White Rabbits and Early Mornings: Sermon at St Mary Magdalen, Oxford


St Mary Magdalen, Oxford

Sunday 25th July, 2021

Song of Songs 3.1-4, 2 Corinthians 5.14-17, John 20, 1-2, 11-18

Fr Richard Peers SMMS

As you probably know services at Christ Church begin five minutes later than official UK time would suggest. This is to take account of our position west of Greenwich and the meridian there. Scholars of Lewis Carrol, otherwise known as Charles Dodgson believe the White Rabbit’s lack of punctuality is a nod to this eccentricity at Christ Church. Whether you regard it as a pleasant eccentricity or an irritating sense of entitlement will depend on your wider view of things.

For me it is a good reminder of the crucial religious significance of time and its relationship to physical existence, to the reality of living on this planet with its rotation and its turning around the sun. Realities which we ignore at great peril, as the climate crisis shows only too clearly.

Time is at the heart of the incarnation. It was only “when the fullness of time had come” as St Paul puts it in Galatians 4, that Jesus could be born. The times of the passion of Our Lord are carefully recorded by the evangelists – and disputed in academic papers – starting with the dawn cock crow when Peter denies his friendship with Jesus, and contrasting beautifully with Mary Magdalen’s faithful arrival at the tomb “Very early on a Sunday morning” as we have just heard in today’s Gospel.

The Holy Spirit comes to the disciples at the third hour; nine o’clock in the morning. In the Acts of the apostles Peter goes up to the housetop to pray at noon, the sixth hour; at the ninth hour, the time of Jesus’ death when the world was plunged into darkness and the veil of the temple torn into two, Cornelius sees a vision of an angel of God. 

Scripture is full of references to time. It is an account, a sacred, theological account of redemption which takes place in the actual history of the world.

From those very first days of the church Christians have gathered daily at certain times to pray, what we now call the Daily Office, the Liturgy of the Hours.

Time is essential to all three of today’s readings. For St Paul it is significant because old and new can only exist because of time.

For St John that early morning in which the women come to the tomb is not an accident, and for the author of the Song of Songs the whole passage depends on the timing, in the dark, at night. Easy in the heat of last week to imagine sleepless nights, nights of yearning and longing; seeking.

In the Old Testament he psalmist implores the people of Israel to listen to God’s voice ‘Today”.

In the New Testament two words are famously used for ‘time’, chronos, linear, measurable time, and kairos, the right moment for decisions, for choice, for faith.

On the great days of the christian year the church sings Hodie! Today. Today he is born, today he is risen. Now is the moment.

St Augustine in his Confessions spends a whole book of his work discussing the nature of time. And the the whole of the Confessions is a personal salvation history, an account of God working, in time, in the life of an individual.

The author of the fourteenth century Cloud of Unknowing is determined that our prayer should penetrate time, cutting into it like Lyra’s knife in His Dark Materials, by using the smallest word possible, repeating again and again a single syllable, so that our minds might be attached to a single moment in all its butterfly slitheriness and impossibility to grasp. The Cloud’s teaching is often misinterpreted as suggesting a Christian use of a multi word or multi syllable mantra. It does not. Deeply Augustinian its purpose is to separate us from all that distracts us to past or future, it is the precursor of the sacrament of the present moment.

And yet in our culture we hide from the reality of time, of the turning of the planet; of the reality of sun and moon and stars of the changing length of the day. With clocks and lights, with television and internet, we treat each moment as if it was the same; a commodity to be used and filled.

I wonder how many of us here today know what time the sun rises at the moment? When dawn, the fore-lightening of the sky is noticeable?

Sunrise in Oxford this morning was at 5:14 am.

It was glorious in Christ Church Meadow as the light hit the mown hay.

Dawn, comes an hour or so sooner than sunrise at this time of year. A foretaste of the full light of the day that is to come.

Sunrise will be an hour and 7 minutes later on the last day of July than it was on the first. It makes a huge difference, the days are getting shorter and the nights longer already.

In April in Jerusalem the sun rises around 6:30 am, dawn will have been earlier than that so Mary Magdalen and the other women must have got to the tomb about 5 or 5:30am, St John tells us it was still dark.

