Homily, First Advent (A) 2019

Although it’s just the beginning of December, nearly everywhere you go shopping now you’ll hear Christmas music. It cheers up the otherwise dark and gloomy time of year as the sun gets lower and the days get shorter. The Christmas music started in the shops straight after Halloween and since then retailers have been using it to encourage us to buy early the food and other items we might need for Christmas. It’s a challenging time for many businesses – the bulk of their annual profits are made at this time of year so if they don’t have a successful Christmas, they will struggle for the rest of the financial year.

In our Mass today we are specially remembering Kate Wickens, daughter of Christine, who, after a long struggle, died on 21 October. She was 55 years old. Her funeral – ‘upbeat’ according to her brother, Tim – took place on 21 November in Shoreham, Sussex. On everyone’s behalf I extend our condolences to Christine and to Kate’s brother, Tim and his wife Sue, sister-in-law Patty and Kate’s friends who are joining us for this Mass in Kate’s memory.

Kate planned every detail of her funeral. If there’s one possible blessing for her passing at such a relatively young age, it is that she was able to prepare for her death and die in peace, heartbreaking though it was for her loved ones to lose her.

One of the prayers for mourners in the Catholic funeral liturgy is that we not be caught out ‘by a sudden and un-provided death’. This is the meaning of Jesus’ teaching that we have just heard. As we become absorbed by the pace of life and our responsibilities to others, not least at this time of year with our preparations for Christmas, He says in so many words: ‘Hold on a minute … don’t get too caught up in the present at the expense of your future. Your future includes your death. Don’t be caught out like the victims of the Flood in the time of Noah when disaster struck and people lost everything. Be prepared.’

It’s part of our nature to prepare for the future. We save for a rainy day, to get married, to buy a home, to send the children to school, to build up a pension and to retire in comfort. We also protect ourselves against unseen misfortunes with home, health, car, travel and other insurances.

Less easy for us, however, especially when we are relatively young and healthy, is to think about the end of our days when we meet the God who made us. In the first century, Christians expected that the world would come to an end in their lifetime. Then they believed that Jesus would return to earth in glory as Son of Man. For us, in all likelihood, this Coming of the Son of Man will not be the universal event – the Parousia – the early Christians expected. Most of us do not know when we will die – we know it will happen sometime – but the how, when and where eludes. But, says Jesus, be ready for it …

The poem in today’s Newsletter is by Clive James, the broadcaster, poet and television critic, who died last week. Like Kate, he died after a long illness. In his last few years while struggling with emphysema, James wrote a number of poems in which he reflected on his life and mused on his imminent death. Although phenomenally successful in his career, his terminal illness taught him some painful lessons.

The poem’s title – Leçons de Ténèbres (‘Lessons of the Darkness’) – is the term for French baroque settings of Tenebrae, the Service once held during Holy Week when candles were gradually extinguished. In this poem James acknowledges that his life is gradually being extinguished and this leads him to a confession: that he should have been more kind, more honest in his dealings with others, less unfaithful to his loved ones, and not so preoccupied with his career and being successful.

There is a wisdom in this poem – painfully learned – which chimes with the message of the Gospel …

Leçons De Ténèbres
CLIVE JAMES (1939-24 November 2019)

But are they lessons, all these things I learn
Through being so far gone in my decline?
The wages of experience I earn
Would service well a younger life than mine.
I should have been more kind. It is my fate
To find this out, but find it out too late.

The mirror holds the ruins of my face
Roughly together, thus reminding me
I should have played it straight in every case,
Not just when forced to. Far too casually
I broke faith when it suited me, and here
I am alone, and now the end is near.

All of my life I put my labour first.
I made my mark, but left no time between
The things achieved, so, at my heedless worst,
With no life, there was nothing I could mean.
But now I have slowed down. I breathe the air
As if there were not much more of it there

And write these poems, which are funeral songs
That have been taught to me by vanished time:
Not only to enumerate my wrongs
But to pay homage to the late sublime
That comes with seeing how the years have brought
A fitting end, if not the one I sought.

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