A sermon preached by Graham Low on Wednesday 1 December 2021.
A few years ago we spent some time in Aberdaron, a small village at the south western end of the Llyn Peninsula in north Wales. It was here that the parish priest and poet R.S. Thomas had his last parish. The church of St Hywyn, built in about 1137, is bright and feels soaked in prayer. Aberdaron is a remote and hilly place set in a small bay with views to Bardsey Island, where monks have lived in seclusion for many centuries.
R. S. Thomas’ poetry often seems to reflect the isolation, the wild beauty, and the contours of this place. He wrote that for him Aberdaron was a place of arrival and belonging, a place to turn with fresh intensity and focus to questions about the soul, and the nature and existence of God. Though he expressed this vividly in his poetry, he knew that the most deft and evocative language can never do justice to the God whom we follow. Nevertheless, Thomas’ poetry gives us a fresh view of God’s kingdom. It is often bleak, but beautiful, questioning, and full of yearning. Sometimes it is silent when words do not convey the gap between uncertainty and the immediacy of faith.
These particular features of R. S. Thomas’ poems are particularly shown in those which relate to Advent, and which have recently been gathered into four groups by Carys Walsh. They reflect the themes of waiting, accepting, journeying and birthing.
Those poems with an element of the shifting quality of waiting take us through phases of waiting for God to waiting upon God. From waiting for God to waiting upon God. This takes us from living with a future hope of sensing God’s presence to sensing that we are with God now. That step is implicit in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah.
The second theme is of accepting again God’s constant presence in the world, in our own lives, in all their ordinariness, glory and pain, as well as in the huge mess in which the world finds itself at present.
The third theme, of journeying, has a double aspect, for we as humans are on a journey, but God is too. Today’s gospel about the feeding of the five thousand reminds us that Jesus was on a journey from the sea of Galilee and up a mountain where he rested before a series of accounts of miracles. Here and elsewhere Jesus steps aside on his journeys to rest, to pray for strength to do God’s will. It seems likely that Jesus goes down a side path for a while, maybe with further detours, maybe bringing him very human moments of epiphany and surprise. Thomas’ poetry reflects just this kind of journeying. And we can also think of the journey that God has made in Jesus, and continues to make with us. It is a journey that will almost certainly involve us in losing our way, but mysteriously God is always asking us to join and to re-join on his path.
The fourth week of these themes is about birthing. There is a profound depth of love in the incarnation, in the coming of Jesus. But birthing, though an intense and finite biological process, also immediately turns to point us towards the future of what has been birthed. A birth includes not only thanksgiving but a prophetic element. Advent is moulded by prophecy, as both our collect and first reading show.
And so in the season of Christmas, and then of Epiphany, Thomas offers us a fresh glimpse of our world as a place of God’s world. That world can include anticipation, foretaste, imminence, but there may also be absence. R.S. Thomas reminds us that in Advent we are invited to slow down, to savour the readings, the collects, as well as perhaps some of the poetry and the art of the season, and to allow them to enter our inner being, to be digested or distilled, and then to feed the centre of God’s life with us. May God give us grace during Advent to let this happen. Amen.