Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean
The winter of 1989 was a dark time. I was sub-Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg. The cathedral is set in the heart of down-town Johannesburg, right next to the central railway station which sees hundreds of thousands of commuters pass through it every day, many of them making their way passed the front doors of the cathedral. In the dying days of the Apartheid regime we were surrounded by poverty and violence. Poverty because the strictly enforced separation of black and white people was breaking down and people were moving into the older blocks of flats in the vicinity. With high rents small flats intended for one or two people quickly became overcrowded with the attendant problems of over-loaded sewers, lifts in constant state of disrepair, and piles of garbage left not only on the streets but in stairwells. Violence because of the increasingly desperate efforts by police and security forces to maintain ‘order’ – using snarling Alsatian dogs, batons and teargas; and the thousands of rural people flocking to the city nick-named eGoli, city of gold, discovered mostly poverty and rampaging unemployment. The area in front of the cathedral was alive with hawkers selling everything from a handful of oranges, to cigarettes, handbags and, no doubt, other unmentionables.
Internationally there were signs of joy and celebration. The hated Berlin Wall, so long a symbol of separation and sadness, was breached. Solidarity in Poland stood up against the ruling Communists, and the strangle hold of the Soviet Union was broken. Not all was joy though and the massacre of Tiananmen Square in Beijing brought a sobering reality to the joy. Who can forget the image of tanks bearing down on student protestors?
One dark cold July day about four hundred people gathered in St Mary’s Cathedral to record the BBC religious programme “Songs of Praise”. It had taken months of negotiation with the government to allow a three-person production team to come into the country and, working with local technicians, produce a 45 minute programme – to be shown in the UK on Advent Sunday 1989. It was a remarkable achievement for a number of reasons. Firstly, no foreign television crews had been allowed to film in the country for many years – such was the paranoia of the regime, and the power to control what went out to the world. At a time of tension and violence, under a State of Emergency, public gatherings greater than two people were banned (except in churches), and it was very difficult to find places and means for people of different racial groups to meet. Divide and rule was the order of the day and it affected every aspect of our lives, including separating one Christian denomination from another.
So there we were one July Saturday – black, white, so-called ‘coloured’; old and young, rich and poor; Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Dutch Reformed – spending a whole day rehearsing and recording for the BBC. It seemed strange to be singing Advent music in the middle of July – but that’s how it is done in the recording world. A carefully worded script allowed different shots to intersperse the music – showing simple acts of everyday life in the city: one of the hawkers talking about how she had managed to send her three children to college by selling fruit on the street for years, a lay minister offering holy communion to an elderly man in a hospital bed, the black social worker employed by the cathedral talking about her work and how difficult it was for poor white people to accept help from her, senior students from an elite girls school (not unlike Walford) – one of the few schools at the time to accept students of all races.
It was then that I sang, for the first time, the hymn we sang as our first tonight – “Hark, what a sound and too divine for hearing.” I still get goose-bumps when I sing it, both for the tune Highwood and the power of the words.
Hark, what a sound, and too divine for hearing,
stirs on the earth and trembles in the air!
Is it the thunder of the Lord’s appearing?
Is it the music of his people’s prayer?
That opening verse invites us into the excitement and almost unbearable anticipation of the poet. Frederic Myers wrote the words while a student at Cambridge University in the middle of the 19th century. Although brought up in the church, his father was a priest, like so many young intellectuals he claimed to have lost his faith. A recent essay on his life says this about him: “His early life – marked by numerous sexual liaisons, and his later life – marked by his interest in psychic research and spiritualism and his use of mediums, make him an unexpected and untypical writer of a devotional Advent hymn.”
(Patrick Comerford http://www.patrickcomerford.com/2014/12/hymns-for-advent-17-hark-what-sound-and.html) The words we sang tonight are the last few stanzas in a long poem, a meditation inspired by words quoted by St Paul in 2 Corinthians 12: 9 “My grace is sufficient for you.” We sing Myers words as one of the great, but strangely lesser known Advent hymns, inviting us to listen for the sound of Christ’s coming.
Surely he cometh, and a thousand voices
shout to the saints and to the deaf and dumb;
surely he cometh, and the earth rejoices,
glad in his coming who hath sworn, I come.
Richard Terry, a lay clerk of King’s College Cambridge a generation after Myers, originally wrote the tune Highwood for the wedding hymn “O perfect love”, but I think words and tune are beautifully matched and invite the singer, as they did tonight, to feel the sense of longing and anticipation, that unknown and possibly unrecognised sense of hidden joy that Advent anticipates.
Advent, and particularly this 3rd Sunday, is meant to be about joy – the joy of anticipation, the joy that comes when, like St Paul, we finally recognise that His grace is indeed sufficient. What do we mean by joy? Jesus had a lot to say about joy, particularly in St John’s Gospel. I went looking to see what other people had to say about joy – it’s a little word, but filled with such big expectations. Writing about Mary as she nursed the infant Jesus Samuel Taylor Coleridge had this to say: “Joy rises in her, like a summer’s morn.” I like Mother Teresa’s words: “Joy is prayer – Joy is strength – Joy is love … a joyful heart is the normal result of a heart burning with love.” William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury, said this of joy, perhaps when criticised for not focusing on the woes of the world: “The Christian joy and hope do not arise from an ignoring of the evil in the world, but from facing it at its worst.” And Thomas Wolfe said: “There are some people who have the quality of richness and joy in them and they communicate it to everything they touch.”
Those of you who enjoy the writings of C S Lewis will undoubtedly have read his short autobiographical work “Surprised by Joy.” Like Myers he was an atheist while at university – but his intellectual rigour forced him to continue searching. Years ago I recall reading the book and having to pause when he wrote that, after a long struggle “In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” Lewis would later describe joy as being like a signpost to those lost in the woods. As a mature man, a long-confirmed academic bachelor, Lewis would be surprised by joy in a different way – this time in marrying his wife Joy. His love for her, and her tragic too early death, is poured out in a beautiful and much-studied book “A Grief Observed.”
A BBC production in Johannesburg of 1989, the discovery of a fine Advent hymn with an equally fine tune, a few brief thoughts on joy all help us to continue to look forward, with eager anticipation, to lighting the next candle in the Advent wreath, and the next – for each one reminds us that it is not yet finished, there is more to come in God’s scheme of things – and we can be a part of it all. That invitation is always there – to follow Jesus, to live our lives daily in, with and for him.
I wrote this sermon before being called to Mary Potter Hospice this afternoon where John Bannon had just died. It strikes me that the last verse of Frederic Myers’s hymn has particular poignancy tonight as South Australia mourns the death of one of her sons.
Yea, through life, death, through sorrow and through sinning,
he shall suffice me, for he hath sufficèd:
Christ is the end, for Christ was the beginning,
Christ the beginning, for the end is Christ.