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St Peter's 13-18

5 December 2019

photo of green leafed plantsIt is not unusual to like Christmas but I have always been a huge fan of Advent and the first feelings that Christmas is on its way. I greatly enjoyed the Advent Carol Service on Monday evening with many thanks to the choirs and I also enjoyed being in a fully candle-lit Minster on Sunday evening for their Advent procession.  Starting the week in Chapel singing that great Advent Carol ‘Lo he comes with clouds descending’ was a great way to begin the final fortnight and I noticed for the first time that the name of the tune is Helmsley so clearly there is a local connection.

During Advent we are aware that time is fluid. There is the element of looking back in time to the Bible stories and looking forward to the arrival of Christmas and working out what it means for us in the present. It is one of those periods of the year where you can get a genuine sense of magic and wonder, whether it is in the appearance of decorations and lights on the trees at the front of school or in the various nativity plays I have enjoyed seeing at Clifton or in being transported to Narnia last week and being taken on a musical journey to Christmas at the concerts later this week. Time seems to stop being linear and it is possible to feel that we can be in several points of time at once.

As TS Elliot wrote in the Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

At any one time, I have several books on the go and at present one of them is the new Philip Pullman novel, The Secret Commonwealth, which follows on from the Dark Materials trilogy which is currently on BBC on Sunday evenings and is itself based upon Milton’s Paradise lost. In Pullman’s world time is also fluid and passage between different worlds and across time is possible. A central aspect of the narrative is the battle between good and evil and, unsurprisingly with Pullman being an atheist, the part of evil is taken by organised religion. Last week, I read an interesting passage which I thought I would share with you today;

“The other sides got an energy that our side ain’t got. Comes from their certainty about being right. If you got that certainty, you’ll be willing to do anything to bring about the end you want. It’s the oldest human problem, is the difference between good and evil. Evil can be unscrupulous, and good can’t. Evil has nothing to stop doing what it wants, while good has one hand tied behind its back. To do the things that it needs to do to win, means compromising its goodness.”

It is an interesting notion but not one I completely agree with. Sometimes good has to do what could be termed evil in another context. Many of you will be aware of Just War theory where military action can be the only good way to achieve peace and soldiers can be rightly described as peacemakers if the cause if just. Last Friday we will all have seen coverage of the attack in London by someone who had been convicted of terrorism offences in 2012 and released after eight years in prison. The horror of the murder of two young adults engaged in work on the rehabilitation of criminals and the appeal from the father of one of them asking for it not to be used as a political football in the election campaign or to lead to more draconian approaches to offenders. Once again on the streets of London, evil versus good. But also courage from those on the side of the good. The footage of one person armed with a fire-extinguisher and another with a narwhal tusk taken from the wall of the venue chasing down the attacker and restraining him until the arrival of armed police.

It is a natural question to ask ourselves if we would have had the courage to do the same. I am sure we would hope to do so while also hoping we may never find ourselves in such a situation. Perhaps it is easier to frame it in terms of other examples of right and wrong. Would we stand up for someone who was being given a hard time, being teased, isolated or the victim of prejudice? Would we help, would we pretend to ignore it, would be walk away, would we join in?

As we move towards Christmas we are reminded of the old messages of peace on earth and goodwill towards all people. It is also an excellent time to reflect on how our actions and where we stand on issues of right or wrong can make a difference.

Many of you will know the simple story that there had been a great storm and tens of thousands of starfish had been washed up on the beach. The tide had gone back and it was inevitable that they would die but then an adult saw a small child walking along the shore, picking up starfish and throwing them into the sea one by one. The adult went to the child and asked them why they were wasting their time – there were tens of thousands of starfish which would die and no hope that the child’s actions could make a difference. The child picked up one starfish after another and threw them into the sea and then looked at the adult and said, ‘Well I can make a difference, to that one, and that one and that one.”

This can of course relate to everyday actions such as looking out for someone else or making the small changes that can make a difference to the environment. It is also my belief that small actions accumulate to create large change. More than that, in the same way that we train for sport, practise music or revise for exams, if we adopt the habit of doing what is right not what is easy on the small things then if we are ever called on to show courage in a more extreme situation that we will be better able to do our duty.