There is an unpleasant sense that the U.K. government is becoming steeped in equivocation and sleaze. We expect better of our politicians yet, at the same time, are not in the least surprised whenever we come across evidence of failure or corruption. Sometimes, alas, it is a case of pots and kettles. We cannot expect integrity from others if we are not prepared to live lives of integrity ourselves. Disgust at what is being widely reported/alleged regarding donations, cover-ups, underhand deals, self-serving contracts and the like may prompt us to a little scrutiny of our own conduct. Are we as sea-green incorruptible as we would like to believe? Good government is a blessing but it is not an abstract one. Learning how to govern ourselves is a necessary step in learning how to govern others.
A member of the community has opined (such a glorious word, ‘opined’) that it is about time I wrote a serious, deeply theological or liturgical post rather than regaling readers with what she clearly regards as mere flim-flams. How dare she, I thought, what a busybody! Of course, most of us love giving others the benefit of our opinion, and provided we do it kindly or wittily or even flatteringly as in the case of my dear sister in Christ, who ended her remarks with ‘You’re not as stupid as you look!’, who could possibly take umbrage? Whether the subject be politics, COVID-19, the Church, or anything else of current moment, we are happy to think we have insights others don’t and are generous in our sharing. Sometimes we can even make our prayer a sustained exercise in telling God how to order things better.
Today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 45.6-8, 18, 21-25 , is perfect for busybodies like us. It reminds us just how small we are in the scheme of things, how imperfect is our grasp of anything. That is not to crush us with a sense of our own insignificance, far from it. It is to allow us to see more clearly the true wonder of our own being and the wonder of God. Salvation comes from God alone, the creator of all that is, and what a God he is!
I am the Lord, unrivalled: there is no other god besides me.
A God of integrity and a saviour: there is none apart from me.
Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth,
for I am God unrivalled.
There is a lot to think about in that passage, but one word stands out for me. We hear it again and again during Advent: integrity. There is something about integrity that matters to God and should matter to us. At the root of the word is the idea of wholeness, consistency, and in Isaiah it is closely allied to honesty and salvation. In fact, I think we could claim that integrity provides us with an Advent programme in itself, making it possible for us to receive the gift of salvation offered to us in the Incarnation. People of integrity do not often lead easy lives themselves, but they make life easier for others. We know they can be trusted, that their opinion and advice is worth having, but there are no short-cuts to becoming a person of integrity ourselves. It means hard work, renunciation of self in both large and little things, and perseverance. The busybody flits from one thing or person to another, delighting in the sunshine of attention and sometimes upset; the man or woman of integrity is more like a quiet river, moving steadily but unshowily to the journey’s end. I know which I’d rather be, don’t you?
I, the Lord, your God, I am holding you by the right hand; I tell you, ‘Do not be afraid, I will help you.’ Do not be afraid, Jacob, poor worm, Israel, puny mite. I will help you — it is the Lord who speaks — the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer.The opening words of today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 41. 13–20
As General Election Day dawns in the U.K., these are potentially encouraging words. I say ‘potentially’, because they presuppose our willingness to accept the Lord’s help. Most of us know that we can and do resist grace, that we make selfish choices. A few of us (me, for instance) will also admit that we can be plain stupid at times. To acknowledge weakness, however, goes against one of the popular memes of society today, that of empowerment and entitlement. From being told that we can become whatever we like to attacking any awareness of difference as discrimination, it can be confusing to try to work out what we are or where we stand without incurring misunderstanding, disapproval or alienation. Today, as the U.K. goes to the polls, there must be many agonizing about how to vote, conscious that they are but a small drop in an ocean of electors. The values we hold dear, the desires we cherish for a better, kinder world and the way in which we see them being achieved, are not necessarily the same for everyone. And being but one among millions of voters, there is a temptation to abandon the whole process, to say we cannot make a difference. Without actually saying so, we acknowledge our own weakness and give up.
I think we are thrown back on 2 Corinthians 12.10. Like Paul, we confess the paradox that when we are weak, then we are strong. It is not the strength of the human strongman, not the strength of the victor, but the strength that comes from a willingness to put the needs of others before our own, relying on the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. No matter how weak we may feel, we have the assurance that He is always with us and that the Holy Spirit will come to our aid. One of the great themes of our Advent liturgy is integrity and trust. Today, all over the U.K., whether believers or not, we must act with integrity and trust that the outcome will be, or can become, one that serves the common good. Poor worms and tiny mites that we are, let us pray it may be so.
No one reading today’s first lesson from Isaiah (Is. 48.17–19) can fail to be moved by the note of regret. Missed opportunities, the sins of omission rather than commission, how they lie heavy about us! But Isaiah is not talking about the regret we feel, rather he is expressing God’s sorrow at the way in which we have messed up. Yes, for once this is all about God, not us. The gospel (Matt 11.16–19) takes this one step further when Jesus voices his frustration at the fickleness of our response. We want the reverse of what we have. We fail to recognize the opportunities offered us, and ultimately, it is our loss.
