03 December 2017
10.30 Sung Eucharist
First Sunday of Advent
Canon Simon Cowling
1 Corinthians 1. 1-9; Mark 13. 24-end
Hugo did look a bit funny. Because of the cleft, his lip curled up and his little mouth was almost a triangle. But what we both found surprising was how unimportant it was. Neither of us experienced any shock or revulsion. Rather, what occurred was an instantaneous downgrading of the problem. No sooner was the defect apprehended than it was accommodated, accepted. After all, it was a part of him – such a small part really. As such, and straight away, it became another thing to love.
This is how the author and critic William Skidelsky described the moments after his wife, Gudrun, gave birth to their first child a few years ago. They had known from half-way through the pregnancy that their child would be born with a cleft palate. They were within the period when an abortion would have been legally permitted. Skidelsky described going to see a senior doctor, an expert in pre-natal scanning, who told them with startling bluntness, ‘You are both attractive people. You could start again. You need to go away, drink a bottle of wine and think about this very, very carefully.’ The doctor was steering them unambiguously towards a termination of the pregnancy. In the end, though, Skidelsky and his wife Gudrun decided against termination; and a series of successful operations means that Hugo will lead a normal life.
But this is not a sermon about the ethics of abortion. The parents in the case I have described faced a moral dilemma impossible for anyone to comprehend unless they have been in a similar position. What we might legitimately question is whether the stance of the senior doctor was at all helpful. His attitude towards the defect, and the effect it would have on the lives of the parents, seems to encapsulate an attitude that has permeated and begun to distort our moral and spiritual discourse in much of the western world. Underlying this attitude is a belief (for the most part implicit) that this world is all there is. This belief limits our moral horizon to the here and now, and we naturally go on to assume that it is perfectly acceptable to ensure, as far as we are able, that our own progress through this life is as untroubled, as smooth, as pain free as it can possibly be. And we are all complicit in, collectively responsible, for such attitudes. Despite the fact that the UK is a world leader in the treatment of congenital cleft palates, terminations because of the condition have tripled in recent years. These terminations take place within a wider context that society as a whole has helped to define. We cannot condemn others’ moral choices without accepting the responsibility we all share for creating the prevailing climate in which those choices are exercised.
These thoughts have been prompted by today’s reading from St Mark, whose Gospel we shall be focusing on in our Sunday worship for the next twelve months. Jesus’s ministry is drawing to its close and he is speaking to his disciples about the coming of the Kingdom of God in vivid picture language. Suffering on earth will be followed by strange happenings in the heavens, and the Son of Man will come with great power and glory. The message Jesus encourages his disciples to take from his words is that they need to be alert, on their guard, and not over-occupied with the worries and concerns of this life: keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. Christians have traditionally taken this to be a self-referential remark – an indication that Jesus understood himself to be the master of the house, the Son of Man, the one who would inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth and whose arrival would be heralded by the mysterious events he describes.
I spoke just now about our moral horizons being limited by a belief that this world is all that there is. In such a context passages such as the one we have heard from Mark can sometimes seem like the equivalent for Christians of the embarrassing relative. The passages make their appearance once or twice at this time of year and are then put back firmly out of sight, rather like a difficult uncle after a birthday or Christmas. The Jesus who speaks of suffering, of strange portents, and of the end of all things is rather different from the Jesus we like to commend to the world, to our friends and neighbours; and the Jesus of Mark chapter 13 is certainly different from the defenceless child born in a stable whose coming amongst us we shall be sharing with so many visitors this Christmas. But instead of embarrassing us, perhaps the Gospel for Advent Sunday, with its particular focus on the second coming of Christ in glory, should embolden us to believe that we need not be hesitant about these startlingly apocalyptic passages of scripture; that it is fine to proclaim to our friends and neighbours that Jesus is challenging us to live and to shape our lives in the light of an eternity that he calls us all to share with him. Such a proclamation would certainly allow us to begin to challenge the complacency of the here and now, the vague moral equivocation of what so often passes for ethical debate.
The challenge for all those who have chosen the Way of Christ is to avoid accepting wholesale the world’s way of doing things on the one hand, but also to avoid withdrawing into a private spiritual enclave on the other. We need to be in the world, working with the Holy Spirit, listening to and putting into practice the truth that Jesus speaks. That truth, hard for people to hear at times, must always be spoken with grace and with humility; and of course challenging complacency is about changing hearts and minds, altering mind-sets. We can’t simply knock people about the head with Mark chapter 13. That would be the equivalent of the man regularly to be encountered in Skipton High Street, armed with leaflets proclaiming a sticky and imminent end for those who fail to measure up. So how do we challenge complacency? What might it involve? Firstly, reminding other people, and ourselves, that the here and now is not just the Priory, or the parish of Bolton Abbey, or our own immediate neighbourhood. The here and now is the teenage girl in Kenya or Tanzania, staying in her school over Christmas for fear of being forced by her family to undergo female genital mutilation during the peak cutting season; the here and now is the elderly Rohingya Muslim in Myanmar who saw his sister in law and nephew shot and set on fire by the Burmese army; the here and now is the family in Skipton using the Food Bank for the first time because of changes to assistance grants operated by the local authority. Challenging complacency involves, secondly, reminding other people, and ourselves, that our here and now forms, to a large extent, the legacy that we shall leave to future generations. The choices we make to create a life as comfortable as possible for ourselves may have consequences we cannot or will not foresee for those who come after us, for their here and now. Finally, challenging complacency involves reminding other people, and ourselves, that there is an alternative world picture to the one that is bounded merely by time and space. This alternative world is one defined by the boundlessness of eternity, by God’s time; a world in which we will finally realise that our moral choices, our behaviour to others, our decisions large and insignificant have all combined to make us who we are; a world where we will stand before God, face to face with the one who has known and loved us from eternity – and who accommodates, accepts, and loves us whatever our defects.