Sermon at St Paul’s Anglican Church, central Athens
Saturday 27th November 2010
A sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at a Eucharist on the eve of Advent Sunday at St Paul’s Anglican Church, central Athens.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was a child somebody gave me a comic-strip of a Bible story produced in the USA. It made up in its vivid pictures what it lacked in literary polish. Quite early on of course, came the story of Adam and Eve, and they were depicted with a speech bubble coming from above their heads: Eve saying to Adam, ‘It’s God, Adam. Let’s hide!’ Well it’s a simple enough sentiment but it probably corresponds with the feeling of quite a lot of us—’It’s God. Let’s hide.’—because in Advent we are always faced with sobering and quite frightening language of God’s light exposing to us and to God and to the world who we really are. And if we’re not at least a little bit alarmed by that then we’re not really growing up at all.
What do we want to hide from God? Well, like Adam and Eve we want to hide our failure; we want to hide the fact that we’re not capable of responding to God as God wants us to, and as God has made us capable of responding. We want to hide our sin. We want to hide the fact that we’ve betrayed the trust put in us by God and by others. We’re not faithful; we’re not trustworthy people. We want to hide our weakness and our need. We like to think of ourselves that we’re fairly self-reliant. We like other people to think that we’re strong. God forgive us, we might even like God to think that we’re strong – and we want to hide that. We also want to hide our fear: we want to hide the fact that we want to hide. Perhaps that’s at the root of everything. We want to hide our fear, and the more we try to hide how frightened we are the more we show how frightened we are.
So we come to Advent Sunday. The approach of God’s coming and the firm promise that God’s light will shine among us; what do we do? The collect for Advent* and the readings for today (Isaiah 2.1—5; Romans 13.11—end; Matthew 24.36—44)give us that great counter-intuitive message: when you’re afraid walk towards what you’re afraid of, not away from it. Don’t run. Stand. Open up. Face your fear. Let God see you’re afraid, and let yourself see you’re afraid. Bring your weakness into his light. That’s the message of today and of the weeks ahead as we prepare for Christmas.
The story of Jesus begins with the words ‘Don’t be afraid.’ It’s what Gabriel says to Mary. It’s what the angel says to the shepherds. And it’s what the angel says again at the tomb of Jesus to the women who come seeking him: ‘Don’t be afraid.’ It’s what Jesus says when he appears to the disciples. What can we say in response? We can only say, ‘I’m sorry Lord. I am afraid. And all I can do is to look you in the eye and say that at least I’m not afraid to tell you I’m afraid.’
We step into the light knowing and trusting that somehow that light is our life. Because we know that if we try to hide our fear, our weakness and our betrayal we trap ourselves more and more deeply in a tight little circle of self-protection and anxiety. ‘I’m afraid to tell you how afraid I am to tell you how afraid I am …’ And so it goes on with layer after layer building up around ourselves, that vulnerable little self in the middle, that God would really rather like to see for itself and in itself with the eye of his love. So Advent’s a time for deep breaths: breathe in, stand your ground, even step forward to what you think you’re afraid of, to the truth that will set you free.
That’s the good news, the good news that turns the apparently rather alarming predictions of the gospel into something that should delight us. The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. Well that could be a message for panic – you never know when he’ll turn up. You’d better look your best. You’d better have the best crockery out. You’d better clean the carpet. You’d better make sure you’ve had your hair done. You’d better make sure of all kinds of things and look busy. He’s coming and you don’t know when. But when you realise who it is that is coming, something else begins to grow and enlighten the world. Who’s coming? ‘Love, the Lord, is on the way’, as the carol says. Love, that wishes only to see you. What does God want for Christmas? You – your truth, your weakness, your need, your failure, your fear. God wants you to be there, to be ready, to be loved, to be seen clearly and truthfully, to be held strongly, to be challenged deeply, to be changed forever. And our time of preparation for Christmas should be a time not of panic, not of fear, but of trying to strip away those layers upon layers of fear and anxiety. So that who I am can be there, laid bare before God.
He’s coming and we don’t know when. But that means every moment of every day love is just over the horizon. In every experience and every person you meet, every challenge and every minute, something utterly extraordinary and transfiguring is just around the corner and you never know when it will break upon you. You never know in whose face you may see the likeness of everlasting love. And so you come to every person you meet with that trembling expectation: ‘I could find love here. Love might spring out and challenge me. This face might be the face of Jesus.’
Just a few weeks ago I was in Calcutta and had the great privilege of visiting the mother house of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. A moving experience in itself, but when I was there the sisters presented me with a book about Mother Theresa. It was a book in which you can read about her own sense of what she was doing in Calcutta, going around from person to person with the trembling expectation that each person’s face would be the ‘disguise’ of Jesus. She expected to find love and because she expected to find love she was set free to give love.
The secret is to go round with that expectation. You never know who or when or where. And if you approach with that eagerness, somehow, mysteriously, love is set free in you. A love that manages somehow to squeeze itself out past all the fear and anxiety, to shovel that out of the way and trample it underfoot and get out there into the fresh air and gaze at the reality of God, God’s world and God’s beloved children all around.
I’ve spoken of Calcutta. But I might have spoken of a visit we made this afternoon to see the Church on the Streets programme. Going there I hope all of us felt something of that Advent expectation which I know is part of the inspiration of that ministry: that there, in the homeless and the refugees, is the disguise of Jesus, going with the expectation of love. You don’t know when that face will suddenly swim into focus for you, out of all the blur of experience in the world, and be there to challenge you and to change you. And for that to happen, we need to practice an inner stillness. When anxiety shows up and when fear starts gripping more tightly we breathe deeply and we turn Christ-wards, we centre ourselves in the heart of our being. We say to fear, ‘I know you’re there, but don’t overdo it. I know you’re there and God knows you’re there. Now let’s forget it.’ It’s that silence and stillness of turning to God that sets us free and allows us to walk out into our world with the expectation of meeting love in each moment.
Now God knows this is an age when there is plenty to fear and plenty to be anxious about. This city and this country are in the middle of a crisis, and so is this continent and this globe – there is everything to conspire to make us more afraid, more suspicious of one another, and more mistrustful of God himself. What a climate in which to begin Advent, and yet what could be more appropriate? Here is the seriousness and depth of the challenge, it couldn’t be more serious. And yet Advent comes, the gospel comes and speaks to us very simply: ‘Don’t be afraid. Be awake. Being awake is much better than being afraid.’ And being awake is having our eyes alert for that face of love that is ready to meet us whenever we turn. Who knows what happens tomorrow, the year after? Who knows? God alone. But for us what matters is now, being awake today with the eyes of the heart open towards God, standing our ground, and even timidly stepping forward into the light into love, away from fear.
So, as we this evening come to share Holy Communion, as we step forward to this table, let’s think of ourselves as stepping towards what we’re afraid of, towards the truth. Sometimes in the ancient hymns of the Church, Holy Communion itself is spoken of as ‘an enlightenment’, a moment when the radiant light of our baptism blazes up afresh to transfigure our knowledge. Let’s come with that prayer tonight, and keep praying it tomorrow and the day after in our preparation for the coming of our Lord at Christmas, the coming of our Lord at the end of time, the coming of Our Lord moment by moment in face after face.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.