is intended to reach through to the soul of humanity.
Ultimately this theme is one of attention. It is a call to nothing less than a life of contemplation, to listen for the spirit of God. The Gethsemane passage directs us to that essential message just as the passion of Christ begins. The command is simple – ‘watch and pray’. We are to direct our minds to the vision of God. The repetition of the message helps us realize how difficult such attention in prayer is.
In one sense we do all know, as individuals, what it means to live in the last days before the end. At the heart of all our awareness of the flow of time stands an inescapable frustration. Each of us has to die and every week of progress and achievement brings us nearer to the end of it all. In that respect we suffer with the non-fulfilment and precariousness of the whole saga of creation. Each personal existence is, therefore, deeply eschatological. The end is always with us.
If we don’t evade this fact, how can we live hopefully with it? By forming the habit of the double action of letting go and saying yes to the future. This is actually the way of life into which every Christian has been baptized. It is the way of repentance. It is the way of preparation for the age to come. It is the pattern of dying into fuller life that is set before us once and for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It starts with every human birth. To the baby it must feel like dying and a violent death at that. The only existence it has known, a marvellously secure and balanced form of life has broken down and the last moorings with reality are cut - which is just what happens when we come to die. The desperate infant cannot know that an infinitely more free and richer life awaits it when that dying has been done, nor can it realize that it has already been forming an equipment for that life beyond - lungs and eyes and voice - which remain dormant and meaningless until that future existence has begun.
After that prototype experience the Christian way should encourage us to develop a habit of accepting rather than rejecting each of those experiences of death and resurrection that everyday life contains. The hands that unclench and let go are ready to receive the unimagined new life. The spirit that has learnt to say yes to the future, to the new, is more ready to let go the old and familiar.
Advent is a time to put all this into practice. It gives us the opportunity to wait upon God in stillness, in expectant prayer, in sure and certain hope. One of the great Fathers of the Church, St Irenaeus, suggests that we experience the whole of eternity, not in successive and selected fragments but all in one whole. It rushes towards us and past us, he says, like a river shining with the glory of God, and we shall either fling ourselves forward into the stream with a great cry of Yes, or we shall shrink back into ourselves to stand for ever like a rock on the bank.
To form this habit of throwing caution to the wind and saying yes to God entails living always in the now. It is, in fact, the only reality in which we can live. ‘Behold, now is the acceptable time. Behold, now is the day of salvation,’ writes St Paul. Life does, in fact, move forward. A purpose is being worked out. But it comes about inasmuch as each and every one of us lives as fully and openly and humanly and creatively as possible for our own age, meeting its challenges, combating its destructive tendencies, and realizing its potential.
And when the fever of life is over and our work is done, then, God willing, a greater community awaits us beyond that unimaginable birth we call death. But meanwhile we have this world and this limited now in which to live thankfully and act responsibly, watching and praying in the name of Christ.