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Advent 2, 2021
5 December 2021
(A mosaic from Sheffield Cathedral)
Today’s readings: Philippians 1:3-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6.
Let us pray.

O Lord,
raise up we pray, your power and come among us,
and with great might succour us;
that whereas, through our sins and wickedness
we are grievously hindered in running the race that is set before us,
your bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honour and glory, now and forever.

Amen.
 

A Reflection

The Epistle for last Sunday (Thessalonians 3:12 – 4:2) included the line, ‘…we urge you and appeal to you in the Lord Jesus to make more and more progress in the kind of life you are meant to live: the life that God wants…’  I also pondered, briefly, in last week’s mailing on how different our lives might look if our focus were on the risen and ascended Christ reigning in glory in Heaven, and our home there to which we, as the pilgrim people of God, journey on in faith and hope, rather than being focussed all too easily and, perhaps inevitably, on doing our best in this earthly life.

The obvious question to ask, in response to St. Paul, is what is ‘…the kind of life we are meant to live: the life God wants…?’  The equally obvious answer is, ‘the life of faith.’ But again, we want to know exactly what this means.  Today’s Gospel gives us a clue in the example of John the Baptist.  ‘The life of faith’ is one which points to Christ, ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life.’  

Understandably, the Gospels and the New Testament point us to the earthly life of Christ as a model for how we should live and we do well, of course, to follow His example, to live in ‘Christlikeness.’  However, there is a trap here.  Many years ago, I was at a clergy conference when one of the speakers declared that the Church is a ‘moral gymnasium’ and that our role is to teach people to live good lives, to great consternation and rebuttal amongst the assembled clergy.  Too many contemporary commentators take this line.  There is nothing wrong with a ‘good life,’ but it is not a ‘life of faith!’  

The Desert Fathers often wrote in terms of ‘spiritual warfare,’ and that there is nothing that Satan would like more than to deceive us into thinking that living a ‘good life’ were the same as living a ‘life of faith.’

The ‘life of faith’ is focussed on Christ, is guided and filled by the Spirit and looks to the Father.  It is a life which has a continual eye on our heavenly home, a life which recognises that we are just passing through, that we are sojourners in a foreign land.  It is a life which is good because it is a life of faith and knows that a good life does not, of itself, make a life of faith.  It is a life which is in continual repentance and turning back to God.  And it is, above all, a life which is centred on prayer.

Perhaps a simple daily prayer will help us to turn our hearts and minds towards such a life, ‘…the kind of life we are meant to live: the life which God wants.’ – ‘I am a citizen of Heaven and of the household of God; and my life is hid with God, in Christ.’
 

Organ Voluntary


Chopin – Prelude in C minor:
 
Watch here

Today’s hymn


Lo, He comes on clouds descending:
 
 
 

 

 

Watch here

Music from Matthew


We continue our Advent journey with the second verse of the Advent Prose at the beginning and end of mass, and the third and fourth Great ‘O’ Antiphons at the offertory.
 
Advent Prose
Drop down ye heavens, from above:
And let the skies our down righteousness.
 
We have sinned, and are as an unclean thing,
and we all do fade as a leaf:
and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away:
thou hast hid thy face from us:
and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.
 
Advent Antiphons 3 & 4
O Radix Jesse
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
 
O Clavis David
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
 
During communion, Sophie will sing the alto aria from the Bach Cantata no.148 Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens (Bring to the Lord the honour due unto his name).
 
Mund und Herze steht dir offen
Mouth and heart stand open for You, Highest, sink within! I in You, and You in me; faith, love, patience, hope shall be my bed of rest.
 
Julia Hamari (alto), Münchener Bach-Orchester, Karl Richter (conductor)
https://youtu.be/4mYEsNvKoG0
 

Fr. Simon considers Dante, the Divine Comedy and Advent

Dante: ‘Bound in one book by love’
This is the 21st year of the 21st century. Dante would have liked that. He enjoyed numbers. It’s also the 700th anniversary of his death. His most famous work, The Divine Comedy, was divided into three parts. He wrote poetry in the terza rima (three-line verses, or triplets) and arguably was the one who invented it. The number three is important in Christian theology because of the Trinity. Seven was the number of completeness for the Jews and so we find that number occurring a lot in Scripture. Three sevens are 21; here we are in 2021. All things Dante might have had some fun with, just as he enjoyed the ancients’ notion of fate, and the emerging interest in astronomy and stars when he was active.
 
Dante was born in Florence in Italy in 1265. The exact date is unknown but it was ‘under the sign of Gemini’and his family were White Guelphs (the faction which supported the Pope over the Holy Roman Emperor, although in time they started to oppose papal influence). His mother Bella died somewhere between 1270 and 1275, and his father Alighiero too by 1283 at the latest; at least, by the age of majority Dante and his brother Francesco were orphans. He soon married Gemma Donati of the powerful Black Guelph family, and had three or maybe four children (Pietro, Jacopo, Antonia; Giovanni). His interest in theology was nurtured at three Florentine centres of excellence – by the Dominicans at Sta Maria Novella, the Franciscans at Santa Croce, and just over the River Arno the Augustinians at Santo Spirito. All three churches remain active to this day. Dante worked on the Vita Nuova in the early 1290s, after the death of his beloved Beatrice. His subsequent involvement in Florentine politics caused him to be exiled from the cherished city, first pronounced at the beginning of 1302, before he was 40. He moved from Siena to Verona and finally to Ravenna where he died in September 1321, shortly after completing the Divine Comedy, and surrounded by his family.
 
