Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the First Sunday of Advent 2018

Today we start the new Church Year with the beginning of a new season of Advent.

The Venerable David Stanton Sub-Dean, Canon Treasurer, and Archdeacon of Westminster

Sunday, 2nd December 2018 at 11.15 AM

Today we start the new Church Year with the beginning of a new season of Advent.

Regular worshippers here will have noticed that there is no Altar at the Crossing, immediately in front of the Sacrarium. This is a new and permanent arrangement.

This Advent Sunday we move to Year C in the Church Lectionary and our Gospel readings switch from St Mark to St Luke. Today marks a new beginning.

This might seem a touch strange at the very beginning of December. Winding down into winter, the days getting shorter and colder as we approach the last breaths of a dying year.

Yet this is the time when we are being called to earnestly look forward to watch and wait for the coming of Christ the King in his kingdom now.

Today’s readings reiterate this theme. St Paul talks to the Thessalonians about earnestly praying for them night and day and restoring whatever is lacking in their faith. And St Luke reminds us to ‘be on our guard’ and ‘to be alert’ for the coming of Christ.

In our secular world, things are beginning to hot up in the familiar Christmas crescendo. Christmas lights, Christmas Fayres, bargains on-line, dressed shop windows, and Charles Dickens’ immortal classic ‘A Christmas Carol’ returns to The Old Vic, this coming Wednesday.

It all speaks to us of action and merriment, laughter and enjoyment, and let’s face it, we would all be rather dull people if we couldn’t enter into the fun and festive spirit at this time of year.

But having said that, Advent shares with Lent something of a spirit of restraint; remember we haven’t sung the Gloria this morning.

There’s something of preparation and penitence, there’s something of a distinctive eschological thrust, there’s something that holds for us an expectant longing for the coming of Christ’s kingdom.

So how do we make the most of this Advent season and give ourselves the opportunity to seek, at some depth, the presence of God?

May I suggest that amidst the hustle and bustle of getting ready for Christmas we try and find some special moments for quiet prayer and reflection and space to be open to the promptings of God.

This is because silence isn’t just negative, being tongue-tied or unable to communicate. Creative silence flows from inner stillness and can communicate very powerfully deep qualities of integration and self possession.

You may recall Mr Day, the game-keeper, in Thomas Hardy’s novel Under the Greenwood Tree, where it’s said of him that ‘he can keep silence well. That man’s silence is a wonderful thing to listen to’.

If we return to today’s readings: we see that those words of St. Luke ‘be alert at all times’, are very pertinent for us and at first glance could possibly lead us astray by tempting us to imitate worldly ways; to become hyper active and noisy all in the name of the Lord.

Yet many centuries of Christian tradition point us towards an alternative approach. The history of Christian spirituality has taught us the power of silence and stillness in searching for God.

For all the really deep and meaningful moments of life, silence can speak to us as powerfully as words.

For example: the experience of deep love in human relationships, the experience of wrestling with the good in really difficult moral choices, the experience of discerning beauty within an intricate design, the experience of subtle light within a great oil painting, the overwhelming experience of a holy place.

In all these situations we need both words and silence to fully appreciate what is before us, just as the movement and harmony of a symphony is only really fully complete with the rests, as well as the notes, that are in the score.

So we do well to recognise that the wisdom of the great Christian teachers of prayer, echoing that found in other religious traditions, places a very high value on the discipline of silence, quietening the incessant babbling of outward and inner chatter to allow a settling into a deep and attentive stillness, rooted in a God-given inner peace.

In our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah we cannot read the prophecy of a ‘righteous Branch’ springing up for David in anything but a messianic light.

Here Jeremiah's promises are spoken to address a dire situation.

The armies of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, are advancing on Jerusalem. The streets of Jerusalem will soon be filled with the corpses of her people, and the prophet Jeremiah himself will be imprisoned.

The worst has not yet happened, but it is inevitable. Any reasonable person can see that the city is doomed. Jeremiah's many prophecies of judgment are coming true.

Yet this stands in sharp contrast to another great O.T. story: perhaps you can picture it, the account of Elijah on Mount Horeb. For here the prophet stands in the entrance of his cave, and finds the presence of God to be not in fire, storm and earthquake, with all their terrible physical power of destruction, but rather in ‘a still, small voice’ which, literally translated, is the sound of thin silence.

It’s this which awes Elijah so that he wraps his face in his cloak. And likewise the psalmist writes: ‘Be still let go and know that I am God’.

Silence and stillness, these things that really do require our discipline, enable us to be attentive and enable us to listen, not for some external voice, but rather as we open ourselves to the presence of God, to the very source of our life and being.

In holding on to this theme of silence for Advent, it’s interesting to note that, of all people, Virginia Woolf has written specifically about her experience of being on a silent retreat, in terms of helping her, and I quote ‘to see the bottom of the vessel’.

Here she powerfully acknowledges that this can be both a troubling and even at times a terrifying experience. But the ‘bottom of the vessel’ is really the God within who created us in His own image and likeness.

If during this Advent, the silence of God leads you (like Elijah) to wonder and adoration, you will have done well.

As you journey through this season of preparation, remember that the Benedictine monks who worshipped here for centuries before us were urged by St. Benedict to ‘diligently cultivate silence at all times’.

Life today is far faster and more noisy than it was then, and yet silence still remains very precious. Spiritual life and growth flourish when silence becomes part of human life.