Homily for the First Sunday of Advent with Investiture of Choristers, Year B
Welcome to today’s Solemn Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral, my first Sunday Mass as Archbishop, and the opening of our Advent season of preparation for Christmas. I welcome in particular the boys who will participate in today’s Rite of Investiture and become full Choristers in the St Mary’s Cathedral Choir, a choir which I can say in all humility and admiration is the finest in this land. I also welcome their parents, family and friends. To all our parishioners, visitors from other parishes, and visitors from overseas, a very warm welcome!
After Mass today we will bless the Christmas Crib in the Square in front of the Cathedral and I invite you all to join me there. Then there will be a ceremony to award art prizes to the children of our Catholic schools who have created inspiring works reflecting upon the themes of Advent and Christmas.
Today also marks the beginning of the Year of Consecrated Life in the Universal Church. Called for by the Holy Father, Pope Francis, it provides the Church with an opportunity to reflect upon the value of Consecrated Life to the Church, to express our gratitude to those who have embraced religious life, to encourage them in their fidelity and commitment to the Lord and their charisms, to pray for the authentic renewal of religious life, and to showcase this Gospel-radicalism to a new generation in the hope of many new members of our religious orders.
Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 30 November 2014
‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was a British Officer who fought in the First World War, exactly one hundred years ago. He came to prominence for his exploits on the Arab peninsula in which he demonstrated great courage and won the respect, even friendship, of many of the locals. The famous 1962 film starring Peter O’Toole, Sir Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif presents Lawrence as a guerrilla fighter in Aqaba and Damascus and a politician in the founding of the Arab National Council. He struggles with the violence of war, with military obedience, with his own complex personality, and with loyalties divided between the British and his newfound Arab comrades. The film was one of the most highly acclaimed of all time and ensured the myth of Colonel T.E. Lawrence DSO lives on. Yet his success was as much due to his cultural sensitivity and training as an historian, as it was to his bravery or strategic acumen. Lawrence loved medieval history. On visiting Chartres Cathedral in France during his undergrad history studies, he said that he “felt as though I had found a path – a hard one – as far as the gates of Heaven, and had caught a glimpse of the inside, the gate being ajar”.
We Christians live in such ‘in-between-times’ between the glimpse of heaven and the hardships of earth, between now and not yet, the first coming and the second. We call that in-between state ‘Advent’. Jesus, our Redeemer, so long promised by the prophets (Isa 63:16-17; 64:1-8), has come and is coming. The God of history joins that history as a character within it, a man like us (in all things but sin), God so very unlike us, and so able to be God-with-us. By His passion, death, resurrection and ascension this long-awaited Redeemer mysteriously effected our salvation. By the blood of His Cross and the love of His Sacred Heart our sins, our many sins, have been wiped away.
In place of those sins, as we sung in our Preface last Sunday, Christ our King established His “eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace”. Yet no-one would pretend we are there fully yet. Though we’ve cause for joy, God has not yet wiped away every tear (Rev 7:17). The consequences of sin are omnipresent in our lives, evident in the sicknesses of our bodies and weaknesses of our souls, in our fractured relationships and unruly passions.
Our word “Advent” stems from the Latin advenire, “to come”. The Church looks backwards to the First “to come” of Christ, His coming in humility, in history, and forwards to the Second “to come” of Christ, in glory, in eternity. Between history and eternity is in-betweenity, Advent, eschaton, a kind of future hope rooted in past events and giving present confidence. Like Lawrence of Arabia in Chartres Cathedral, we glimpse the eternity of heaven in the humility of Christmas, but are aware that there is “a hard road” between them. The gates of Heaven are ajar so we might hope, but we are yet to enter.
Today’s readings call on Christians to live this in-betweenity with vigilance. No-one knows the when or where or how of Christ’s return so we are exhorted “be on guard, stay awake!” (Mk 13:33-37). When I received the exciting if daunting news that I was to be Archbishop of Sydney I fled to a monastery – to the nuns in Jamberoo to be precise – to make a week’s retreat. I would recommend it to everyone. One night, in the middle of the night, I went to join them for Vigils. I walked from my hermitage to the abbey church with a torch in hand under the spectacular Milky Way. I heard the readings and sang the psalms and kept the silence with them. By the time I returned to my room the birds were trumpeting dawn. I had spent the night, or part of it, as these holy women do every night, watching for the sun, for the dawn of the Son of God and Son of Man.
Advent in-betweenity grounds our hope but also warns of divine judgment to come. A week ago I was honoured to meet the Holy Father, Pope Francis, for the first time. He said he was praying for me in my new mission; I said the Church of Sydney was praying for him in his. The media like to hear him on the themes of hope and joy and mercy, as do we all; they are less enthusiastic, in fact tend to censor him out altogether, when he talks of sin, the devil and judgment, as he often does. But his thought is clear: Christian longing for the return of Christ must be coupled with right living. If we are corrupt in our practices, if we indulge gossip or harbour resentment or misuse our position, we are not keeping vigil with the holy women, with the Church down the ages; we are not taking the hard but only true road. If we are truly watchful, on the look-out for our Master’s return, we will as St Paul says in our epistle, live steady lives, “without blame until the last day, the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Cor 3:9).
Ever since St Melbourne Cup’s Day we’ve been in the ‘silly season’ of endless office parties and Christmas shopping. Advent says: hold on, now is a time for sober and expectant watchfulness, for lived alertness. And a proper readiness for Christmas is a proper readiness for Christ’s return or our return to Him. As St Augustine observed, if we ready ourselves for Christ’s first coming we need not dread His second (St Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 95). I pray that the Church of Sydney and all of us we may use this season of grace well, in order to have a great Christmas.
At the chair after the homily
Today is a special day for a number of our Year 5 students. Commencing this year as Probationers of the St Mary’s Cathedral Choir, today they become full-blown Choristers in our Rite of Investiture. As an indication of this they will receive the surplice worn over their cassocks. This season of Advent and Christmas caroling is particularly appropriate for these boys to be fully admitted to our excellent Cathedral choir – for the Coming of Our Lord has inspired some of the most beautiful music written and, as St Augustine taught, those who sing such music of joyful praise are singing a love song to the One who is the origin and object of all music (http://wdtprs.com/blog/2006/02/st-augustine-he-who-sings-prays-twice/). May our new Choristers long give glory to God with their voices and so raise our spirits to the Beloved. God bless your singing! God bless the St Mary’s Cathedral Choir.