Sunday, December 02, 2012


Sermon preached in the Church of All Saints, New Eltham
at Parish Mass on Sunday, 2nd December, 2012

‘Be alert at all times,
praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things
that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’ (Lk.21:36)

Once again, we begin a new Christian Year with the season of Advent when we prepare for the coming of the Lord.  The somewhat ominous message of our gospel reading, in particular, is a salutary reminder that such preparation is more than making sure the cards are written and presents bought. 

Yet is the consequence of our praying ‘thy kingdom come’ really going to be like a divine disaster movie?  Is this what we really desire and long for: what my heart must be set on as we prepare for the coming of God?  No wonder it seems better to focus into more cuddly things – babies and mangers, Christmas trees and fairy lights.  As John Betjeman wrote in one of his poems:

And is it true?  For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No caroling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare—
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

What needs to lie at the heart of our preparations for the coming of a God is the realisation that God desires to be at-one with us and expresses this every time He makes Himself present through the Eucharist.  The prayer of the ‘heart’s desire’ is to want to allow God into the depths of our being.  That’s the essence of prayer, something I want to share some thoughts about on two Sundays during Advent.  This morning I’ll focus into some of the more common aspects and next time explore what we mean by meditation and contemplation.

Now, if you were to ask most people what they understood the word prayer to mean they would, probably, say ‘asking God for things’ or, with any luck they might add ‘and thanking God for things’, or even ‘listening to God’.  And all these things are aspects of prayer, for prayer concerns the ‘inclination of the heart to God’.  At its most simple prayer simply involves giving time and attention to the desire of the heart to be at one with God.  So let’s see how the Eucharist can help us re-imagine our prayer.

Common prayer, or the Liturgy – the work – of the Church, helps our relationship with God to develop.  We come to church and sing hymns, listen to readings, offer our intercessions and make our Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ.  Hopefully, through all this, we are moved into a deeper union with God.  The ‘heart’ of who we are (not the physical heart but the centre of our being) is re-fashioned as we open our inner being, our heart, to the desire of God for at-oneness with us. 

When I was learning the Faith I was taught that one should prepare to receive Holy Communion.  I was encouraged to remember my Communion throughout the week and spend time the night before preparing by prayer and fasting.  Then when I first entered a church I should pray – something with the passing of time it’s easy to forget.  Yet if we stopped to pray that would be a reminder we are called, before we attended to our jobs or our friend, to Love God with all our heart, mind and strength’.  And, remember, the essence of prayer is the inclination of the heart to God.  As one of my Franciscan brothers used to say: ‘Get it right with God first, brother!’  Coming to church wasn't to be like visiting Tesco:  this is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven and everything here is designed to move the heart towards God.  If we have the eyes to see. 

There’s a story about the late Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom I’d like to share with you.  One day a young man, new to the church, asked Archbishop Anthony what books he would need when he came to the church.  Instead of giving him a copy of the service Anthony said this: ‘Come and let your eyes see us.  See how we worship.  Then, come and watch our faces.  After that, take a service book and learn the words you need to use by heart, but never bring it with you!’ 

Perhaps, as someone once remarked to me, we ‘westerners’ are too attached to our books…

Another means of prayer that many find of great help is what is known as the Prayer of the Church or the Daily (or Divine) Office.  Priests have to pray the Office of Morning and Evening Prayer daily and others find some form of such prayer to be of great value.  Consisting mostly of psalms and readings, the Office is a simple way of praying with scripture.  And immersion in scripture helps form our prayer.  Whilst it may be helpful to do that in church, most do so at home or even on the train to work.  It’s a great way to begin the day as it means we are giving attention to Jesus’ primary command.  But whatever we do, we need to get into the habit of prayer in our daily lives. 

Right at the beginning of the Eucharist we are invited to confess our sins by making a General Confession.  Some realise this needs to be personalised and have developed a practice of regular Confession to a priest.  Now the Sacrament of Confession is often neglected in the Church of England, but it is something available to all for all of us sin and need to be reconciled with God and our neighbour. 

The Anglican dictum concerning this Sacrament is, ‘all may, none must; some should’ and many find that making their confession at regular intervals is of great help in developing a right relationship with God.

Only later in the Eucharist do we come to prayer for others, that prayer we call Intercession. Yet for many this is the only prayer they practice.  ‘Please help Johnny!’; ‘Don’t let Mary suffer!’; ‘Help Peter pass his exams.’  These are more rightly called ‘arrow’ prayers – shooting an arrow of desire to God.  

Or we might make ‘ejaculatory’ prayers; prayer that suddenly arises from some moving experience which may be silent or, at times, spoken aloud. Both might be called involuntary prayers which emerge from movements within the heart.  But they are dependent on circumstances outside of ourselves. 

And it’s for that reason another way people find help in putting their relationship with God at the centre is by developing what is known as a Rule of Life.  A Rule sets out the norms by which we are called to live.  So, apart from matters like a pattern of prayer and attendance at Mass, it will also act as a reminder of how we give attention to charitable giving, and how we feel called to serve others – not least our families, partners and friends.  And for people who are very busy it’s a good way of making sure we set aside time for ourselves!

But all who are seeking to give attention to God recognise they need help and so the tradition of Spiritual Direction has developed since the earliest centuries.  Spiritual Direction is an on-going process whereby an individual, with the aid of a more experienced guide, explores a deeper relationship with themselves, the world around them and with God.  

But our image of God will affect the way in which we respond to our approach to prayer.  If our image of God is rooted in a distant father, or in one who was harsh with us whom we came to fear, or if we lacked love in our earliest years or have a poor sense of our own worth and value, that will affect our approach to God.  Thoughts of the coming of the Son of Man ‘in a cloud with power and great glory’ may then fill us with fear and anxiety.  Yet, if we embrace the image of His coming as the coming of our Divine Lover who seeks to re-make us in His image, then we can ‘stand up and raise ()our heads, because ()our redemption is drawing near.’ 

Next time I want to spend time reflecting on the place of meditation and contemplation in our life of prayer and there’s a leaflet inside the December magazine which, I hope, will be of help.  ‘When I prayed I was new’, wrote one great Orthodox guide, ‘and when I stopped praying I was old.’  ‘Prayer’ wrote another, is ‘the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him, … the elevation of the soul to God.’ 

This matter of prayer is of fundamental importance to people of all faiths yet is daunting for many of us.  Yet it is as easy and as basic as breathing.  Rather than something to leave to ‘experts’, prayer is the very atmosphere in which we are called to live.  ‘For me’ wrote S. Therese of Lisieux, ‘prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.’  So may this Advent be a time when we pray and live the Eucharist – seeking reconciliation; centring on the Word of God; holding the world before Him; offering daily our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving as we seek to venerate Christ beneath all outward things.  This is the Prayer of Eucharistic Living as we open our hearts to the One who seeks and desires us.    

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