Hang on to hope

Peter Seal, 11 December 2016

Isaiah 35: 1–10; Matthew 11: 2–11

I want to speak about hope, which is one of the great themes of Advent, and to begin with an update about our daughter Katie. As many of you will know, Katie has gone to live in the Burgundy hills near Maçon, in a village called Ameugny, close to Taizé.

Taizé is a monastic community of about 120 men from all over the world. Each week, especially during the summer, there can be as many as 6,000 visitors, mostly under the age of 30, who live there for a week at a time. They come from all over Europe and, increasingly, from across the world. They join in the prayers in the huge church – morning, noon and evening. They experience the amazingly prayerful Taizé singing and the profound long periods of silence. The young people receive superb Bible teaching and join in group discussions on important life questions.

A number of people from this parish have been to Taizé, some of them several times. It’s had a profound deepening effect on their faith and lives.

Taizé is the largest and, arguably, most influential religious community in Europe and has been for very many years. It was founded in the 1940s by the inspirational Swiss man Brother Roger. As the number of visitors grew he realised he needed help in welcoming and relating to the women who came. Fifty years ago he invited some Sisters from the Community of St Andrew, whose motherhouse is in Belgium, to come and help him. The Sisters belong to a Catholic religious order whose identity is based on the life and teachings of St Ignatius of Loyola, known as Jesuits. (Pope Francis is a Jesuit.)

Katie has gone to live with these Sisters, to discern if God is calling her to make a commitment to their way of life. She’s what’s known as a postulant. As you may know, very few people commit themselves to this sort of life. It’s a profoundly countercultural thing to do and that’s partly why it’s so hard to understand. Like all the Sisters, Katie wears her own clothes and keeps her name; she’s now Sister Katie. Julia and I are able to exchange some e-mails and to speak on the phone every two weeks. Katie sounds strong and seems happy.

Three bits of news from Katie may help give you a picture of life there.

Firstly: in November, when the jungle camp in Calais was closed, the community welcomed 15 refugees to live in their family accommodation until the spring. They are all male and aged 14 to 18. Most are from Sudan, one from Eritrea and one from Syria. They speak mainly Arabic. Many of them have health needs and are grateful to be cared for. They’re seriously streetwise and have had experiences we can only imagine. One of the biggest challenges is occupying them each day with activities and exercise.

Some local people come in to teach them French and English. It is fascinating to hear that what they are really valuing is an ordered life, and especially the peace and quiet of a Burgundy hillside in midwinter. The Taizé community are funding all they need. I’m delighted that we as a parish, through your PCC, have been able to send £600 from our mission giving through Operation Hope, the Taizé charity, to help care for them.

Secondly: each year, the Taizé community hold a four-day winter meeting for young adults in a major European city. This year it’s in the Baltics, in Riga, the capital of Latvia. Katie is going to help. She’s preparing herself for the cold (the sea can still be frozen in May) and a 30-hour coach journey.

Thirdly: this week, Katie sent us the annual newsletter from the Friends of the Sisters of St Andrew. This makes fascinating reading and includes eight personal accounts from the Sisters about their lives in different places around the world. I gave a copy to my godmother when we saw her on Friday. She phoned that evening, full of appreciation of what she’d read about. She’s now in her mid-80s and exclaimed, ‘If I was younger I’d want to join them!’ There are copies of the newsletter at the back; do take one.

Katie, the Sisters of St Andrew, Julia, Philip and I are so grateful for your support and especially your prayers. Thank you.

And now to our Bible passage from Isaiah, which continues this theme of hope in an exquisite poem based on his magnificent trust in God. The first image that comes to his mind is of nature. In the desert of Judaea the flowering of spring has a dynamic quality: The wilderness and dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing’. Embedded in nature herself is this superb illustration of hope. In these our days, when the earth appears still and cold, not far below the surface the first signs of spring are gestating.

Isaiah turns to human responses: ‘Weak hands will be strengthened; feeble knees made firm; fearful hearts made strong; deaf ears unplugged; eyes that are blind opened; and sorrow and sighing shall flee away’. Isaiah articulates beautifully the basic truth – that winter precedes spring. This is a message we need to hear. Some speak of ‘the winter of the church’that, thank God, is not our experience, but it is part of the overall picture of western Europe. For those experiencing ‘winter’ in whatever way, the simple gospel message is: ‘spring follows winter’. This is just what happens – a source of tremendous hope.

Isaiah’s poetry intertwines nature and the human: ‘the lame shall leap like a deer, the thirsty ground become springs of water’.

And then suddenly Isaiah gives us a new image – stretching away in front of us, piercing the future and providing a way into it. This is good news indeed; surely we all want to see the way ahead. Isaiah says, a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the, Holy Way’ – given for us, God’s people. This is truly wonderful.

As we approach the end of this year – and what a dreadful year it’s been on the world stage, in a number of ways – a new year is being prepared. If we believe what Isaiah believed, we see not a rock-strewn path leading into some shadowy, uncertain future. No, we see a highway, clear and straight, inviting and accessible.

If we believe what Isaiah believed, we see not a rock-strewn path leading into some shadowy, uncertain future. No, we see a highway, clear and straight, inviting and accessible.

For us as a church community that highway lies ahead. I believe we are beginning on a new stage of our journey together, both as church and community in this place. The future is full of hope and of new possibilities.

To use Isaiah again, we too shall come to mount Zion, we too shall sing, with ‘everlasting joy’ on our heads, carrying the costly treasures of ‘joy and gladness’, with ‘sorrow and sighing’ put in their rightful place.

Again and again and again, you and I need to hear this message from Isaiah – we are God’s hopeful people. Because we love him, we expect great gifts from him.

In conclusion: these last days of Advent leading up to our celebration of the deep meaning of God, born as a tiny baby, can be challenging. Many people are tired and feeling pressured and stressed. Amidst so much that necessarily has to be done, and so much in our world that is so agonisingly painful, we can hang on to these deep inner hopes. We can also have in our minds a picture of Taizé, often described as a springtime of hope.