Third Sunday in Advent: 12th December, 2010
Fr Tom Brown
Associate Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
At the time of Jesus, most Jews were living in expectation of an imminent crisis. They were hoping and expecting that God would intervene to save and rescue them, his chosen people, who were occupied, oppressed and exploited by the Romans. There were many different expectations about what exactly God would do when the time came. In last Sunday's gospel we heard John the Baptist's expectation about this coming crisis: "One who is more powerful than I is coming after me". He would come as judge, separating the good from the bad, like a farmer threshing, separating the wheat from the chaff: "He will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." This was John's expectation.
But in today's gospel John has doubts. Was Jesus really the one who was to come? He wasn't going about things in the way John expected. Had he been mistaken about Jesus? So he sent to ask, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" "Go and tell John", Jesus replied, "what you see and hear; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them."
In his reply to John, Jesus was reminding him of what the Old Testament prophets had said would happen when God came to save his people — as in today's first reading from Isaiah: "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy." Jesus was helping John to see that he really is the one Israel hoped for, even though he didn't fit in with John's expectations. He didn't come as a judge, sorting the good and destroying the bad. But he was the one who was to come. John's hopes were fulfilled, but his expectations had to change.
At St Peter's we too are in a time of waiting, of hope, of expectation, until our new vicar is appointed. I'm sure we all have hopes and expectations of a vicar, no doubt many different ones. But I should think that one such hope and expectation we all have is that our new vicar will respect and maintain the traditions of our parish. But what exactly do we mean by this?
In many peoples' minds a tradition is something that never changes; something handed on unchanged from generation to generation. To do something in a traditional way has come to mean doing it the way it's always been done. But this has not been so for tradition through the history of the church. Traditions have been handed on since the church's beginning, but not unchanged. Traditions constantly undergo change. They change in response to changing pastoral situations, a changing understanding of how the bible is to be interpreted, a deeper understanding of how society works, changes in culture, and so on. At the same time we can see in this the Holy Spirit at work, leading and guiding the church into the truth, as Jesus promised.
The liturgy of the Eucharist is of course an area in which there have been enormous changes over the history of the church, not least in the past 40 or so years. Recent changes in liturgical tradition are exemplified when we compare the two main Sunday masses at St Peter's. At both 9.30 and 11 the same rite is used; that is the same words. But between these two masses there are considerable differences. One of these, which I'm sure you'll have noticed if you've attended both masses, is that there's more standing at the 9.30 mass, more kneeling at high mass. This difference is because essentially the liturgical tradition represented by the ceremonial at our high mass comes from the Sixteenth Century. It's a modified version of the mass laid down for the Roman Catholic Church by the Council of Trent, hence the 'Tridentine' mass. The words at high mass come from the Twentieth Century, the ceremonial from the Sixteenth.
In the middle ages the mass had come to focus very much on the death of Christ and on the profound sinfulness of all people. This is certainly true for the Book of Common Prayer; as in the words of the confession: 'We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness. ... provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us ... the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable', and so on. And the emphasis in the Prayer of Consecration in the Book of Common Prayer is heavily on the death of Christ, his 'full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world'. If this is how we think, the appropriate attitude for us to take is to express our sinfulness and unworthiness by kneeling, abasing ourselves, in God's presence. Hence in both the Tridentine mass and the Book of Common Prayer mass we're directed to spend most of the time on our knees. Of course we are sinners, in need of forgiveness through the cross of Christ. We're not worthy to approach the Most High God. Yet we're sinners who are freely forgiven. We're no longer slaves; we're God's children, his sons and daughters. 'I do not call you servants, slaves, any longer' Jesus said to his disciples — and he says to us — 'I have called you friends.' And as God's sons and daughters, as friends, we do not need to approach God on our knees, any more than your own children or friends need to approach you on their knees.
It's this change in the emphasis of our understanding of our relationship with God which accounts for some of the changes in liturgical tradition. As God's children, set free through Christ's death and resurrection, we have the privilege of standing to worship in his presence as his sons and daughters, and modern catholic liturgy, Anglican and Roman recognises this. The words we use at both our masses recognise this, but not the actions at high mass, with all its kneeling. I have to say that since I started coming to St Peter's six years ago, I've always been conscious of a dissonance in our high mass between what we say and what we do.
Kneeling is an appropriate posture for our own private prayers and for expressions of penitence, but this is not what we're doing in most of the mass. At mass we come as the body of Christ to offer together our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. We all share in this, priest and people. To kneel or sit during the action of the mass easily gives the impression that in the congregation we're merely spectators, a passive audience, while the real action is taking place up there in the sanctuary. To stand (for those able to stand) as those in the sanctuary do, emphasises that we really are doing this together; we're all celebrating the mass, not just the priest. We are together the people of God, his beloved children, his friends, standing joyfully in his presence to worship.
What I'm saying is that there are theological reasons for recent changes in liturgical tradition. And our liturgy does need to reflect and express both in word and in action what we believe; what we do at mass is not just a matter of personal preference or prejudice.
To return to where I started: I suggested that one expectation we probably all have is that our new vicar will respect and maintain the traditions of St Peter's. I hope I've made it clear that respecting and maintaining our traditions should not mean handing them on unchanged. Tradition in the church is not and never has been something rigidly unchanging. As Dr William Countryman emphasised in a different context in his ISS seminar recently, tradition which does not change becomes fossilised. Tradition in the church, including liturgical tradition, is and must continue to be alive and changing and developing, if it is to be life-giving.
I believe that we need to keep this in mind in relation to our expectations for our new vicar and for the future of this parish. John the Baptist had very definite expectations about the one who was to come. He was sure he was right. And he was both right and wrong about Jesus. Jesus was the one who was to come, but not quite in the way John thought he would. If John were to recognise Jesus as the coming one, his expectations had to change.
The fact is that God doesn't necessarily work in the ways we expect him to, or want him to, or think he should. We need to be open to the possibility that we might be wrong. God is always doing new things, and we must allow God to lead us and our parish in new and unexpected ways. Our expectations may have to change. This may be uncomfortable, upsetting. But we need always to remember that the parish is not here just for our pleasure and convenience: it's God's will we are to seek for our parish, and not just our own preferences. God is faithful, and if we're open to God's leading, open to the Holy Spirit, we can be confident that our parish will continue to be a source of life and hope and joy, not only for ourselves, but for all who come here, and for continuing generations.
Views is a
St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.