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