Sermon at the The Whitehall Carol Service 2018

Is it possible or sensible to talk of a Golden Age? And if so, when might there have been a Golden Age?

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster

Tuesday, 18th December 2018 at 6.30 PM

Is it possible or sensible to talk of a Golden Age? And if so, when might there have been a Golden Age?

Historians do talk rather loosely of a Golden Age. Spain’s Golden Age is either described as beginning with the accession of Philip II in 1556 or with the sea voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1492. It is thought to have lasted for about a century.

England is said to have had a Golden Age too, between 1558 and 1603 – not random dates, as you might remember. To quote the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘The reign of Elizabeth I was England's Golden Age. Merry England, in love with life, expressed itself in music and literature, in architecture, and in adventurous seafaring. William Shakespeare mirrored the Age in verse that lifted the English language to its fullest beauty.’

The Victorian era could surely also have been said to have been a Golden Age, with growing power around the world and unprecedented industrial wealth. But Simon Heffer’s recent book on the years from 1880 to 1914 describes them as an Age of decadence. So perhaps we should think further.

When Greek and Roman writers described a Golden Age, it was not thought to have been an era of growing wealth and strength but an age of innocence. Ovid, who was born around the time Julius Caesar came to visit Britain, and who died in exile before the end of the reign of Caesar Augustus, writes of a Golden Age like this, ‘This was the Golden Age that, without coercion, without laws, spontaneously nurtured the good and the true. People passed their lives in gentle peace and security. The untilled earth gave of its produce and the fields whitened with heavy ears of corn. Sometimes rivers of milk flowed, sometimes streams of nectar, and golden honey trickled from the green holm oak.’

Innocence, simplicity, goodness were the marks of that primitive age, just as they were of the age of innocence described in this evening’s first reading. We heard of Adam and Eve, before they were tempted by the serpent, before they knew the difference between good and evil, before they made the wrong choice, as so many of us so often do.

The Golden Age Ovid described as succeeded by a Silver Age, a Bronze Age and an Iron Age, rather familiar to us as the stages of development from primitive people to the complexity and immense diversity of our present age.

So, how would we describe our present age? Golden? Silver? Bronze? Iron? Steel? Our age is not best described in terms of a particular metal; presumably we should talk of information and communications technology, a powerful tool so often used for trivial or destructive purposes.

One commentator has described our age as an age of indifference. His thesis is that our culture, in an age of 24 hour news and unlimited access to what we need or want to know, has paradoxically become focused wholly inward. We have become so bombarded with information that we have begun to lose our sensitivity to the needs and aspirations of others. Another civil war in a far-off country, or another road-side bomb killing half a dozen people, or a tale of refugees evicted from their ancestral home for their religious beliefs: it’s all so far away, and there is so much, that we look inwards and become indifferent to the situations and sufferings of others. This does seem to me a real issue.

Of course it can be described another way: simply as a function of the ultimate truth about ourselves that, no matter how we have been brought up, no matter how much we have learnt to look to the needs of others, in our families, and beyond in our neighbourhoods, and even beyond that in our country, in our world, our ultimate concern is for ourselves, too often, too easily, too dominantly, me first.

This me-first-ness is ultimately disastrous. It dries us up, shuts us off, denies us even the warmth and sympathy of those close to us, is in the end death to us. Is there an antidote? Can anyone save us from this me-first-ness, this ultimate selfishness? Is there a Saviour?

Thank God that his love for us is so great that he sent his only Son to share our human condition, to be born as one of us, to live a life of innocence and simplicity and goodness, a golden life, to gather around him a small band of followers, not all faithful, most of whom would go on to spread the good news. And thank God we have heard the good news and have a Saviour in Jesus Christ our Lord, Son of God and Son of Mary. He offers us a better, fuller, richer life, a life not focused on me and my needs, but on God and his commandments and the needs of those around us, even those far away, people we do not know.

So, there is a Golden Age. The true Golden Age is in Jesus Christ our Lord, who was on earth sharing our human life for those few years, but after the Cross and Resurrection is present for ever, in every age, in every moment. For us human beings, the Golden Age is to come, when we can know ourselves to be fully in Christ, thus always before us, always beckoning us, welcoming us, drawing us towards God’s heavenly kingdom. And even during our life here on earth we can experience golden glimpses of the beauty and goodness and love of God. Such brief glimpses inspire us and encourage us on our journey to heaven, to the true Golden Age.

This Advent season, as we prepare for Christmas, is above all a time of grace, enabling us to overcome our endless fascination with ourselves, opening up for us the prospect of the true joys to come and drawing us to our true homeland in heaven.

May God richly bless you in this Advent season and as you celebrate the birth of Jesus this coming Christmas.