2 BEFORE ADVENT   (Year A)

The courtroom was slightly bemused. A piece of paper, with something written on it, had just been handed in. Perhaps this was the vital clue which would solve the mystery. Putting on his spectacles in order to read it to the court, the White Rabbit asked ‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ ‘Begin at the beginning’, the King said, very gravely ‘and go on until you come to the end: then stop’.

On the face of it endings always seem final – that’s it, nothing more, full stop. However, we do well to bear in mind that what might appear to be endings can sometimes mysteriously turn out to be thresholds, leading into something else, something unexpected – another dimension, another reality. ‘In my beginning is my end’ – yes but, as Eliot pointed out, it is sometimes true that ‘In my end is my beginning’.

Here in our Northern latitudes we are coming to various ends. ‘The Harvest is passed, the summer is over and we are not saved’: Jeremiah’s elegiac lament is echoed by Shakespeare’s sad observation that  ‘summer’s  lease hath all too short a date’. Leaf-fall, light fall, the tide is on the ebb and, once again, we are for the dark. As with nature’s cycle, so with the Christian year, with its times and seasons, its feasts and fasts, its observances and commemorations. The wheel is coming full circle and another year of grace moves towards its end, which by no means will be with a whimper but most decidedly with a bang - with the Feast of Christ the King. ‘Begin at the beginning, and go on until you come to the end, and then stop’. So, taking our cue from the world of nature around us and from the Church’s Calendar, we turn to look to the end, to the Last Things.

In many and various ways the Gospel readings on the Sundays between All Saints and Christ the King speak of the End. They bring to our attention the fact that there are issues to be faced; matters to be sorted and settled. Although we are not yet into the purple of Advent, the Liturgy is jogging our elbow, plucking at our sleeve, reminding us that in the end we will be required to give an account of ourselves. So in today’s Gospel reading Jesus challenges us to put our talents, our energies, to good use, reminding us that each one of us has only one life and that what we do with it is of eternal significance and has eternal consequences. We are not to be supine, passive; rather, so he seems to suggest, we are to look out for opportunities to increase our capital – otherwise we shall be in trouble.

On the face of it, it might seem from the Parable of the Talents that Jesus is encouraging us to suppose that our Christian practice is to be inspired and energised by the profit motive – that we are to be prolific in good works in order that we might earn a bumper crop of advantages for ourselves and so escape the fate of the servant who played safe and took no risks. That is a thought which might seem to be corroborated by the Collect which is used in the days between Christ the King and Advent Sunday. In it we ask God to stir up the wills of his faithful people, that plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, we may by him be plenteously rewarded. There is something about that - something somewhat self-regarding - which might make us feel a little uneasy.

It is true that Jesus spoke plainly of rewards for those who follow him faithfully but he also made it clear that those who seek to save their life will lose it. In the final analysis, when we have done everything that we are commanded to do, we remain unprofitable servants. So can we rightly pray that our wills may be so stirred up that we may be paid top prices for our crop of good works?

Despite the fact that the ‘Stir up’ Collect which takes us to the threshold of Advent tends to get crowded out by the various Saints’ Days which occur in the latter part of November, nevertheless it will be heard at some point during those days immediately preceding Advent Sunday. It is a Collect which has been in use throughout Western Europe during the days before Advent since the time of Charlemagne in the eighth century. When it was translated from Latin into English by Thomas Cranmer and his Liturgical Commission for our Book of Common Prayer, violent hands were laid upon it. Cranmer (or whoever) translated the first half of the prayer with strict accuracy but the second half – about being plenteously rewarded for our good works – with no accuracy at all. Literally translated the original runs: ‘Stir up we beseech you O Lord the wills of your faithful people that they, seeking more readily the fruit of the divine work, may come to possess the greater remedies of your compassion’. This is an altogether different matter from that which Cranmer gave us. There is nothing in the original Latin to suggest that because of our good works God will reward us. What the original bids us pray for is that our wills may be so stirred up that we seek fruits rather than produce them – and the fruits we are to seek are of God’s producing, not of ours; fruits of his divine work, all the blessings he has made available through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are to seek those blessings – not in order that we may be plentifully rewarded but rather that we may be given greater remedies – not prizes for our perfection but medicines for our imperfections.

Things are drawing to an end. The old year is passing and as we await the coming of the new; we pause on the threshold and bring to mind certain truths. First, that we are accountable for how we live our lives and, secondly, that with Christ’s coming to be with us as one of us, our life is no longer about us – rather it is to be about God. For it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us; he is our life, and we are hid with him in God.

It is our belief that with God there are no full-stops, no dead ends. He has shown himself to be a God who makes new and fresh what is tired and stale, a God who will always begin again  – a God who will always begin again with us, if we will allow him – a God who will always allow us to begin again with him if only we will choose to. For he is the God who has brought all newness with him by bringing himself.

As Gregory of Nyssa pointed out, ‘The one who truly rises up must always continue to rise. To the one who runs towards the Lord a vast distance will never be lacking. So the one who ascends never ceases, going from beginning to beginning by beginnings that have no end’.

Eric Simmons CR