01 Dec 2019

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

The great Roman Stoic philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, once famously said that all time could be divided into three parts: ‘what was, what is, and what will be’.[i] The future, he pointed out, is uncertain. The present is fleeting. Only the past is certain and so he suggested if comfort is to be found anywhere, we must look for it in our past. As we reflect on what we’ve achieved, Seneca said, we are consoled. And nothing can take that from us.

Of course, if our past is to be any comfort to us, we must have done good in that time and the effects must endure into the present. Paradoxically, then, Seneca implies that we should live the present well so that we can, in the future, enjoy the past. It’s a rather convoluted way of thinking about time and about doing good, but it does give us something to cling to.

Seneca also argued that we have enough time in one life-time to achieve great things. But he warned that we can waste that time on heedless luxury and needless busyness, not noticing that our days are numbered. He recommended that we live each day as if it were our last. This parallels Jesus and Paul in our readings today. Jesus predicts that when the Son of Man returns people will be “eating, drinking, taking wives or husbands”, oblivious to His coming and their imminent end. “Stay awake,” He counsels, “because you do not know when your Master is coming” (Mt 24:27-44). Paul follows up with his teaching that “the night is almost over”. We should wake up to the dawn of the Son of Man’s return, live decent lives, and invest each moment with a sense of urgency (Rom 13:11-14).

The similarities between Seneca and Paul’s thinking may explain the unlikely tradition that the two were regular correspondents.[ii] But there is a key difference between Seneca’s view of the past, present and future and the Christian one that this season of Advent highlights…

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Seneca looks to the past for comfort, since the present is so fleeting and the future so uncertain. But when Christians look to the past they know that it is a mixed story at best, marred by the Fall and innumerable human failures since, by the Crucifixion when humanity killed its God and the persecution of Christians thereafter, and by our own personal failures to do all we should. Of course, that’s not the whole story for Christians as we look back: we also recall the story of creation, which was good; the story of Christ’s first coming, that was better; and the story of His redemptive death and resurrection which was best of all. Our history may be complex but it includes innumerable graces received and contributions made by Christians.

For Christians our past, and especially the first coming of Christ, is remembered not for comfort’s sake, precisely – though the remembrance is consoling. No, we recall those saving events because it makes them present to us or us present to them. And by being present to our history we can learn its lessons for the present, share in their power, and track our trajectory to the future. In Advent and Christmastide, events of two thousand years ago are as yesterday and play out today.

But there is another, even more profound difference between our Christian conception of time and that of the ancients. In making Christmas past into Christmas present, we have one more ace up our sleeve that Seneca didn’t have. Seneca sought consolation in the past because the future was so uncertain: but Christians actually know the future. At this time of year, especially, we reflect upon the apocalypse that approaches for our natural and human ecology, judgment upon this world and every soul, an end to time and space as we know them. But just as our past is not all bleak, so the Christian future is not all threatening. For the end-times, as Isaiah dreamed in our first reading (Isa 2:1-5), will usher in a new creation and a renewed humanity, when nations will no longer lift sword against each other but be united in the Lord’s presence – a time of resurrection, reconciliation and communion. So, despite the warning tone of Advent, we look forward with excitement to the second coming of Christ as the fulfilment of all things and transfiguration of all we’ve loved. Christmas past lives as Christmas present and points to Christmas future.

Seneca’s past was the only place to seek consolation as the present was so fleeting and the future so uncertain. But the Christian conception of time sees a difficult past and a threatening future meet in a challenging present, and an even more glorious past and more hopeful future intersect in an exciting today. In that today we “put on the armour of Christ” and “stand ready for Christ’s return”. The faithful bring Christian memory and hope to the worlds of family and friendships, work and leisure, finance and politics, arts and sciences, worship and devotions.

Confirmation is, of course, about these very things. Our choristers Andrew, Benjamin and Santiago give glory to the God of history in ancient chants and foretell the God of promise in hymns of expectancy. Now they stand on the cusp of adolescence and Christian adulthood and so must be ready to stand up and say in word and deed: I am a Christian; I love God and people and the world; and with God’s help, I want to help make the world a better place for people.

Santiago, Ben and Andrew: when I pray over you, anoint you with Sacred Chrism and say “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit”, you can be sure that God will give you all the gifts you need for this mission. Resolve now to stand up for all that is true and good and beautiful – and serve these not just with beautiful voices but with true minds and good hearts; not just in the Sacred Liturgy but in all you do. As we all witness these Confirmations today, we might ask if we are grateful for past gifts, awake to present challenges, hopeful about future possibilities. Come, O come, Emmanuel, come into the crib of our hearts, the manger of our minds, for you Christ are “yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega, all time belongs to [you] and all ages.


St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, Sydney

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for our Solemn Mass for the First Sunday of Advent and the beginning of the new liturgical year. Today Andrew Alexander, Benjamin Hanna and Santiago Zurita-Honig, three of our choir boys, will be confirmed and I acknowledge them, their sponsors, families and friends. I also acknowledge concelebrating with me our Dean, Fr Don, and our Assistant Priest, Fr Gerard, who prepared the boys for this sacrament. To everyone else present, including visitors and more regulars, a very warm welcome – and a Happy New Year!

[i] Seneca the Younger, On the Shortness of Life, 10.

[ii] “Seneca and Paul, Correspondence of,” Encyclopaedia of Ancient Christianity (2014). The legend was popular enough for St. Jerome to write about it in De Viris Illustribus, XII.