Monday, 20 December 2010

Homily for Advent IV

There are, would you believe it, times when I just don’t know what to say. One such time, I have to admit, was as I was thinking about this morning’s homily. I read the gospel passage over and over, knowing full well what it was saying but unable to put into words something that might be of interest and, dare I say?, help to us this morning.

Well, on Thursday evening my rescue came in the shape of the latest Narnia film: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I’m sure many of you will have read the C. S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia either to yourself or to your children, and others may have either seen the wonderful BBC production in the 1980s or the newer Disney films.

Lewis was, as you will no doubt be aware, a committed Anglican—more of a High Churchman than an all-out Anglo-Catholic—but one who nonetheless found his way to the sacraments and a pretty orthodox understanding of the Christian life. He affirmed the doctrine of the Real Presence of the Eucharist, the Catholic belief in purgatory, and he used to make his way up the Cowley Road in Oxford to make his confession to one of the priests of the Society of S. John the Evangelist, whose church is now that of my former seminary, S. Stephen’s House.

With all this in mind, it should be no real surprise that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader came up trumps for a concerned curate, and I hope you won’t mind if I indulge, this morning, in a somewhat heady concoction of children’s literature and Anglican patrimony, courtesy of one of Lewis’s fictional characters.

One of the main parts in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is given to Reepicheep, a mouse-like protagonist whose bravado and courage is second-to-none, despite his size. Within the first few minutes of Thursday’s film, Reepicheep dropped this phrase directly into my lap: “We have nothing if not belief”.

We have nothing if not belief.

Advent is a season in which the various themes of the Christian religion are expounded ad infinitum. Whether it be the traditional quartet of death, judgement, heaven and hell, or something more akin to our own pattern of joy, hope and peace, it is a time in which the central truths of the Christian faith can be, once more, examined and considered.

Our own parish journey through Advent has, as I said, been one mapped out by joy, hope and peace. On this final Sunday before the great feast of Christ’s birth, it seems right to draw those strands together with a final theme, and that, I would like to propose, is faith.

The term faith comes to us from a Hebrew word meaning steadfastness. And we can talk of faith in both objective and subjective ways: in other words we can talk about The Faith as the deposit of truths revealed by God in sacred scripture and through tradition, and we can talk about faith as a concept, a virtue, which we can nurture to draw us closer to God.

Faith, then, is both something we aim for—a target, a goal—and something we have in our possession already by virtue of the grace of our baptism. We spend our lives as Christians working towards the full revelation of faith in our efforts to comprehend God, and we do this by fostering habits of faith which bring us closer and closer to him.

In our gospel this morning we hear about the faith of S. Joseph—trusting an angel of the Lord in a dream, and devoting his entire life to the service of God because of it. On this final Sunday of Advent, we usually focus on our Lady’s fiat—her ‘yes’ to God—but in S. Matthew’s account of the birth of the Lord, S. Joseph takes a more prominent place. If we think of our Lady’s ‘yes’ to God as being the act of faith par excellence, Matthew show us that Joseph is not that far behind.

S. Joseph’s faith, his willingness to lay down a comfortable and ordinary life, is an example of how we too can surrender ourselves entirely to the will of God our Father—Matthew’s point is that anyone can do it. But Joseph’s act of faith, virtuous and worthy as it was, merely points towards the fullness of faith—the fullness of truth and life—found alone in the person of Christ.

And so we return to Reepicheep: ‘We have nothing if not belief’.

What is it that faith is about? What ‘good’, if I can put it like that, does our faith do? How does having faith mean that we posses something worthwhile?

Faith is not a standalone idea. We cannot just have faith because to do so would be pointless. To have faith without substance would be like stepping out onto an icy lake without a care as to whether the ice would hold you or not. Real faith is not foolish like that, and Christian faith is real faith because it leads us to hope.

Christian hope is what ignites our faith and inspires us to deepen it, in confidence of the fulfilment of our hope. Christian hope is not, as we were reminded so eloquently by Rob the other week, based on uncertainty, but instead it is concrete, solid, and reliable. It is, to use a well known phrase, ‘sure and certain’.

Our faith as Christians points towards our hope in the resurrection, and in our eternal rest with Christ in heaven. That is the whole point of striving towards a stronger faith: it brings us closer to an understanding of our destiny—our call to see God face-to-face and enjoy his company forever.

‘We have nothing if not belief’, because without belief, without faith, we cannot hope for eternal life and that leads us, curiously, to the belief that all that we have and all that we are, will one day disappear into nothingness and it will be like we never existed.

God our Father loves us so much that he has given us the chance to change that despairing thought, and transform ourselves into temples of the Holy Spirit, living out the fullness of faith in this life, in preparation for the next.

And how does the Father show us that love? How does he confirm our faith and strengthen our hope? He sends his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the Law (that is fully God and fully Man), to live with us and share our lives. It is only through Christ, as S. Paul reminds us in the epistle, that we are given ‘the grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith’, in others and in ourselves.

It is, in other words, up to us to respond: to establish, confirm and deepen our faith—a real, living and vibrant faith which remains constantly fixed on the fullness of faith that we find wrapped in swaddling clothes in the wood of the crib, and naked and shamed on the wood of the cross.

As we come to the end of our Advent journey then, let us rejoice that we have faith in the incarnate Son of God, and let us continue to deepen that faith, in hope of the abundant peace and joy of eternal life with him. For ‘we have nothing if not belief’.

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