Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass, the Third Sunday before Advent 2017

Wisdom 6:12-16
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

“Keep awake”, says Jesus, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.” The day or the hour of what? A crucial question. How we answer that will affect how we read this parable. What are the bridesmaids waiting for?
What happened before today’s reading is that Jesus has taught the disciples privately that great catastrophe and suffering is coming, but he has also taught them about the mysterious “coming of the Son of Man” and the “end of the age”. This is called the “apocalyptic” section of Matthew, from the Greek word “apocalypse” which means “unveiling”; it is about revealing the spiritual realities going on behind the appearances of world events.
This is what the bridesmaids are waiting for, in today’s story. In the immediate future, there will be catastrophe and suffering. But behind these events there is also the “coming of the Son of Man”, or, more accurately, the “presence of the Son of Man”. The Greek word “parousia” means a royal presence, a manifestation like a King appearing before his people.
The catastrophe that is coming is two-fold. In the first place, it is the death of Jesus. Just three days after this teaching Jesus will be crucified. The death of the Son of God will be, in Jesus’ own words, a suffering that has not been known from the beginning of the world. He speaks also of “the desolating sacrilege”, the violation of God’s living temple that is his body.
And yet, behind this, is the “coming of the Son of Man”, his royal presence. Jesus, the Lord, through his death and resurrection, is acting to save his people. The need to be aware of this, to be awake, to see, is urgent. The disciples must have the lamps of their understanding lit if they are not to miss what God is doing in Jesus.
But beyond this, on another level, Jesus speaks of earthly catastrophes. He foretold the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, a recent and traumatic event for the disciples who first read Matthew’s written account. Jesus spoke also of wars, natural disasters, persecutions, of false teachers and cosmic signs in the heavens. These are catastrophic events that every generation has known. But, importantly, Jesus tells us that these are not the “coming” or the “presence” of the Son of Man. These are things that will happen, but in the midst of them we must remain attentive to Jesus, for he is doing something different. The lamps of our spiritual understanding must remain lit.
The message of the wise bridesmaids is the need to stay faithful and attentive to Jesus, even in the middle of disaster and war and the world falling apart. This was a given, for the community of Matthew’s Gospel, who had survived the terrible destruction of Jerusalem and the massacre of its defenders. And it is a given for disciples in every generation since.
We remember today the horror and heroism of two world wars and other conflicts besides, both the unconstrained outbreak of grave moral evil and the courageous endurance, the struggle to restore peace and justice, the sacrifices that so many made. At other times in our history, plague, famine and war have ravaged this country as they have all others. In the future, who knows what might come about if, for instance, global warming causes huge movements of people in desperate search of food and water?
Whatever happens, the watchword of disciples is to stay awake, and be attentive to Jesus. His coming, his presence, is always something happening now. His ascension has taken from us his visible presence, but he has ascended to fill all things; his presence is now more universal and more immediate. The Bible speaks of the Body of Christ being present in the Church, in the Eucharist and in the Cosmos, the veil of creation both concealing and revealing the Word though whom all things were made.
There will be, undoubtedly, an end of the age, when the whole universe in bondage to decay will be set free and know the glorious liberty of the children of God. Then Christ will be all in all, his presence or “parousia” fully realised as all things are transformed into the incorruptible Kingdom of God.
But his presence is also an immediate reality now, albeit one that is not seen. Faith is needed to perceive Jesus in this present moment and its events and needs. Our lamps need to be lit so that we can see. Because, whether we see or not, Christ is present anyway. He is present in judgement in every human society and action. Every moral choice we make refers in the end to Christ as its ultimate object. He is above all both Creator and Redeemer at work in the world he has made. Faith therefore gives us hope, even in the darkest times and the most terrible of trials.
For Christians, remembrance, such as we observe today in relation to the sacrifices and victims of war, cannot be separated from the great act of remembrance that Jesus has given us in the Eucharist, by which we proclaim his coming, his presence, and his saving death and resurrection to the end of time.
Do this to re-member me, said Jesus. Remembering is the opposite of dismembering, putting back together the broken body of humanity and the world as we break and offer the bread that is the Body of Jesus, who died and is risen. We name those of this parish who died in war at the altar today. Not hopelessly, not in pointless regret, but faithfully. Keeping alive the flame of faith in the act of remembering that reveals to us the redeeming presence of Christ even in the worst that can happen.
One of the prayers that the Church of England uses as we offer the elements for the Eucharist expresses this hope:

As the grain once scattered in the fields
and the grapes once dispersed on the hillside
are now united on this table in bread and wine,
so, Lord, may your whole Church soon be gathered together
from the corners of the earth
into your kingdom.

That comes from the ancient Syrian Liturgy of Saint James. As with the Eucharistic elements, so it is with the Church, even with those whose bodies lie scattered and forgotten on foreign fields. All will be gathered together in the re-membering of Christ, becoming his body as the resurrection opens the new creation to all.

We will remember them. Yes, we will, because, Jesus does. The Church on earth pleads before the Father his redeeming work, his saving presence in the Cosmos, in the people he has gathered into his Church, in the Eucharist by which we become what we receive, his living Body gathered together from the corners of the earth into his kingdom. Stay awake, then, keep your lamps lit, for the salvation of the world is happening now.

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