I think these two passages mark an important stage in our Advent journey. They are the point at which we have to stop playing around, grow up and prepare for change. The call to live with integrity becomes ever more urgent the closer we draw to the Light. Today is the feast of St Lucy, whose name comes from the same root as the word for light. Under the old Julian calendar, her feast marked the shortest day of the year, when everything was at its darkest. There is a psychological truth in that. Very often our decision to follow Christ has to be made in less than ideal conditions, in darkness rather than light, and what spurs us on can seem, at first sight, negative. Our regret at misspent opportunities may provide the initial impetus, but it will not last unless something more positive takes its place. We have to hand everything over to God and allow his love to provide what we need to sustain us.
The movement from fear to love, from self-interest to God-interest, is the work of a lifetime, but we must begin. We do not want to hear on Judgement Day the Holy One lamenting our failure to co-operate with grace. Regret, like nostalgia, is a very adult emotion. Today we can see that it is also potentially a very powerful one. May St Lucy help us with her prayers to live up to our vocation:
Let the prayer of the virgin martyr Lucy support us, Lord,
so that with each passing year we may celebrate her entry into life,
and finally see you face to face in heaven.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
The Second Sunday of Advent sets before us the gaunt figure of John the Baptist, a man of luminous integrity to whom even Herod delighted to listen. I think what always strikes me about John is his joy. Even when he is giving us a tongue-lashing — ‘you brood of vipers’ — one senses underneath the excitement he feels at the nearness of God and his desire to make him known. Sometimes, when I read the fulminations of some of my fellow Christians, I am left feeling that I do not want to know their God. I simply cannot reconcile the God in whom I believe with the harsh and unwelcoming figure they portray. That is not to say that we should reduce God and his message to a cosy, wishy-washy liberalism that won’t say anything is wrong because it is not convinced anything is right. On the contrary, the God in whom I believe is a Person of immense holiness, awesome in his otherness. I think it is because John was utterly captivated by the holiness of God that he was so joyful. Could the same be said of us?
Isaiah is the poet of Advent. We begin the Church’s new year at a time when the earth is dark, quiet, strangely still, and we are asked to open our hearts and minds to embrace a silence that stretches beyond the furthest star — the silence in which the Word of God takes flesh and comes to live among us. But because we need words with which to understand that silence, lyrical words that will speak to us even when we would rather not hear, the Church provides us with many readings from the prophet Isaiah. To one who believes, silence is never merely an absence of sound, never, in any sense, an absence of meaning. Isaiah must have been a man of deep and persevering prayer, at home with silence, for in his words we find an echo not only of messianic joy but also of messianic fervour. Today he is supremely joyful and eloquent about that most awkward and uncomfortable thing, living with integrity (Isaiah 11. 1–10).
Integrity is not for the faint-hearted. It is panther-like in its grip on honesty; wolf-like in its tireless pursuit of truth; lion-like in its refusal to give way. It is often disparaged by those who are not themselves honest or truthful because, for all the demands it makes, integrity is rather unspectacular. It is one of those quiet virtues that can turn the world upside down, and it is very much what we are asked to practise in these days of Advent. Today’s gospel (Luke 10.21–24) talks about the hiddenness of the Kingdom, the messianic promise fulfilled but not recognized. We, who are watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord, need to be alert to the signs of His presence. Living with integrity is an important way of ensuring that we will be ready to welcome the Word when He comes, but it must not be a glum, self-regarding integrity. It must be radiantly joyful, free, full of the poetry of love and devotion.
St Francis Xavier, whose feast it is today, was, by all accounts, a man of singularly joyful integrity who won people to Christ by what he was, as much as by what he said. Let us make our own the collect for the day:
Lord God, you won so many peoples to yourself
by the preaching of St Francis Xavier.
Give us the same zeal he had for the faith
and let your Church rejoice
to see the virtue and number of her children increase
throughout the world.
Whenever some public figure falls from grace, the media tend to react with something like glee. We are currently being treated, if that’s the right word, to a great deal of lurid detail about ‘the Crystal Methodist’ — Paul Flowers, the ex-chairman of the Co-operative Bank. Is the media’s appetite (and our own) for such salacious copy just an exercise in collective schadenfreude, or does it reveal something simpler and sadder, our need for heroes and our disappointment when we discover that they are fallible? The Co-op and its businesses have occupied a unique place in British affections. We talk about ethical banking and investment, Fairtrade and the Co-op in the same way. Some may smile a worldly smile, but we know that there is a decency about the Co-op that demands respect. Sadly, that respect has become a little dented of late. Along with the man, the institution has suffered.
