Advent 3, Upper Church
1 Thess 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28
He himself was not the light but he came to testify to the light.
When my family moved house earlier this year, it was a voyage of discovery to learn about the local culture and traditions. Apart from the obsession with football, one of the observations I would make about our new area is that the women who live there like to look their best. You can see them on a Friday or Saturday night with big hair and serious make up but - and here’s the big but - in order to achieve this look, the rest of the time they walk around in pyjamas or onesies with their hair in rollers.
It is absolutely extraordinary but, honestly, if you walk down the street or go to the shops, you see women in rollers. It is a known phenomenon. One of my children revealed a few months ago that his maths teacher actually teaches in rollers (now there’s a thought) but possibly the most bizarre was a Priest in the Diocese who told me that he had once had a bride turn up for her wedding and be married in rollers.
Why? Why do they do it? Essentially it is because the fashionable young women where we live only really care what they look like when they are properly out and about – at a club, at a party, or in the case of a wedding, at the reception. At any other time it doesn’t matter because it isn’t real; they are just getting ready and they aren’t yet ‘there’.
However eccentric this behaviour might seem, it does reflect a tension between the way we live today and how we prepare for the future:that now and not yet which we know so well.
Of course John the Baptist exemplifies that tension – the herald, the forerunner, the harbinger, who is not himself the light but nonetheless exercises a vital ministry of preaching, baptising and calling to repentance, the one who testifies to the light. We cannot dismiss John as unimportant or insignificant, a mere warm up act for the main event, for John has a key role in the story of salvation history.
We cannot dismiss John any more than we can dismiss our earthly lives as a support act or a rehearsal for the life hereafter. In some ways it might be easier if it were: life on earth can be painful and bloody, its brevity either negative, too brief to make a difference, or positive, mercifully brief so as not to prolong suffering. It would be nice if we could ignore injustice on the basis that at the end time all will be made well, or if we could make our mistakes and just brush them off as unreality, compared to the reality of the Kingdom of God. However, we can’t do that unless we are deluded.
Rose Macaulay, eclipsed as an author by her more famous contemporaries, Rupert Brooke and Virginia Woolf; a friend of one of the Cowley Fathers but struggling with Oxford movement Anglicanism, writes in her 1920s novel Told by an Idiot of a love affair conducted by the daughter of a maddening clergyman who flits from denomination to denomination, losing his faith and picking up a new one at every turn, to the exasperation of his long suffering family. Each time his allegiance shifts he has the zeal of a new convert, convinced this is ‘really it’ and yet, of course, it is just more self-delusion and make-believe.
Told by an Idiot is not Macaulay’s own phrase but a reference to Macbeth - that bloodiest of plays - and the final soliloquy where the King, having gained the throne through murder, states that life is brief, easily extinguished, maybe even an illusion:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Of all the performances of Macbeth I have seen, the most memorable and creative, if not the best acted; was like Rose Macaulay’s life in that it had a Cowley connection, although through the Rover factory rather than the church. Against the industrial backdrop of the car production line, scenes were set up to mimic a fairground, a fortune-teller put out her hands to two mirrors to become the three weird sisters; conjuring tricks made Banquo’s ghost appear and disappear and murder was seen only in silhouette.
It was, of course, an exploration of reality and unreality, actuality and illusion. It is an exploration in which we are still engaged – for what is reality, what is truth in our postmodern world?
For Rose Macaulay, in Told by an Idiot, the only reality is love.
So what about for us? Christianity recognises the transience of earthly life, the pain and the brokenness of humanity. We have to be careful with Rose Macaulay’s stance if by ‘love’ we mean earthly desires - romantic or religious - which can become an excuse for all sorts of things. Even so, this does not mean that life is unreal. Creation, created reality, ‘the earth bringing forth its shoots’, as Isaiah puts it, is the first gift from God. The Incarnation, God united with a human life, embodying love completely, embraces earthly reality a second time. Isaiah and Paul both speak of the importance of prayer, faithfulness and rejoicing, not just at the heavenly banquet but now. ‘Rejoice always,’ says Paul, ‘pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances’. What he means is do it today.
We cannot live fully if we are (even metaphorically) in our pyjamas and our hair rollers, pretending no one can see us and we don’t yet exist. This isn’t just about seizing the day, important although that is too. It is vital for us to recognise that preparation is not inactive. Waiting is not passive. Anticipation is not putting life on hold. To get ready for the coming of Christ is to be like the Baptist, crying in the wilderness, testifying to the light, being fruitful and doing it now.
Christ we are promised a new and better life without end. His love is indeed the
basis of all truth and reality but earthly life is not an illusion – it is a
gift and an opportunity to be grasped, a real foretaste of that which is to
The Revd Dr Rowena Pailing, Director of Pastoral Studies, College of the Resurrection