Saturday 12 December 2009

Advent 3

What a depressing read Mgr Faley's comments on Anglicanorum Coetibus make. Fortunately they are well addressed in The Anglo Catholic blog (see link to the right of this post). If we did not know better we might almost think that the English Catholic Bishops were trying to undermine all that the Holy Father has done with his initiative; but of course, that is not possible .. is it? Well, here we are in Advent, with Gaudete coming up so I am risking posting my sermon in the hope that no-one reading it will decide to stay away from Holy Trinity Winchester saying "Been there - done that".

Sermon for Holy Trinity Winchester, Advent III 2009

Rejoice in the Lord alway and again I say rejoice

If you have ever been in a church choir, you will find today’s epistle is enough to set bells ringing in your head. The sentence at the beginning of Mass started it ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ and once you have heard it sung, it is unforgettable; the bell anthem, they call it. By using the sound of bells, Purcell tapped into a particularly Anglican tradition, and associated the word which gave today its name with the joyful ringing of church bells; For today is Gaudete Sunday… Gaudete, Latin for Rejoice.

Now Advent is generally about fasting and preparation; but a different sort of mood prevails from the Fast of Lent. Though we do not sing Gloria in Excelsis – that is the song heard by the shepherds which the angels sang, and we wait for it until Christmas midnight - we can sing Alleluia; the A word which is forbidden through Lent. Sometimes we complain about the shops anticipating Christmas – and in Lymington our next door neighbours had their lights rigged up in November. But still, they have a point. Christmas can’t help spilling over, whether it is because we have so much preparation to do, or just because with term ending a week and more before Christmas they are bound to put on their nativity plays in Advent. This Sunday, recognising that note of thanksgiving, that pressure for starting early, gives us a pink candle instead of a purple one, even puts priests into this fetching shade.

It is not just that Purcell’s music makes us think of this epistle as a song. It is there already in the words. Not, perhaps, in the rather clunking version we read in church this morning: ‘I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord. I repeat, what I want is your happiness’ ….. Well, you have it there on the service sheet. But when you get home compare it with your Bible in the old Authorized Version: instead of ponderous prose it becomes poetry, and quotable: “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanks-giving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus”.

Whether in the modern version or the Authorised version, the message of today’s epistle is the same. Be happy! And why are we to be happy when things around us are said to be so grim, when the national debt is weighing us down, and we are heading for a very cold spell of winter? Just this: the Lord is at hand! He really is; as near as your neighbour in the next pew, as near as the little circle of bread on the palm of your hand. He is with us, and he is coming to us, and we are going to him. So be happy. And then the epistle goes on, Stop Fretting! Or in the words of scripture, ‘be careful for nothing’.

That, of course, is one of the reasons there are modern translations of scripture; “Be careful for nothing” does not mean today just what it used to mean. It does not mean “Don’t bother about looking before you cross the road”… no, it means don’t get wound up, don’t be full of cares, don’t let anything bug you. Not the weather or the economy or our health or not having bought all the presents, or anything at all. There is no need to worry, we heard in the reading; maybe we ought to reclaim the word careful; it means just that, full of care…. But however we express it the meaning is clear.

In both translations, the epistle continues at once with BUT … ‘but in everything by prayer with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God’. In that way, we overcome worry and fretting. We hand it over to our Heavenly Father, who has our concerns at heart. Let your requests be made known unto God… see though how we are to make our requests: it is to be done ‘with thanksgiving’. If we would try to spend more time in thanksgiving, our prayers might really take off. When people say their prayer has grown dull or routine, ask them how much thanksgiving there is in their praying. At the end of each day when we look back on what has happened we are to say sorry for what has gone wrong, certainly; but even better, look back first not in sorrow, not in anger, but in thanksgiving. So nothing good has happened? Not possible. Did you continue to breathe? Then thank God for that.

Once we start listing the things to be thankful for … maybe our sight is failing, but our hearing seems to be getting better to compensate. The girl at the checkout smiled at me. The postman came with a card. The morning frost looked magical, as it did when I was a child. Let your requests be made known, certainly, ask and go on asking like the widow in the gospel story who would not stop until she persuaded the judge to hear her; but do it with thanksgiving. And when we do that, when we stop worrying and hand things over to God, when we pray and go on praying, but always with thankful hearts, then there is a result. That peace of God which is so much greater than we can understand… or, as the more poetic older version puts it, ‘The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds, through Jesus Christ.’ That sentence is so encouraging, so full of hope, that it made its way into the liturgy. It precedes the final blessing in the prayer book Communion Service.

Sometimes it takes other people to help us count our blessings; if we are to be really thankful, maybe we need to look to our inheritance as Anglican. Few other English speaking Christians have such a rich inheritance of words, in the prayers of the Book of Common Prayer or the translation of the King James Bible. It has taken a German, the present Pope, to help us count those particular blessings, what he calls the Patrimony of the Anglican Communion.

If we can move into closer unity with the Church of Rome, and still retain some of that heritage, then we shall have achieved more than our fathers in the faith ever dreamed of. If Pusey and Keble and Newman had been able to have what is offered to us, there might have been no parting of friends, and the break between Anglicanism and Rome might have been healed over a century ago. Now it is for us to work and pray that we may count all our blessings and, with thanksgiving, humbly offer them to the wider church.

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