'My dear brothers and sisters in Arundel and Brighton,
One of the most striking paintings in the Millennium exhibition of images of Christ was that of the English painter Stanley Spencer. It was an image of the resurrection of the dead on the last day. But it was taking place in his home village of Cookham on the Thames. It shows people waking and stretching, the joy in their faces as they recognise their family and friends, and the fact that they are alive again. They then walk down to the Thames and get into the boats that take them to the promised land of heaven.
You might say that this is a rather fanciful and even frivolous image, but it is one of the common Christian understandings of the experience of death, that one day the dead will all hear the call of the Lord and rise from their graves.
This notion of a final day of resurrection is also expressed in today’s gospel, where there seems to be a warning about the way this day might take us off guard. The thought was certainly there, too, in St Paul’s earliest letters; in the First Letter to the Thessalonians – probably familiar to anyone who has been to a funeral – Paul suggests that he himself might still be alive when the last day comes. But gradually this expectation faded in the early Church.
It is one of the themes of this season of Advent, however, that we look forward to the end of our pilgrimage through life and our meeting with the Lord who has saved us from our sins. How this will be experienced we do not know, since by then we will be beyond the restraints of time and place; it is part of the mystery of life and death, part of the mystery of God.
There is, too, a more immediate theme running through Advent, that of our preparation to celebrate the Lord’s birth at Christmas. So Advent joins together the beginning and the end of the experience of salvation in Christ.
But what about the bit in between? Is there no other way to think of the coming of Christ? The first reading today, from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, speaks of the present time – he calls it the ‘kairos’ in Greek. In the lectionary the words ‘the time’ are in inverted commas, indicating that they have a special meaning. Paul feels that this is a particular moment, a special time, a time of great grace. And that reading is given to us today precisely because it speaks to us today.
This is a special time, because it is our time, the time that we have. It is not the best time the Church has ever had, and it is certainly not the worst. But it is our chance to witness to our faith, to be courageous in grasping this opportunity. Because this is the middle coming of Christ, the unveiling of Christ in our world – this is the way that Advent ends, with the epiphany and baptism of the Lord.
This year will always be remembered as the year Pope Benedict came to England. It will also be remembered as the time he gave us new courage and confidence and asked us to be bolder in just saying that we are followers of Christ, and offering evidence in public. In order to meet deadlines, I am writing this on 11 November, and most people that I have seen over the last few weeks have been wearing a red poppy to indicate that they are at least aware of those who lost their lives in the world wars and other conflicts. Many young people wear a variety of coloured bands on their wrists, suggesting support of a host of causes. They are wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
Next week, Monday 15 November, I am going to Leeds for a meeting of the Bishops’ Conference. I hope that we will discuss the possibility of restoring the old Friday Fast Day. This was one of the most obvious signs of Catholic identity, apart from going to Mass. It determined the diet in places like prison and hospital, and was something that Catholics were instinctively conscious of: we knew that we couldn’t have meat like everybody else that day, and it was a source of a sort of pride – it marked us out as different.
Today we are perhaps less willing to be marked out, in case we are marked out as not just different, but ‘odd’. And that is what we had been told, and began to believe. But the Pope’s visit has said to us that this is not ‘odd’, but that it’s actually important. A few years ago I suggested that we might take up another of those old Catholic practices, grace before meals, if we had lost the habit of it. It’s not difficult, doesn’t take much time, but it’s a gentle reminder.
There are all sorts of small ways in which we quietly show to the world that we believe in Christ, and that we want to welcome Christ back into a world that has either largely forgotten him or never really heard of him. Pop into the church when you are passing, so that people can see it. Put a crucifix in the window. If you are at work or with friends and people ask you what you did at the weekend, mention the fact that you went to Church. But make sure it’s true. And we can also show ourselves, by praying a little more often, and spending time reflecting on the bible.
In the first reading today, Isaiah is confident that when the mountain of the Lord is lifted up, people will stream to it, and not only will they stream to it, but that they will turn away from conflict. We have a very important message for our society, and this is the time that is given to us to make it known.
I wish you a blessed, peaceful and fruitful Advent season.
With my prayers and best wishes to you all.'