Sermon in CR Church Sunday 6 December – Second in advent

One of the vexed questions about vocation, on which more and more material has been published, concerns the nature of being and of being present – what does it mean to be a Christian in the workplace or to be a Priest in the parish? What of the Church of England’s strapline ‘a Christian presence in every community’?

Presence, that which is present, is a gift to the writers of puns. Christmas presents (ts) and Christmas presence (ce) – ho, ho, ho.  More importantly, it is inextricably linked with an understanding of time which, like the pocket-watch carrying white rabbit of Alice in Wonderland, is a slippery character – swift footed and complex but always there, in the background. In today’s readings time is particularly obvious:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…

Here the author of Luke-Acts writes as self-conscious historian, pinpointing past events and authenticating them by dates and governorships, by time. In the letter to the Philippians and our Mattins reading from Baruch we also find time to be inescapable but instead of time past, the emphasis is on that time which is yet to come, the end time and the fulfilment of all salvation history.

We all know about liturgical time – the interplay between the present moment, the seasons and the echoes of specific events in the life of Christ. This interplay is perhaps at its most acute now, in Advent, as the Church begins its liturgical year; the cycle starts again, doing what we always do, looking forward to the feast of the Incarnation, although that Incarnation has already happened. Our prayers and actions, through ages gone by and present experience, are a paradox, like God himself, of old and new. 

Two of St Augustine ’s most innovative works, the Confessions and The City of God, explore time and the passing of time. On the face of it, each is a biography or autobiography, an account of salvation history, in the case of the Confessions, of individual salvation - Augustine’s own - in The City of God, of the corporate salvation of all the faithful. Each text is also much more than that – but that’s for another day.

Of time itself, in book ten of the Confessions, Augustine says this:

In the eternal, nothing is transient but the whole is present but no time is wholly present…all past time is driven backwards by the future and all future time is the consequent of the past and all past and future are created and set on their course by that which is always present.

This, then, is why it is such a challenge to define presence. For Augustine, God, as the eternal, is outside time, where there is no past or future but only present reality. This present is the eschatological hope to which Paul and Baruch look forward, the Lord’s Day which in Augustine is the eternal Sabbath whose end will not be in an evening… but an eighth and eternal day, consecrated by the resurrection of Christ…where we shall rest and we shall see, we shall see and we shall love, we shall love and we shall praise.

Humanity, however, finds presence a challenge, because we are transient. We are driven by time and although experientially we have the present, that present is impossible to grasp. Once you have sneezed, it is gone. More often than engaging with the present, because we have reason, we anticipate the future, aware (I hope) of the consequences of our actions but more often still, we define ourselves by our history, our past.

Although Luke may be one of the most overtly historiographical of Biblical texts, the whole of the scriptures present a salvation history, in which we see an exploration of past and future; causation and consequences; patterns and repetitions: the new Adam, the new Moses, the Son of David.

Fundamentally the issue is this: presence is an attribute of God: an attribute which we, as human beings, struggle to attain.

However, there is a paradox. The weight of history is very powerful and is often used as a basis of authority and tradition. Yet the narrative of Christian salvation history is a consistent and urgent call for change in the present - from the prophets, from John the Baptist, from Jesus Christ. The call to repentance, to restore our relationship with God, to discern that which is right, does not mean following unquestioningly in the steps of our ancestors. Salvation history is living history: present, past and future feed into each other, so that our traditions, our inheritance, are living too. 

Part of the power of history, as Luke-Acts demonstrates, is that it can be used to construct narratives which can build and define the identity of individuals and communities. We see this all the time. Syria, Britain, Russia, Turkey: all the political positions are taken through a particular and selective reading of events. In Islam, whether by kinship or election, a caliph is the successor of the prophet Muhammed. So the reason why Islamic State proclaims itself to be a caliphate is to claim legitimacy based on historic inheritance. Zionism too is rooted in one (very subjective) interpretation of a historic Israel .

It isn’t, though, just other people’s relationship with the past which can be skewed or manipulative. It happens much closer to home. I used to work in a parish which was - and often still is - defined by riots which took place when I was four years old. That’s a jolly long time ago.  A generation and regeneration on, it doesn’t bear much resemblance to what it used to be but, despite the injection of public funding and even despite the transience of the local population, many of whom weren’t even in the UK when the riots took place, it seems impossible to break free from the past.

The re is a different perspective where I live now, in a city built, embarrassingly, on the profits of the Slave Trade. Streets and buildings still bear the names of plantation owners. The general consensus is that it would be wrong to airbrush this out. The ugly episodes of history need to be acknowledged. Quite right. So we have the International Slavery Museum , whose stated aim is ‘to address ignorance and misunderstanding by looking at the deep and permanent impact of slavery and the slave trade’. The reality is that the museum’s emphasis is on the eighteenth century. The re are attempts to address modern slavery but generally it still seems to be presented as ‘other’ with an exhibition now running about Dalits in India . Perhaps I’m being unfair but where are the exhibitions on current human trafficking and exploitation in Britain ? By making slavery historic or distant we can beat our breasts and believe that we have made atonement. Only by recognising it as a present reality will we actually do so.

The historical narrative can work for good or ill. History can be used and abused to construct individual, collective and national stories which bear little relation to the present. We can imagine a golden age, arbitrarily and uncritically plucked from the past. We can skew perspectives which seem to justify prejudice, aggression or terrorism. We can use it to promote stagnation, or conversely to congratulate ourselves on throwing off the errors or failures of our ancestors.

Yet because we are human, without a history we are cut adrift, unsure of where we belong or who we are. It is key to our identity. In Advent we have the perfect opportunity to engage responsibly with history and tradition; past, present and future. However, time is a slippery character, so we look back to those who foretold the Incarnation; we look forward to the feast of Christmas; yet always, we are called to be present by the God who is ever present. Presence means living in the world without pretence. It means living in the world fully, without distance. Yes, despite the punsters, it means presenting ourselves, as a gift. The n shall we see the salvation of God.

The Revd Dr Rowena Pailing, Director of Pastoral Studies, College of the Resurrection