Mary Magdalen used her time well, like the wise virgins of Jesus’ parable she was there, ready and awake.

Time is a sacred gift; only in time will we meet the risen Jesus, only if we are ready, awake, waiting will we find the one who comes to us unexpectedly, who we mistake for the gardener but who knows us by name. Only if we use the time that is given to us wisely will we hear him speak our name so that we can hold him and never let him go.

So our use of time; the way in which we inhabit time is at the heart of our spiritual lives. 

It is a good exercise to write down how we think we spend our time. How much time we think we spend eating; travelling; watching television; listening to the radio; relaxing.

And then do it, for one, fairly typical week record how you actually use your time.

I have never done this exercise with an individual and not seen a huge difference between how they think they use time and how they actually do.

Time is too precious for that!

Don’t let it slip through your fingers.

How we use the whole of any day is of enormous importance. But I want to offer a challenge, about one small element of time, but one that is deeply sensitive to people.

It’s a challenge about the time that you get up.

It is one that I have offered in other situations and I am not yet convinced that I am wrong, although some people quite strongly want me to be.

Simply put I believe that those words we have just heard are so important: On the first day of the week Mary the Magdalene comes early while yet it was dark.

If we are serious about our spiritual lives, if we are serious about developing a life of prayer there is as far as I can see no alternative to getting up very early in the morning; for most of the year, while it is still dark.

It is graced time. It is a liminal time when the day moves from darkness to light. There is an energy in waking at this beautiful turning point of the day, sitting in the darkness, expectant and hopeful. And always, always, always being gifted with light, a new day, a new series of moments, a new time in which to meet the risen Lord.

I know that some people will say that they are night-owls not early birds. I just don’t believe that the human race is divided in some genetic way like that. Our sleep patterns are deeply habitual but habits can be broken and new ones created. I am told that it can take about 90 days to create new habits, so don’t try this for a week and then tell me that it doesn’t work for you. Try it for three months and then tell me.

I am not for a moment suggesting that you reduce the amount of sleep you have, simply go to bed earlier, turn the television or the emails off. Drink less so you get quality sleep, at least 7 hours for most people, and set the alarm. 

Then wallow in the joyfulness of vigiling the Lord.

This may seem a small matter that I am making too much of, but years of talking to people about their prayer and their lives convinces me that it is very significant. Obviously, it will be affected by having small children, particular jobs and the patterns of partners and family but I do not know anyone that has a serious life of prayer who does not find the time for that in the early hours. I have not yet met or know anyone who stays up late in the evening and spends that time in prayer, lectio or meditation. At the end of the day the energy is all wrong for that.

The great Paschal vigil is the model on which we can base our daily lives. Not the lazy celebrations on Holy Saturday evening ending with everyone going to bed, but getting up in the night and vigiling the light. Greeting tea dawn from on high that breaks upon us each day and welcoming which fills us with energy, enthusiasm and passion

What we actually do with our time, just as what we eat and drink, how we spend our money is the real subject matter of our spirituality; not what experiences we have or how we feel.

Upon my bed by night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
“I will rise now and go about the city,
in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.”
I sought him, but found him not.
The watchmen found me,
as they went about in the city.
“Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”

Scarcely had I passed them,
when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go …

The writer of the Song of Songs finds the beloved by doing one simple thing. Getting up.

The love of Christ controls us, says St Paul. A better translation is compelled. We are never controlled by God but the love of Christ, our love, compels us. The disciplines of the Christian life are never obligations imposed on us; we feel freely a compulsion to fast, to keep vigil, to pray, to get up early. Compulsions that replace the compulsions, the addictions of the world.

Our Christian freedom is shown when we are not controlled  by staying up late, but when we behave differently to those around us. When the patterns of our life, the habits of our use of time are set by the gospel.

“Suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by [Alice].

There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” (when she thought about it afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but, when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and, burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it …”

Are you curious to know the risen Jesus, to hear him speak your name?

Don’t be like the White Rabbit, always late, wake up, and very early in the morning, while it is still dark you will meet him.