Fourth Sunday before Advent

There are some times in the year when the Church’s worship goes through significant gear changes.  This past week is one such time.

On Wednesday (All Saints’ Day) we celebrated that we are one with the vast company of those who, throughout history, have followed faithfully in the way of Christ.  On Thursday (All Souls’ Day) we remembered the faithful departed, commending them to God in the sure and certain hope of resurrection.  And today we find ourselves at the Fourth Sunday before Advent.  When the Church of England revised its calendar 25 years ago, it marked out this time at the end of each liturgical year—the time between All Saints’ Day and Advent—for reflection on the reign of Christ in earth and in heaven.  It’s a time when we become acutely aware that it is a thin line which divides this world and the next.

Some of the Lectionary readings for this period—today’s Gospel included—look towards the ‘last things’ and so reflect an ancient practice of keeping a slightly longer Advent than we do today.  The traditional ‘four last things’: death, judgement, heaven and hell, help us focus our minds on the fact that this life—this world—is finite, and on our need to be ready to meet our Lord whenever the time comes.

The Anglican bishop and nun-juror Thomas Ken put it well in one of his hymns:

Redeem thy mis-spent time that’s past,
live this day as if ’twere thy last:
improve thy talent with due care;
for the great day thyself prepare. (Thomas Ken)

Human beings have always been fascinated by the notion of ‘the end.’  A brief Google search for ‘when will the world end?’ brings up no fewer than 12,000M results which cover everything from outlandish apocalyptic predictions to more sober warnings around climate change.  It was, it seems, no different, in Jesus’ time.  The disciples, in today’s Gospel, approach Jesus privately and ask:

‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ (24.3)

Jesus responds with a long list of ‘signs’ that the end is coming: false messiahs, wars and rumours of wars, natural disaster, persecution, but he neatly dodges the question ‘when?’  The ‘signs’ which Jesus lists are indicators of what living in a fallen world looks like; they have been par for the course since the world began.  As is often the case, it’s worth looking to see where his teaching is heading. His punch line is important:

the one who endures to the end will be saved’ (24.13)

In other words, the disciples (and by extension, we) are to stop asking futile questions about the end, but get on with the business of living the life to which God calls us.  We are not to be terrified by the prospect of the end, but ready to live in the light of eternity.  

As some of you will know, immediately before coming to Christ Church, I was a priest on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.  While we were living there, we had to come to terms with an important local concept: ‘island time’ – an unhurriedness about anything and everything - born of the fact that the extreme weather often meant that the ferry didn’t sail, and that what might be planned for one day simply had to wait until the next.  At first, I found the adjustment hard to make, but gradually came to appreciate that it was teaching me something about taking time to live in the light of eternity.

In a sense, cathedrals are also about eternity.  Anyone who’s tried to get a quick decision from a Cathedral Chapter or from the Cathedrals Fabric Commission, will know all about that!  But seriously, cathedrals move slowly—on an almost geological timescale—because they are (and should be) places which celebrate the eternal: the mystery of God above and beyond - who was, and is, and is to come.  They are places where it’s worth taking time to get things right: our music, our mission, our stone and glass, our safeguarding.  And they are places in which we can celebrate and explore the fact that the dividing line between this world and the next is thin.

At the heart of the Christian gospel are two truths: that God, in Jesus, shares our life, and changes it.  In taking human flesh, the eternal Word—the second person of the Trinity—is born as a human being and enters the realm of time and space, with all the limitations that this entails.  In doing this, God enters time, inhabits it and sanctifies it – and marks it out as holy.  

Christian worship reflects this hallowing of time.  We set apart particular days to worship God – each Sunday is special because it recalls the resurrection: a key moment in the sanctification of time.  The seasons carve up the Christian Year into chunks, each with its own emphasis: Advent for waiting, Christmas for the incarnation, Lent for penitence and so on.  

Within the days and seasons, we set apart special times of day for worship, and within those services we divide time still further – to read the Scriptures, to pray, to receive the Sacrament.  Music plays a vital part in this, because music itself delineates time – through note values, bar lines, and the principles of tension and resolution within harmony and counterpoint.  Music—within worship and elsewhere—helps reinforce God’s hallowing of time.

God, in Jesus, shares our life – and sanctifies the time of our earthly existence.  We give this concrete expression in worship, but more than that—if we take it seriously—we will see all time as God’s time, as time hallowed.  Time is a gift to us, and to be used wisely.

But let’s hold it there a minute.  I said earlier that the two gospel truths are that God shares our life and changes it.  God hallows time, but also transforms it.  The point of Jesus sharing our humanity, is that we may share his divinity.

The death and resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, have eternal consequences.  They mean that, ultimately, our existence is not limited by time, but is eternal.  Our new life in Christ begins now but continues beyond the grave into eternity, where as part of the resurrected order, our citizenship of heaven is fully realized.

Remembering the dimension of the eternal gives our lives a proper sense of perspective.  It reminds us that this world isn’t all that there is, and that the best is yet to be.  Cathedrals are a real help here, too, because they take us out of ourselves, they force us to look beyond and contemplate the eternal.  The builders of this House of God understood this profoundly: they set out to create in stone and glass a building which points beyond itself to the eternal God.  And as the building and its worship continue to change and develop through the centuries – for example, through our new stained-glass window, and the prospect of another one, or through newly-commissioned music - we are moved continually onwards and upwards.  We catch a glimpse of the eternal, and we caught up in the life of heaven breaking through into earth.

This might happen simply through us catching a sight of the rising sun shining through the east window of the Lady Chapel.  (Come and join us at the early Eucharist and find out!)  Or it might happen through the music offered within the liturgy.  This morning’s mass setting does just that.  Victoria’s Missa Quarti Toni, like several of his masses, sets the words of the Osanna at the end of the Sanctus and Benedictus in triple time.  This is pure theology in music: we are given a picture in sound of the three persons of the Godhead literally dancing.  As we hear it, we are drawn into the life of the Trinity, and into eternity.  And it all makes sense: that we are offering our prayer, our praise, ‘with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven.’  The veil is drawn aside, and we catch an echo of the glory of the Godhead.

This is all very exciting and immensely worthwhile, and it’s a crucial part of what the cathedral tradition is about, but to what end?  Not that it should become a parallel universe into which we look to escape, but that living in the light of eternity, we might live more faithfully as creatures of time and space and that, in Jesus’ words, ‘enduring to the end’ we may know salvation, wholeness, completeness.

Faithful living in this life is never easy.  As Jesus reminds us, persecution, hatred, betrayal, and lawlessness are all givens.  Not all will stay the course: the love of many will grow cold.  But in the face of this warning, we must be prepared to endure.  Not with a stoic grim-faced determination, but with a joy which looks onward and upward.  The Gospel writer’s wording here is significant: it is the one ‘enduring to the end’ who will be saved – a present and a continuous endurance which is always looking to what lies ahead, to that ‘land that is afar off, where God’s love .... is the theme of eternal rejoicing.’ (Routley)

Let us pray.

O Lord God of time and eternity, 
who makes us creatures of time,
that when time is over, we may attain your blessed eternity: 
with time, your gift, give us also wisdom to redeem the time, 
so our day of grace is not lost, for our Lord Jesus’ sake.
(Christina Rossetti)