Keep Awake – Again!
A Sermon preached by The Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury.
Sunday 27 November 2022, Advent Sunday, From Darkness to Light: The Advent Procession.
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming”
Advent Sunday. Those of us who attended the excellent talk that Kenneth gave at Sarum College last Tuesday were reminded that our Sunday Lectionary – our scheme of Sunday Bible readings – operates on a three-year cycle. In Year A, we read Matthew’s Gospel; in Year B, we read Mark; in Year C, we read Luke; and in all three years, we get a generous sprinkling of John. Today is the first day of Year A, and so we begin to read Saint Matthew, who will be our companion through the next twelve months.
The three-year cycle means that on Advent Sunday three years ago I stood where I am standing now and spoke to the text to which I am speaking today. It was 1 December 2019. I had been your Dean for fifteen months. It seems terribly recent – but how things have changed. Then, Queen Elizabeth was on the throne; Nicholas Holtam was our Bishop; Mr Johnson was our Prime Minister; Mr Hancock was in the Cabinet rather than in the jungle; and the United Kingdom was a member state of the European Union. “Keep awake” I urged you. “Keep awake”.
Keep awake for what? There was so much to look forward to. On Advent Sunday 2019 we were on the brink of 2020, and 2020 was going to be the year of Salisbury’s triumphant relaunch, when the shadow of Novichok would be put behind us, and our city would come together to celebrate. We would be visited by Her Majesty the Queen; we would write a new strategic plan for the Cathedral; we would begin to redevelop the Works Yard. We would look ahead with confidence. “Keep awake”. In retrospect it’s almost ironic. Nowhere did I mention the early reports that were emerging of an unknown virus which was making its presence felt in Wuhan. As the old saying goes: if you want to make God smile you should tell him your plans.
Liturgical theologians tell us that Advent is the season of waking up to and watching out for not one but two horizons. The first is four weeks away, when we will celebrate the nativity of Jesus. Advent alerts us to the stupendous reality that all human life has been hallowed by the one human life brought to birth in Bethlehem. Now is God’s time: now. You and I live in the era of God’s incarnation. And this morning we can look back over the last three years and say “Yes: in this…and this…and this”, God was undeniably present. In the now: in the administration of 35,000 vaccinations in the South Transept; in the screening of the late Queen’s funeral to a congregation of hundreds in the Nave; in the Daily Reflections that your clergy broadcast throughout all three lockdowns, from their studies, and gardens and dining rooms. When Covid hit and we closed the Cathedral I said more than once that we had lost everything and that we had lost nothing, for God had not lost us. I believe that was true. On Advent Sunday 2019 we might not have been awake to the changes that were about to befall the world – but in our midst, time and time again, God has been made present.
But according to tradition Advent is also about a second horizon, one that is much more difficult to describe. It’s about God among us today but it’s also about what we might speak of as the fullness of time, when God will be all and will be in all. Now: keeping awake to that sounds like a tall order. After all, three years ago we weren’t awake to Covid, Ukraine, inflation, the fuel crisis and three Prime Ministers in one year (so far).
Can we do better? On Advent Sunday 2025 I will have been your Dean for seven years and three months. How can we avoid you having to listen to equivalent of this sermon all over again?
As we planned 2020, the great year of festivities that never was, I spoke often about liberty, creativity, and eternity. It seemed to me then that these three qualities characterize Salisbury’s history and are in Salisbury’s DNA. We are the Cathedral that moved to escape royal power – liberty; we are the Cathedral built by one generation in an extraordinary outpouring of visionary gifts – creativity; we are the Cathedral that daily, hourly, honours and calls people into relationship with the eternity which we name as the God made known in Jesus. Liberty, creativity, eternity: historically valid, but surfacing over and over since 2019. What was the vaccination centre but a means of giving our neighbours their liberty after the months of lockdown? What was the screening of the Queen’s funeral but a gesture of profound creativity in response to the city’s need at a time of mourning? What were the Daily Reflections but new means for the clergy and others to share with you their experience of eternity and encourage you to develop yours?
“Keep awake”. None of us foresaw the global pandemic. None of us foresaw the terrible loss and suffering. None of us foresaw the ramifications with which we are still coming to terms in this year of ‘permacrisis’.
But then, Jesus assures us that we do not know on what day our Lord will come. We do not know on what day – but, surely – when our Lord comes our liberty will be complete: no person and no thing will constrain or contain it; when our Lord comes our creativity will no know bounds: for our work and God’s work will be indistinguishable; when our Lord comes our relationship with eternity will be perfect: for God will live in us and we will live in God.
Which is a long-winded way of saying: let’s keep awake not to this event that we’re planning or to that project that we’re devising. Let’s keep awake to whatever makes for liberty; to whatever creates anew and afresh; and to whatever builds us up eternity and builds eternity up in us. If we keep awake to those we may just discover that Advent’s two horizons meld and become one – for where women and men are free, where they discover and develop their creative gifts, and where they do so in relationship with God – then I believe that he rejoices, and that the One who is to come has already arrived.