from Saint Faith's
sermon preached in the run-up to Advent, 2006
Fr Dennis Smith
A comedy sketch in a satirical revue many years ago depicted a group of
monks preparing for the end of the world. They climbed to the top of a
mountain to await it. The Father Superior duly announced that it would
come in 30 seconds, and there followed the dramatic countdown. ‘15
seconds, 10, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, zero!’ Together, in splendid Gregorian
Chant, the monks sang: ‘Now is the end, perish the world.’ An awkward
silence descended, broken by one of the fraternity enquiring whether it
A further silence ended with the Father Superior exclaiming, ‘Well,
it’s not quite the conflagration I’d been banking on. Never mind, lads,
same time tomorrow. We must get a winner one day!’
Truth is often spoken in jest, and it’s easy to poke fun at those who
try to predict the end of the world. One thing the Adventist sects have
grasped is the impermanence of life in this world. Here, as the New
Testament soberly reminds us, we have no abiding city. We are strangers
and pilgrims, not permanent residents. We belong somewhere else. This
world will not go on indefinitely for God, who is the Lord of all
history, will wind up history: will bring it to its consummation.
For John Henry Newman to write: ‘I do not ask to see the distant scene;
one step enough for me’ was good insofar as it encouraged trust, but it
fell short if it implied that we cannot be sure if we will ever arrive.
The courting couple have a right to know that they will eventually be
able to get married. The approaching season of Advent is the assurance
that we shall reach our destination. The Day will come.
The Day of the Lord, though, isn’t a date we can put a circle round on
the calendar, or go up to the belfry to watch out for. As Charles
Harold Dodd observed many years ago, ‘It is such that no other event
could follow or need follow upon it, because in it the whole purpose of
God is revealed and fulfilled.’
Our understanding of the word ‘time’ needs to be clarified. We use it
in two senses. First there is clock time, measured in hours and
minutes. Then there is the time for action, in the sense of timing. The
young man proposing to his fiancée doesn’t look at his watch,
but intuitively senses that the moment has come to ‘pop the question’.
Similarly, in St John’s Gospel, we read that Jesus felt that ‘the hour
had come’, not because of the time of day, but because it was the
Jesus came ‘in the fullness of time’, that is, when it was appropriate,
not because it was, so to speak, 23.59 hours at Bethlehem. Thus the Day
of the Lord isn’t something that will begin at dawn and last 24 hours.
The Advent season contains both a promise and a warning. The Second
Coming of the Lord will be like the first: sudden and searching. His
first coming as a baby inaugurated the first Day of the Lord, the day
of Judgement. As St John tells us, ‘For this is the judgement that
light has come into the world and men prefer darkness to light.’ He
came in great humility and will at the last day, as the Advent Collect
reminds us, ‘come in his glorious majesty’.
One of the great truths at the heart of our religion is that Jesus is
always coming. Every day is the Day of the Lord. It presents us with
the need for decision and the offer of deliverance. Do we, though,
recognise him in our human encounters? Jesus taught that he was
mysteriously present in the poor, the sick, the hungry, the despised,
the oppressed and the marginalised – just as he is mysteriously and
sacramentally present in the bread and the wine of the Holy Eucharist.
The Russian theologian Turgenev tells how on one occasion he was in a
church when a man came up from behind and stood beside him. He felt the
man was Christ. When he came to look, he saw a face just like any other
face, very ordinary. ‘What sort of Christ is this?’ he asked himself.
Gradually he came to see that Christ has a face like all men’s faces.
For him, it was the Day of the Lord.
As that great Christian apologist of the 1950s and 60s, C.S.Lewis,
wisely observed: ‘Precisely because we cannot predict the Day, we must
be ready any day.’
‘And then they will see the Son of Man, coming in the clouds with great
power and glory.’
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