Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the First Sunday of Advent 2016
Start Date 27th Nov 2016 11:15am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Sub-Dean, Canon Theologian, and Archdeacon of Westminster

‘The Age of Anxiety’ is the title of a poem: a long poem published in 1947 by English poet WH Auden, one of many memorialized here in the Abbey. Not an easy poem, it has to be said. But—that title!: ‘The Age of Anxiety’. It’s now become the title of at least two dozen other books, poems, countless articles, and for that matter a million car stickers. To be living in an ‘age of anxiety’, it seems, has become a catchphrase, for a whole cultural consciousness. It describes our chronic personal anxieties about illness and death, even though most of us live healthier and longer lives than ever before; our anxieties about failure and rejection, even though we may be loved and supported. It describes our social anxieties about threats to the whole world not just our personal world: nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, terrorism, economic meltdown, moral and social breakdown, nationalism and the demise of liberal democratic order; anxieties all now amplified as foundations are shaken further by recent political events of Brexit and the US Presidential election…

Did anxiety ever exist before on this scale? Yes. Earlier eras too feared plagues and barbarians at the gates; and they were anxious not just about death but also what fate awaited them after death. Apocalyptic fears of all sorts abounded for them too. But they were not, perhaps, so self-consciously anxious as we now are. We’ve made it a specific condition. We worry about worry. So much so that anxiety has become what Freud called the ‘nodal point’ of our ‘whole mental existence’. A condition intensified, of course, with much media rhetoric…

So how then do we deal with this anxiety?

It won’t be dealt with by denial and false assurances. We need to be honest and realistic. We need to be vigilant. There are real causes for anxiety. But we need hope too. So we need realistic hope. And that is exactly what Advent faith offers. Advent does not deny all future shock. Far from it. It is actually about the shaking of our foundations. Yet, vitally, it is also about the hope to be found even in the shaking of things. And that’s the real meaning of apocalyptic: apocalyptic is not, as in popular thought, just an unveiling of future disaster and disintegration; it’s also, more fundamentally, the unveiling of hope within uncertain and disturbing times.

All three readings contained this sort of hope. It was within the uncertain war-torn times of late 8th century BC Assyria that there were these words of hope: ‘God shall judge between nations… they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation’. Words of hope so resonant you’ll find them even now two and a half thousand years later cut into a wall opposite the United Nations building. It was within the febrile controversies of 1st century Corinth that St Paul wrote to Rome: ‘salvation is nearer to us now’. It was within an apocalyptic passage describing future days like those of Noah’s flood that there was this Gospel hope: ‘your Lord is coming’, and will save some...

Is this hope now mocked by the passage of time? - by the fact that nations do still lift up swords against each other; and salvation has still not fully come? Is it just blind, irrational optimism after all? No! – it is still a real and realistic hope because it is a disposition of the soul not just of my mind - ‘hope is my soul’, as an ancient Greek poet said - and the soul really can see further and more truly than the mind alone can see. It is realistic above all because it has a basis in real life: in Christ himself - whose first coming has already shown what we can realistically hope for.

Which is what? What is that we can realistically hope for? Not a doctrine of progress; not the expectation that all will always get better (neither history nor experience give any assurance of that: and the life and teachings of Christ certainly didn’t). But it is the hope that whatever future this life brings—and whatever we, others, nature, chance, throw into the uncertain melting pot of the future—it is not just those things which will determine the outcome: it is also God; a God who has shown in Christ the capacity to redeem anything we throw at Him and bring ultimate good out of it, whether in this life or eternity. That is what we saw in Christ’s cross and resurrection. That is the teleology of the soul given in Christ. And so that is the sort of hope which is our best guide for the future.

Last weekend the age of anxiety ambushed me afresh. I was walking the line of the old Berlin wall: a fault line of past fears; a still raw reminder of one apocalypse which did happen in Europe, and another which did not quite happen but very nearly did. Then, talking late in the night with a life-long Berliner who’d lived through all that, I heard his fears that he was seeing again in current times similar patterns from that dark past, as he never thought he would.

But by the end we were also talking of faith and hope. And it came to me then that in an age of anxiety even just to talk with hope, realistic hope, is so important. It challenges the despair, fatalism, and cynicism which can otherwise become self-fulfilling. And to act with faith and hope - even better! This, after all, was the simple, final, mandate of each of those Advent readings: whatever may or may not happen, our task is straightforward: just to keep ‘walking in the light of the Lord’; to ‘lay aside the works of darkness; to put on the armour of light’; to ‘be ready’ for that kingdom of God which, in Christ we know, is always there to be hoped for, and worked for…

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