Sunday 19th December 2021
I quote: ‘The[se] are the biggest questions:
How did the universe come to be?
Why are we here?
How will it all end?
We have to face these questions if we are going to come to any deep understanding of ourselves. … As we answer question after question we get ever closer to being able to tell what is surely the greatest story ever told.’
No, this isn’t a quote from an Advent preacher or a great theologian of centuries past. They are the opening words of the physicist, Dr Brian Cox, in his recent series on the television Universe. Professor Cox has many great attributes: first that he is a northerner, from Oldham, and no amount of living in Battersea is going to diminish his accent. He is also a brilliant presenter of complex physics in simple terms we can understand, which is what makes his TV documentaries so compelling. Cox is a self-professed humanist, and his television articulates a not so subtle re-writing of the ‘the greatest story ever told’.
By interweaving the creation story with the discoveries of how stars, and therefore how life began, Cox is defining a narrative which seeks to displace the so-called ‘myth’ of God’s actions. He uses those immortal words at the start of Genesis, and John’s gospel, ‘In the beginning…’ and he is unashamed to use the word ‘creation’ itself, to describe the origins of the universe. But despite the overtures of religiously based choral music the message is very clear – humans have made up stories of god, whether they be sun-gods worthy of worship, or the Creator God we find described in the bible.
Brian Cox says, ‘We don’t need to invent imaginary gods to explain the universe, we can replace them with the real thing’ – which are stars – stars explain why we’re here.
But Cox’s three questions: how did it all begin, why are we here, and how will it end, are in fact, the questions we ask in Advent. We start Advent with the creation story of God as an initiator, a power bringing light to a dark universe, of bringing form out of chaos, and of one place, where land and sea meet on planet earth, and the creation of humans reflecting aspects of God’s divine being. The bible is littered with accounts of interactions with this divine being, who refuses to be put in a box, a God who can’t be shaped by human will, but who continually reveals his love for individual humans, one by one.
When we come to today’s reading, we find one such interaction, when God says to Mary, ‘You are here because you are going to give birth to the Saviour of the world.’ Your life is worth something. You are special. You have a unique role to play in what is the greatest story ever told. You will be remembered for generations to come. Your name is written in the book of life. You will endure the judgement that is going to come at the end of time.
So, I wonder, how might we explain these two very different perspectives? The philosopher, Charles Taylor, describes the tension between people like Brian Cox and Mary the mother of Jesus. Brian Cox lives in what he calls an immanent frame – where we can only know what we can measure and observe.
Mary lives in a world of transcendence, where God breaks into our lives, sometimes rather disruptively, and announces that his kingdom is coming into being, where wrongs are put right, where the rich are humbled, and the poor exalted, where light invades darkness and forgiveness has the power to change a society.
Taylor suggests that in this secular age we live on a windswept field, where the wind tugs us first in one direction towards the immanent frame of measurable reality, and then swirls us around towards transcendence as our heart draws us towards the possibility of meaning and significance because God has revealed himself in some small way. The question for all of us is, are you open to being tugged in only one direction, or both?
So what about you? Where are you on this spectrum between your life of faith sustained by the visit of an angel and the reality of the universe we observe around us? Sometimes I get the impression that Christians expect divine revelation of the order of angels every week. Isn’t that a bit unrealistic? The evidence doesn’t seem to bear it out. Mary the mother of Jesus only got one such revelation in a lifetime. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist also met an angel, but his wife Elizabeth didn’t. All she got was a leap of the baby in her womb when Mary bursts in through the door.
It could be that a lifetime of faith in Christ, is based on one moment of divine revelation in your life. Perhaps two if you’re lucky:
- it may be a verse of Scripture finds a deep resonance in your gut, that makes it feel like God spoke to you;
- the words ‘God forgives you’ when your soul is wracked with guilt;
- a sense of awe when entering a building like this;
- the strains of a chord expressed by the choir that bring resolution and the feeling that everything is going to be alright.
Thomas Aquinas expressed the same tension in the words we will hear sung in the communion motet:
praestet fides supplementum
Let faith stand forward
To make good the defects of sense.
All our Christian lives are based on faith, not sense, alone.
The greatest story ever told may only have been expressed by humanity for 4,000 years, but this Advent, we proclaim it again. ‘Emmanuel. God with us. You have found favour with God. You will bear a son and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ On this, we find faith to last forever