The Rector Writes...
by Christopher Colven
“Advent tells us Christ is near: Christmas tells us Christ is here”: a line from a children’s hymn sums up so simply all that we begin to celebrate this weekend. In the weeks leading to Christmas we shall hear once more the ancient prophecies (leaning heavily on the insights of Isaiah) and then contemplate their fulfilment in the birth of Mary’s Child. It is easy to sentimentalise (and secularise) this season as we cannot remain unaffected by its immediate context - which for us at Spanish Place includes the lights and consumerism of Oxford Street with “Winter Wonderland” in all its gaudy attractiveness on the edge of the parish in Hyde Park. Acting as something of a counterbalance, the dominant Scriptural figure of these early days of Advent is Saint John the Baptist. Jesus’s immediate forerunner (and his cousin) is an uncompromising figure with his focus on the need for to conversion in preparation for God’s moment.
Speaking at the conclusion of the long line of prophets who had prepared a way for the Messiah, John’s witness and his call to a baptism of repentance had an immediate relevance for his own times with the birth of the Christ at Bethlehem, but his voice continues to echo down the centuries to our own times. John brings home to us the need to change and warns us against complacency: we can never, and must never, take our individual salvation for granted. Saint John Henry Newman built on this theme when he wrote: “to live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect”. The Baptist’s call to conversion had the strongest impetus in that Christ’s appearance was imminent – his preaching was all about the here and now.
For us, though we are committed to the belief of a Second Coming, it is hard to see this as anything other than a future projection beyond imaginable fulfilment. What then has to provide our motivation, for change, for growth, for the perfection of the Gospel? Perhaps Thomas Aquinas answers the question for us: “nothing could so provoke us to love God than that his very Word, through whom all things were made, should assume our nature, for its healing, and be himself both God and man. We have, in fact, the greatest sign of his love for us, and to know oneself to be loved so strongly urges us to love in return”. It was right for John the Baptist to preach as he did, with the call to obedience, but once the nature of the Godhead is fully revealed in Jesus then the idiom has to change. “In love there can be no fear, but fear is driven out by perfect love: because to fear is to expect punishment, and anyone who is afraid is still imperfect in love” (I John 4:18).
Respect and awe are central to the creature’s relationship with the Creator but if we are afraid in any way of the One who was prepared to lay down his life for us and names us as his friends then we are missing the point entirely. Like Saint John the Baptist of old, the Church in every age is committed to preaching a message of salvation, but perhaps our concentration should be less on salvation from and rather more on salvation for. People of our own generation with all the emphasis on individual autonomy do not react well when confronted with the Christian understanding of original sin and its consequences. Most of those around us feel that their lives are, at least, adequate and are not given overmuch to introspection: while the general existence of evil is not to be denied it is rarely accepted as having personal significance. Western societies, though, are particularly aspirational and it is here, surely, that our catechetical emphasis should lie. The Church contains within its own living experience the perfection of human being in the Son of Mary: as Benedict XVI has said so aptly: “the happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have the right to enjoy, has a face and a name: it is Jesus of Nazareth”. This is the insight we have to share.
The call to change which must always remain at the heart of the Gospel proclamation is an invitation to become what we are meant to be. When we are finally called to give account of our lives the balance will be weighed not so much by our sins of commission but of omission: not so much on what we got wrong but on all that gift and potential which has remained locked away, undeveloped. “If you would really pray to God for conversion, it would be granted to you” (Saint John Vianney).
“the happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have the right to enjoy, has a face and a name: it is Jesus of Nazareth”