Sermon given at Evensong on the Second Sunday of Advent 2021
Memory and hope belong together.
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence
Sunday, 5th December 2021 at 3.00 PM
St Luke has quite a number of accolades to his name in popular tradition. First, of course, he is an apostle and evangelist, the author of the third canonical gospel and the Acts of the Apostle. Secondly, he is frequently remembered as a physician, described as such by St Paul in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, whom he also accompanied in Rome. Thirdly, there is a tradition from the middle of the first millennium that St Luke was an artist, and that he painted the first icons of the Virgin Mary, in the particular the Virgin Hodegetria – literally, the one who points the way. Some of these (largely) early medieval images survive, although the most famous icon supposedly by St Luke’s own hand, brought from Jerusalem to Constantinople in the fifth century is now lost.
But this afternoon’s second reading, from the beginning of his Gospel, marks out St Luke with another accolade. Today, he is Luke the historian. Not an eye-witness himself to the events he describes, but rather a synthesiser, setting down ‘an orderly account’ so that amidst the different traditions which were emerging in those early decades of the Christian faith, there might be a well-investigated narrative which puts down some markers. For Luke, these are past events, this is a re-telling, but it is a re-telling of a story which relates to the mysteries in which his patron, Theophilus, has been instructed.
The first thing to say, is that this Gospel does not necessarily start where you think it should! If Luke is recording the life and ministry of Jesus as history, he goes back even further than that. He starts before the birth of the great forerunner, St John the Baptist. This is the world of the Temple, a world which by the time this Gospel was written, was well drawing to a close. So this is history’s history, and the two central figures – Elizabeth and Zechariah – are themselves old, yes, we are told all this happens in the reign of King Herod, but Elizabeth was a descendent of Aaron himself. This is like watching black-and-white footage on a slow reel. It has the character of an age which is now only a recollection. After this scene has been set, after the portion we heard read today, we get into more familiar territory, as Elizabeth’s kinswoman, Mary, receives her own angelic visitation, and the story indeed unfolds in Luke’s ‘orderly account. We are by then into a manageable narrative, with its themes, its timelines and best-known staging posts. In other words, we’re into familiar history.
But I want to suggest this afternoon that in Advent we should resist some of the implications of that temptation for as long as we can. That first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, in fact the whole of the Gospel, is something even more exciting than history, and for the community of faith, it is not strictly subject to the same restrictions of method and analysis as, for example, the stories of the second world war. Because before this material is history, it is memory. And Advent is a time when we plug ourselves back into the deepest recesses of this memory, into stories that are familiar and strange, which have shaped lives and commitments, and which are not so much to be analysed or picked apart, but rather to be encountered within communities shaped by these memories, and therefore lived.
Memory is an exceptionally strong category. What we think of as history is, of course, one aspect of our memory. But memory can be activated by the senses as well as by cognitive function. As with history itself, there is of course an editorial function at play – there is ‘no view from nowhere’ – but memory is a more malleable, more communal, and arguably more theological category. The Church, of course, has a history, which is there to be analysed, pored over, argued about, systematized, edited, as much as any other institution or cultural force. But the acts of God in time, which re-shape time, which happen at what St Paul calls ‘the fullness of time’ cannot be straightforwardly and uncontroversially systematized in the same way, with a kind of hierarchy of information. The Good News of Christ’s coming doesn’t quite work like that. Luke offers an ‘orderly account’, but the reader soon discovers that what she or he is in for is anything but that! This story is full of the unexpected, the outrageous (think of all those healings and inclusions of outcasts and outsiders), and the frankly unreportable (think about the moment when the sun stops shining at Calvary, or when the women are told to stop looking for the living among the dead in the Garden of the Resurrection).
This is memory, and it only makes sense in the retelling, which is the place Luke gets to by the end of his Gospel on the road to Emmaus, during the first Easter evening, as those two disciples find themselves interrogating recent past events in a dazzling conversational drama of memory, faith, and longing. But this kind of memory has a particular quality to it – it is a memory which makes the events it remembers actually present now. It activates what is past, as a gift for the present. Our Advent memory of Christ’s ministry, his death and resurrection activates our discipleship now. But as the disciples on the road to Emmaus also discover memory is only half of the Church’s identity. Interestingly, in the story we heard this afternoon, Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, cannot tell the others about the vision he has just seen. He cannot articulate it. Only after the birth of his son is he able to speak and immediately praise God in the words of the Benedictus. For now, he can only keep silent. He can only hope. He knows that his beautiful, holy hinterland of worship and identity is only part of the explanation of what has just happened. The future holds the rest of the truth, and for that, Zechariah – righteous and blameless – can only hope.
The life of the Church, and the season of Advent, exists within these twin poles of memory and hope. Today, if Luke offers us memory, Isaiah, writing centuries before, offers us hope. “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” “See, the Lord God comes with might.” “He will feed his flock like a shepherd.” In the Christian imagination, these texts have of course been read in the light of the birth and ministry of Christ. But they still have future resonance, and are laden with future promise. Memory and hope belong together, in the knowledge that each is incomplete without the other. Our own time is one where there is a great crisis in both our memory and our hope; we frequently remember badly, and we hope for too little. In our own twenty-first-century culture, the constant cycle of immediate news, mass communication, and indeed, the trudge of a pandemic, have dulled our expectation, and frequently flattened our hope. In turn, populism, and a lack of loving attention to detail and complexity has hollowed out our memory.
During Advent, the Church encourages us to refresh both our memory and our hope, in the knowledge that both these qualities have a strangeness about them. The memory of God’s creative, cosmic, and saving acts is a bottomless treasury of reflection, wonder and love, which is eternally offered to us and to the whole of humanity as gift. The hope of God’s new creation at the end of time – when Christ will be all in all – contains a richness, a healing, a unity, that we can only barely begin to imagine. These twin acts of memory and hope come together and settle in prayer, as the eye of faith just occasionally begins to sense something so fresh, and so free, that it can only be the refining holiness of God.
Come, Lord, and do not delay.