As with the Co-op, so with other institutions. Yet, despite all the outrage, the clamour for regulation and change, we often overlook a fundamental point. Institutions are made up of people. The values we hold as individuals are what shape our attitude to work and society. Can we reasonably expect others to be sea-green incorruptible if we ourselves are less than honest? Can we ask others to be heroes if we will not take on the challenge ourselves? The Catholic Church has always understood this business of heroes. The saints are given to us to encourage us, inspire us, even warn us. They are our heroes of faith — and they are all dead. A not-so-subtle reminder that none of us can claim integrity as an absolute! We need to persevere in virtue until our last breath. That is why we need to pray daily for the grace of fidelity and perseverance, that we may become what we are called to be.
Today is the feast of St Edmund, King and Martyr. We know comparatively little about him, but during the Middle Ages he was regarded as the patron saint of England and he has inspired some lovely works of art. Perhaps it is sometimes a good idea not to know too much about our heroes.
You must have noticed how often the the prophet Isaiah mentions integrity. Today’s first Mass reading, taken from chapter 48, is regretful about the integrity we haven’t practised and the happiness we have thereby forfeited:
Thus says the Lord, your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is good for you,
I lead you in the way that you must go.
If only you had been alert to my commandments,
your happiness would have been like a river,
your integrity like the waves of the sea.
Your children would have been numbered like the sand,
your descendants as many as its grains.
Never would your name have been cut off or blotted out before me.
Still that word ‘integrity’ tugs at me endlessly. John the Baptist lived with integrity; so did St John of the Cross, whose feast we celebrate today; so, above all, did our Lord Jesus Christ. We’ve all known people of integrity and how difficult they can be to live with, even as we admire their courage, honesty and so on. That is because integrity has a way of transforming the lives of those who come into contact with it, often in ways that could not have been foreseen and might not have been welcomed if they had.
I like Isaiah’s image of the waves of the sea. That is exactly how the integrity of others frequently affects us: it topples us over, keeps coming back at us, won’t let go, swamps us at times, because it has an energy and force that its inconsequential appearance may belie. Four inches of water is enough to sweep a grown man off his feet. In the same way, it takes only a very little integrity to change things. Perhaps we should remember that and think about the presence or absence of integrity in our own lives.
They do no hurt, no harm,
on all my holy mountain,
for the country is filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters swell the sea.
These words, taken from Isaiah 11, express the dream of every religious person: a world at harmony with itself because it is filled with knowledge of God. Not, you notice, a purely secular society, a socialist paradise of the kind that has never yet been achieved but which briefly captured the imagination of many in the twentieth century; not a world which is merely ‘free from’ but one which is ‘filled with’.
Why do I insist on the difference? The answer can be found in that same passage from Isaiah and the gospel for the day, Luke 10.21-24. Quite simply, the world was created by God, redeemed by God and is incomplete without God. That is why our hope is not for this time only. Only God can fulfil the deepest longings of the human heart. That doesn’t mean we can ignore our own part in bringing about the completion to which we look forward. Notice how Isaiah again speaks of integrity. The Shoot of Jesse will judge with integrity; integrity will be the loincloth round his hips. In other words, the wholeness we desire we first find in God but must cling to, must wrap ourselves in, so that it is unthinkable we should ever discard it.
The mountain is an ancient image of the holiness of God, his otherness. We go up to the mountain of God, it is surrounded with fire and smoke, cloud and mystery. Sometimes its holiness is such that we may not touch the mountain itself. It is set apart, holy ground where God and man (it always was man) might, on occasion, meet. The Incarnation has changed that for ever. The whole earth has become the mountain of God, the place where God is at home among his people. Now we are privileged to approach God in human form, to touch him, to know him as simultaneously God and one of us. If we have eyes to see, if we see as God sees, then indeed we know that ‘the country is filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters swell the sea’.
John the Baptist died a horrible death at the whim of a dictator. That fact alone makes him seem a very modern man, doesn’t it? But there was more to John than that, a side to him that is not so easy to accommodate to our times. He dared to confront evil and name it for what it was: ‘it is against the Law for you to have your brother Philip’s wife’. It is worth thinking about those words. How many clergy today would challenge a leading politician about his/her irregular marital situation? Wouldn’t we be more likely to say, it is no business of yours; steer clear of politics, and of the private life of individuals?
John’s criticism of Herod landed him in prison. Although that tells us something about Herod, it tells us even more about John. He was a man of great integrity, consumed with zeal for the holiness of the Lord’s name. That made him awkward, putting him everlastingly on the margin, yet many, including Herod, found him strangely attractive. He confused Herod, who had never encountered anyone remotely similar, and yet ‘he liked to listen to him’.
Those of us who like to think we are believers are challenged by John. His integrity, his zeal, his courage and his compassion are all to be emulated. However, we do him an injustice if we forget the central fact about him: his joy at the nearness of his God. Slogging away for God may be admirable in its way, but joy, sheer unbounded delight in God and the things of God, brings us much closer to understanding the mystery of the Kingdom and the person of Jesus Christ our Lord. John’s fiery personality was lit up by that joy. At the end, that was all there was. ‘He must increase while I must decrease.’
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