The Limits of Sincerity

How would you feel if the best that could be said of you were, ‘Well, (s)he was sincere’? There is something midly dismissive about the phrase — meant well, you know, but never quite made the grade. That is not to denigrate sincerity, which is in itself a wonderful expression of that integrity of heart the prophets write about, but it is to acknowledge that sincerity by itself is not enough. It is necessary, but there must be something more. We can be sincere admirers of Jesus as a holy man, but that is not the same as recognizing him as Lord and Saviour and acting on his words.

Today’s gospel is an uncomfortable one for ‘professional pray-ers’ like me (Matthew 7.21–27). Monks and nuns spend a lot of the day saying, in effect, ‘Lord, Lord’, but Jesus is not content with our words, no matter how beautifully or sincerely uttered. There must be action, too, and that is where the difficulty lies. What sort of action? Very few find discipleship uncomplicated. Questions of right and wrong have a way of becoming more complex the more one thinks about them, and even faith itself can be distinctly fragile at times. We want to do the right thing but often end up doing the wrong one — or nothing at all. That is where I think the reading from Isaiah (Is 26.1-6) is helpful. There is a lot about trusting in the Lord, being steadfast, keeping the peace. Those unspectacular virtues have something very Benedictine about them. I’d dare to say that they have something very Christian about them, too, because they emphasize that whatever good we do is a work of grace, attributable to the Lord. He is the only real doer. Our problem is not getting in his way!

Most of us are not called to be heroes of faith like St Francis Xavier, whose feast we celebrate today, but all of us are called to fidelity in the duties of every day, to preaching the gospel through a life of good deeds and perseverance. We may feel that we are weak and wobbly, that we haven’t prayed enough or done enough, but that is to turn our gaze on ourselves in an unhealthy way. The Lord is our Rock. This Advent, let us build on him, for he will never fail or forsake us.

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A Joyful Integrity

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.

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