On tiptoe all the night: Sermon for Advent Sunday

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

Advent Sunday

29th November 2020

Fr Richard Peers SMMS

Isaiah writes: “awesome deeds we did not expect”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A poem, by the British Australian poet Kevin Hart:

It’s not too late, Dark One, 

      For you to come 

      And have me close 

And stay an hour or two, 

It’s not too late at all 

      For you to slip 

      Past fossil light 

And quickly touch my hand. 

It’s deepest night, Dark One, 

      I look straight up 

      And won’t be born 

Another billion years 

If you’re so far away; 

      Come closer now 

      So that I taste 

Your breath: I have been here 

On tiptoe all the night, 

      And I shall wait 

      For you, Dark One, 

Till all those years are done.

Christmas will soon be here. 

We know that the days are still getting shorter, that the darkness appears victorious but we light the candles. The light grows stronger as we light more candles each week of Advent, as we deck our trees with lights.  Our homes with Christmas decorations and strings of light.

And yet the darkness grows stronger.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, this terrible year of plague draws to a close with vaccines within our reach; multiple ways of defeating the virus seem possible. We can almost begin to think think that life will be normal again, one day.

And yet the darkness grows stronger, we are told that it will be a hard winter, there will be many deaths. We can’t visit the elderly; we are encouraged not to see family and friends at Christmas.

We’ve just heard from the final chapters of Isaiah of the frustration the people feel. It is sixth century Jerusalem. The rebuilding of the city, the restoration of the temple and its worship are possible. But they have not happened yet. The people are still walking in darkness and even worse God appears to do nothing. “O that you would …” the prophet cries. He cries it because God doesn’t. God does not tear open the heavens, the mountains do not quake, fire is not kindled, the water does not boil.

These are the things the people expected. Wanted. Hoped for. 

And they do not happen.

*

What do you expect, want, hope for from God?

How does God disappoint frustrate you? Refuse to answer prayer?

Why doesn’t God act as you would like him to?

God is the one who acts in ways that we did not expect. He acts today, in my life, in yours, in the world, in ways that we did not expect. And do not recognise. 

Our great expectations will never be met. God of surprises he has been called. 

The unexpected God. 

The unknown God St Paul identified at Athens.

Jesus is unexpected. Christmas is unexpected. It’s not the story we would tell of God coming; of God made known. And Jesus tells us how we should live our lives ready for the unknown God, the unexpected God:

keep alert

keep awake.

Jesus is unexpected; he doesn’t give the answers people want; he is not the Messiah they were hoping for; he did “awesome deeds we did not expect”.

To be alert, to be awake is to have beginner’s mind; to be open to possibility; to refuse to be the expert; to swim in uncertainty and to delight in the provisional.

This is where the dynamism of Christian living comes, where the energy of prayer is to be found. This is why God always reveals himself to us when we are waiting; when we are in-between; when things are not turning out the way we planned them; when the paper is blank, the road ahead unknown. When we remember that we are always beginners and never experts.

Is there room for the unexpected in your life as you prepare for Christmas?

As we emerge from lockdown what will you change? What will be different?

This will be an Advent like no other. There won’t be the office parties; the family get togethers; the queuing in shops; the meals out. 

It is an Advent we did not expect.

The question is can we allow ourselves to be alert, awake, can we allow ourselves to meet the unexpected God?

Friends, I suggest something quite simple. That you change something about the way you pray. 

Perhaps you only pray when things get really bad; or only when you come to church; or even every day just before you go to bed. Whatever you do break those habits and try something different. Make a regular time every day to pray. Pray without expecting anything other than the unexpected. Put it in your diary. An hour before lunch, or in the afternoon or best of all get up an hour earlier, when the world is dark. That special darkness that is giving way to dawn.

I don’t know anyone who has a solid practice of daily prayer, who is growing in holiness who does not spend time early in the morning to pray. Whatever you tell yourself there will be interruptions, appointments, phone calls, emails at every other time of the day.

We say that God is light, but we find him in darkness. He will be born in the middle of the night.

It’s not too late, Dark One, 

      For you to come 

      And have me close 

And stay an hour or two,

Darkness is a nurturing place; it is the place to escape the overstimulation we subject ourselves to. 

It’s not too late at all 

      For you to slip 

      Past fossil light 

And quickly touch my hand.

This Advent we have a better chance than ever of feeling the touch of God’s hand. Of finding him in the unresolved situations of our life; the time we would have spent at parties; or meals; or preparing for friends and relations.

Keep alert Jesus says, 

keep awake Jesus says. 

As he did to his friends on that night in Gethsemane when they fell asleep. Keep awake, stay on tiptoe. Be ready.

On tiptoe all the night, 

      And I shall wait 

      For you, Dark One, 

Till all those years are done.

A Liturgy for Good Friday in a time of pandemic

What is very obvious from live streaming liturgies in a small space and using a fixed camera is the difficulty of liturgical action. Without any action it is really just audio, but the action is difficult to capture without camera movement.

Anyway, here is my attempt at a liturgy for Good Friday in this strange year. In the absence of the action of the veneration of the cross I am using the poem After the Seven Last Words by poet Mark Strand. I think it is a rather stunning meditation. I shall intersperse the readings with Responsorial psalms and end with the Beatitudes. I will be interested to see how it works. It may be a bit rich for Good Friday – losing the starkness of the liturgy.

I shall use the Grail Psalms for all but the final Psalm (Ps 22) which will be from the BCP and sung to a traditional plainsong tone.

I would have liked to use some recorded music. I thought Hania Rani‘s Esja would work really well. But then I would be adding the action of turning on the music etc which would spoil my own engagement with the worship and also probably break Facebook’s copyright rules.

Compline in Holy Week

For Compline in the Sacred Triduum, Thursday, Friday and Saturday I will be using Latin for all but the poem. Here’s the booklet for Holy Thursday. Compline will be live streamed at midnight on Holy Thursday, and at 7pm on Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

Compline daily in the Easter Octave live streamed at 7pm BST preceded by 30 minute meditation:

At one level our communion with one another is always invisible, or at least largely invisible The people we gather with in church Sunday by Sunday, however large the congregation, are just a fragment of the many millions we are in communion with in heaven and on earth in the Body of Christ. We also share a deep, consubstantial, inter-being with all human beings in every time and place, and indeed with everything that exists, through our creation from the matter of the earth.

The current crisis has made some of that invisibility visible. I am really grateful for those who have joined me at Mass in my little Oratory and sent messages of appreciation. Several have asked for more of the Office to be streamed. So I thought I would add Compline for this Holy Week.

You will find the text and music I will use in the booklet above. I will do a new booklet each day with a different poem that I will read between the opening verses and the Prayers of Penitence.

As there is no movement or action I will focus the camera on one of the icons rather than on me. Which should improve the experience! I have indicated in the text where I will pause for silences, hopefully it’s not because I have fallen asleep.

I normally sing Compline rather early in the evening if I can, I will try for a consistent 7pm. It’s nice to feel the Office is complete before having family time and early to bed.

SOURCES

The Divine Office as used at Worth Abbey, music by Dom Philip Gaisford OSB:

music for the Introductory verses, the hymn, Responsory and the Refrain to the Nunc Dimittis

Hymn: Text Patrick Lee (Hymns for Prayer and Praise rev. Ed  265)

Samuel Weber OSB: refrains for the psalms

Aelred Seton Shanley Obl. OSN New Camaldoli: the anthem to Our Lady

Common Worship Daily Prayer: texts of the psalms and the Nunc Dimittis