St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Second Sunday in Advent, 2013

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Friday began as any other day – I turned on the radio to listen to the news. Nelson Mandela had died late on Thursday evening. I went to turn on the TV, and switched to Sky. I sat enthralled, watching Bishop Desmond Tutu’s weekly Friday 7:15 Mass at the Cathedral. The cathedral was packed. I usually say the 1:15 Mass each Friday at the cathedral so went into the city a little earlier than usual. When I got to the cathedral it was packed, standing room only, for a short service of prayers which had started at noon. My mass was moved from the small chapel we usually use to the nave altar and, instead of the usual 7 or 8 people, there were almost 100.

At heart the people flocking to the cathedral were saying that there must be more to our experience of life here on earth. In their sadness they were reaching out to find more. On this Second Sunday in Advent we are given part of the answer; an inkling of what ‘the more’ might be.

Today is Bible Sunday, and we focus on the Holy Scriptures as an important way in which we know something about God. We find in the Scriptures the word of God.
 
In the 24th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we are given the words of Jesus, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” This saying echoes a familiar theme of the whole Bible: the Word of God is of eternal significance. Its truths will still apply even when earth, sea and sky have ceased to exist. It was that Word which the anxious Jews, returning from their exile in Babylon, heard in the city of Jerusalem that was being rebuilt. It was that Word which the Christians in Colossae studied and sang about. It is, as the Coronation Service for Kings or Queens in England says, ’the most valuable thing this world affords’.

And that is exactly what the apostle Paul commanded the early Christians at Colossae: ‘let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’ (3:16). This ‘dwelling in us richly’ does not mean that our reading and study of Scripture should be done reluctantly or as some kind of daily duty. We should ‘let’ the word soak into us, like sherry soaking into a trifle and transforming all that dull sponge at the bottom into something rich and memorable. We should be saturated in the word of Christ.

In the past I have referred to a sermon preached by S. Caesarius of Arles, who was a Bishop, administrator, preacher, and theologian. He was born in Burgundy sometime in 470-71 and died at Arles on the 27 August, 543. His sermon is entitled "On Eating and Drinking the Word of God".

Among other things S Caesarius said, "... ministers assiduously reading the Word of God on the wide hills of the Scriptures should, from the herbage they gather, provide spiritual milk for their children... ".

This would seem a perfect if not very elegant picture of how we should read the scriptures: we should be indiscriminate eaters. That could mean trampling down vineyards and olive groves, or making a nuisance of ourselves to get at true nourishment. It should not be forgotten that in our reading we are finding our spiritual milk "...on the wide hills of Scripture".

There is a real danger in our approach to the Word of God. We can become selective in what we take from the Scriptures and work from a censored version of the Bible, or pick only passages which present the "in" theology of the present moment or that which supports our own understanding of the faith. This use of only those parts which support our pet theory or belief is what Marcion, who lived from around AD 85 to 160, taught. He was excommunicated in 144, but founded him own church which lingered on for around two centuries.

In our reading of Scripture we need to sally forth from time to time into the highways and the byways of the Bible and sample the more unattractive sides of it. It is important to remember that there is nothing in Scripture that is not meant to be there, no matter how repugnant we might find it. I read this week about an English parish church where the person who runs the food bank in the parish found herself rostered as the lector a few weeks ago. She found she had to read from 2 Thess 3:10, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Her embarrassment at the lectern was obvious – as she spends many hours each week collecting food to be given to those who are not working.

I am sure many of us have often read a passage and said that it surely has no relevance for today, only to find, through the day or days ahead, that it was the very text needed to open up whole new vistas of faith for us. The truth can be revealed to us through the most unlikely channels and in the most unlikely places and we need to be alert to its appearance where we least expect it.

But for this to happen we need, to use a metaphor given us by S Caesarius, to chew thoroughly on the Word of God ourselves. This chewing on Scripture can sometimes be a painful process indeed as God shows us some aspect of our lives or faith that he wishes changed. The Word of God, to use an image from the Revelation of S John the Divine, can be as sweet as honey in the mouth but sour in the stomach (cf. Rev.10:8-11). It can, as we find in the Epistle to the Hebrews, be a "two-edged sword, dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow" (Heb. 4:12).

Today, as never before, Biblical scholars have made the literal meaning of the text wide open before us. But precisely because this is so people are so often tempted to stop there. To go back to S Caesarius, they do the grazing, but not the chewing or ruminating.

There is a beautiful Jewish story told about an old Rabbi who had a very promising young student of the Scriptures. One day the student came to him with an air of great achievement on his face. "Rabbi", he said, "I have been right through the Bible". "That's all very well, my son", replied the Rabbi, "But has the Bible been through you?"

If we are to grow strong in our faith through our hearing, reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting the Scriptures, I think we need to discover again the spiritual meaning of the text. That aspect of the Scriptural text was so much to the fore in the time of the early Fathers of the Church and in medieval times. We need to recover that for ourselves today. As we do so we will find our Advent hope is not placed in vain, but in the one true, living God.

As S Paul says at the end of today’s Epistle lection, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

May God bless you this week.
 

 

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