Dante’s work is enduring and has universal quality. It has been used as a way to understand the times in which he wrote, the cultural climate and political temperatures, and the state of original thinking on Christian orthodoxy. The so-called ‘Father of the Italian language’, his expertise as a poet and linguist are also important, and certainly in the English-speaking world. Chaucer’s work bears Dantean hallmarks, also evident in Boccaccio, so in the century after Dante’s death the Comedy was very obviously helping create a new genre. That continues and can be noted in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, an elegant and assertive dialogue with the Comedy in both form and content. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is something of a trope but no less important for that. Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley were all entranced by Dante, as much as they were by Italy. The picaresque tradition in literature is similarly something with the Comedy in its rear-view mirror. For T.S. Eliot, ‘Dante divided the world with Shakespeare, there being no third’. It is almost impossible to overstate how influential and fundamental Dante’s work has been, and continues to be – even now in things like video-game scenes of corroded communities.
 
Because the Divine Comedy is set around Good Friday, it is easy to see it as innate to Lent and Holy Week. It is true that the activity of reading the Comedy could be penitential and that its consideration of sin (along with our Lenten imperative to the ‘metanoia’ of turning around and repentance) makes it wholly fitting, it is equally appropriate for Advent. Whilst this season is not so strongly geared to study, we are entreated to consider the Four Last Things: namely Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. The Inferno neatly deals with Hell, the Purgatorio considers Judgment, and Heaven is the object and subject of Paradiso. Taken together, the whole of the Comedy is a meditation on Death. It seeks to ask what and who we are ‘now in the time of this mortal life’ – as the Collect for Advent Sunday puts it. There is a sense in Advent of moving from death to life, and an attempt to make sense of the in-between times: this period since the resurrection and the Second Coming, and from the death of every individual to the moment of rising with Christ in glory. Advent is an anticipatory season, looking to celebrate the first coming of Christ in the Incarnation, and the second at the end of time when he comes to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
 
The three parts of the Comedy – essentially from darkness to light – take the reader on a journey with Dante from the depth of hell to the heights of heaven. In hell, he sees and recognises numerous leading figures and personalities of the day, along with types who are serving a particular punishment for their sin on earth. His design of this place is ingenious, all concentric circles and diabolical movement with the confines of the underworld from which none may escape. It speaks lessons from beyond the grave and gives new meaning to what we might understand of when Christ ‘descended into hell’. The Purgatorio is somewhat more amenable to human integrity, for here there is hope that those so confined may one day be liberated through having served their time and penance, or by the power of prayer on earth for those so in need of intercession. The Paradiso is considered by many to be the most difficult of the trilogy.
 
The theology is distinctly Augustinian, focussing as it does on the right ordering of human behaviour and emotion – particularly when it comes to love. We are to love rightly and to love well, and to love God above all else. Known as teleology (concerning itself with the end, or telos), this goes right to the heart of Dante’s whole ethos and intention in both the Comedy and his writing as a whole. In Dante’s vision of hell, there is no hope. It is a deterrent as much as an exploration of divine punishments, souls in the outer darkness which are cast out so far from God. They are beyond even the prayers of the faithful. By contrast, the residents of purgatory are suffering but saved. This makes those characters especially real and engaging in their interactions with the poet, and in a very real sense they are able to change their state through doing time before being able to ascend to heaven. The point being it is entirely possible to bring that about; transformation can be effected. Heaven therefore represents the absolute pinnacle: no longer the agonising and risky choice between sinning and not sinning, but not being able to sin at all. That is the purest, most beautiful freedom, and it represents total communion with God. It is a state of both bliss and grace, and throughout the Comedy Dante takes care to hold in tension the relationship between grace and free will. In Purgatorio 18, he explores with Virgil how loving in itself is not enough – it must be discerning, curbed where necessary and channelled positively.
 
Ultimately, Dante is a poet of love. The Blessed Virgin Mary as our loving mother is the saint closest to God in heaven. Beatrice intercedes for him and guides from heaven because she cares so much for his soul. And in this, her concern is deeply Christian, reflecting God’s love for all. Each of the Comedy’s three sections ends with a line about the stars. This captures the medieval mind’s fascination with astrology and the cosmos, but has Biblical precedents too (such as the conversation between the Lord and Abraham in Genesis 15). It is therefore divine love which infuses and redeems the whole structure of the Comedy along with all humanity and the whole world, and what the reader finds with Dante on reaching the summit.
 
‘The love / That moves the sun and all the stars above.’

Advent Study Morning


Barbara will lead a study morning on Saturday 11th December, 10.30am – 12 noon, at St. Anne’s, looking at the themes and ideas in Luke’s Gospel to help you understand it better as we hear it read through the coming year.
Ahead of the morning, Barbara asks that you read Luke 1, 2, 4:16-30, 7:36 – 8:2, 15, 19:1-10… or, better still, all of Luke up to 19:10!

Gert van Hoef – Home live-stream concert


Broadcast on Thursday 12th December 2021:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CgnQgW0vffU
 
Watch here
Some very nifty footwork in the Saint-Saens near the end!
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