Sermon 27/11/16 Icon Festival: “The Edge of the World”
St Mary the Virgin, Lewisham
Advent 1 Year A
Fr Richard Peers
Here we are at the edge of the world. We stand poised at the precipice not knowing what a President Trump will do or what Brexit will mean.
Here we are at the edge of the world, a new liturgical year beginning, the first Sunday of Advent, just a few weeks til Christmas.
Here we are at the edge of the world, graced with the presence of these icons by the artist Paul Chatenay: Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the lions den, Paul who threw himself off his known world into faith in Jesus, Francis who lived at the edge of his world among the poor and leprous.
These icons were made at the edge, with ancient panelling from demolished houses and the hanging chains and mosaic borders made of materials salvaged from the rivers edge in Deptford Creek.
The edge of the world, for the Roman poet Virgil, was ultima thule, the ultimate, the last known place, the far north, the most extreme.
All of us will have known what it is like to stand at the edge; to stare down into the abyss. To recognise that this way madness lies.
All of us will have had moments in our lives when our grasp on things; our hold on the known seems weak.
When loved ones die, when we face illness, pain, rejection, unepmloyment, illness, depression, boredom.
Advent teaches us that this is not a bad thing. Advent shows us that the darkness is where the light is born. Advent leads us from the comfort of our lives to the discomfort of meeting God.
Dear friends, my invitation to you this advent is to look into the abyss, to stare into the darkness and to leap off the edge of your world.
Deep calls to deep, psalm 42 says, abbyssus abyssum invocat.
That deep place is within us. That place where we face the reality that our loved ones die, that we will face illness, pain, rejection, unemployment, illness, depression, boredom. That we ourselves will die. That we are not in control, that we are sailing to the edge of the world.
We wonder why our churches are not full, why our friends and neighbours are not here, why even our families prefer the shopping centre, a lie in, or washing the car. The reason is simple, we have turned religion into a commodity, a hobby, we have made it acceptable and respectable, we have tamed the lion and ignored the whale, we have not set out on the road to Damascus and we have stayed safely in known regions and ignored the edge of the world. But religion is a dangerous thing; it will change our lives, and refashion our minds; it will open us, if we allow it, to things unknown, to mysteries unseen
Wake up and stay awake are the commands of our second reading and Gospel. Don’t sleep walk through your life. Don’t stand with your eyes shut at the edge of the world. Every place, every time, wherever you are, is the edge of the world. These icons, this church, our celebration of Mass are windows into eternity, reminders that everything and everywhere is a place where we can experience eternity, where we can know God.
Ultima Thule: the edge of the world, in reality we cannot choose to die to self, we die in the choices we make, in the experiences life brings – but we can rehearse the end of the ego and that is what prayer is.
This Advent if you do one thing to bring you closer to God, it will be to pray. All we have to offer is our time and our ability to turn inwards.
St Teresa of Avila has wonderful images for this turning in, like a hedgehog she says rolling into a ball or a tortoise withdrawing into its shell. We take time to shut off the exterior senses, the stimulations and we move inwards to the deep place of our internal being and when we’ve done that we do exactly the opposite of what we might expect to do. We stop trying. Stop trying to experience God, stop expecting some miracle or vision and let God be.
I recently read a wonderful definition of what contemplative prayer is by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams:
“Sustained awareness of living within the movement of God’s love into creation through the life and death of Jesus Christ.”
Every day of our lives we experience moments of death, when we know ourselves not to be in control, when things happen in a way we did not want them to happen, when our plans and strategies don’t work out. When we recognise these as little deaths we can find too the resurrection that is life continuing; that we are still awake.
So what is the experience of God in daily life like?
It’s like walking past a scented rose and just catching the fragrance; it’s like a baby sleeping softly so closely to you that if you stir or make a noise you will wake it; it is a rainbow that passes before you can get your mobile out to take a photo. God is present to you every moment of your life; as real to you as your breathing, he never makes Himself more present, He never withdraws Himself from any one.
So here we are at the edge of the world, the edge of the world that is this altar, these icons, this church, the edge of the world that is the present moment and every moment. The edge of the world, in which we are not in control, but in which each one of us can find God.
A favourite book of mine is Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World.
It tells the story of a group of friends growing up in the AIDS crisis. It end with this stunning passage describing a visit to a lake:
“We stood in the water together, watching the unbroken line of trees on the opposite bank. That was all that happened … but as I stood in the water, something happened to me … Something cracked. I had lived until then for the future, in a state of continuing expectation and the process came suddenly to a stop … I wouldn’t say I was happy. I was nothing so simple as happy. I was merely present, perhaps for the first time in my adult life. The moment was unextraordinary. But I had the moment, I had it completely. It inhabited me. I realised that if I had died soon I would have known this, a connection with my life … I would not die unfulfilled because I’d been here, right here and nowhere else.”
My dear friends, Advent is not a time of preparation; it is a time of expectation, but not expectation of something in the future, it is the expectation that we can wake up, that we can be awake to this moment, this now, in which God is shining in the depths of each of our hearts, the living fire within us.
This Advent I wish for you, I pray for you, that you will have many unextraordinary moments, that they will inhabit you, that you will know nothing so simple as happiness, that in the depths of your heart deep will speak to deep and you will rejoice that we stand at the ultima thule, the edge of the world.