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.

Praying the imprecatory psalms

A Facebook post to members of the Sodality of Mary, Mother of priests, 28th November 2020:

Dear Mothers, Fathers, friends,
The final day of an extraordinary liturgical year in which so many of God’s faithful have been deprived of the sacraments. Much is made of the deprivation from communion, but I think also of those who have been deprived of the comfort of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, especially at the point of death; and those who have not received viaticum, food for the journey, as they make the journey to eternal life. I think it is an appropriate time to offer Masses for the Dead more frequently and especially as we can celebrate in public once again.
The beginning of a new liturgical year is also a good time to refresh our own liturgical practice and a good point to re-read the two fundamental documents of western liturgy, the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours and the General instruction on the Roman Missal.

Msgr Elliott’s book: “Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite” is also essential reading. If these three texts are our common liturgical literature they will help us to celebrate in a standard way when we are together again, God willing, one day.
Working on the Liturgy of the Hours it occurred to me to put together the imprecatory or cursing verses that are omitted from the psalter of the Divine Office / Breviary/ LOTH in a little booklet which is available below. It could be used to add them back in or just to reflect on. I often talk of teaching the beginning of Psalm 93/94 to children and of one young man leaving a police station having been stopped and searched and whispering its opening verse to me as we left: “O Lord, avenging God, avenging God appear.”
We need to be able to express our anger when we feel we have been treated unjustly. It is human.
May the praying of the liturgy bring you deep consolation and the the experience of your soul in communion with God:
Abyssus abyssum invocat. (Psalm 41:8)
With my love, as always, in the Two Hearts,and every possible blessing for a joyful and consoling Advent,
Richard