St Francis, Terriers - Advent 3  (17.12.2017) Tony Dickinson

On Friday I was “up East” for a funeral, in East Ham, to be precise, saying my farewells, with a couple of hundred other people, to Francis Bassett. Until his untimely death Francis had been the Administrative Secretary of the Council for Christian Unity at Church House in Westminster. He was one of the most self-effacing of men. What Francis would have made of the half-page obituary by one of his colleagues which appeared in Friday’s “Church Times” I can’t imagine. Probably a raised eyebrow and a murmured “Shurely shome mishtake…”, to borrow the old running gag from “Private Eye”.

Like Bontzye Schweig, “Bontzye the Silent”, in the old Yiddish story, Francis never realised how powerful his gentleness was. Unlike Bontzye Schweig, he was far from being a doormat. Self-effacing, yes: gentle, yes: but both locally, as a member of St Barnabas’ Church in Manor Park, as well as nationally, he achieved a great deal – among other things he was a brilliant musician – and he was much loved, by his fellow-parishioners as much as by his colleagues. James Ramsay, the last parish priest at St Barnabas whom Francis served as organist, said of him on Friday that “he lived true to his vocation”. What that meant, James added, was that “He bore witness, through the integrity of his way of life, to the kingdom professed in his faith.”

I couldn’t help thinking of Francis as I was pondering this morning’s readings. They, too, are about integrity and hiddenness, and confidence in God’s calling. They, too, are about bearing witness to God’s kingdom. They remind us at this time, that keeping a true Christmas is about rather more (and very much less) than the number of cards and presents we send or receive, the brightness of our lights, the abundance of food and drink that we provide for families and friends. Keeping a true Christmas is about honouring the one who stands among us and whom we do not know. Keeping a true Christmas is about recognising him – not just when he comes to us as the Babe of Bethlehem, not just in the breaking of the bread, but when he comes to us in those who are worn down by life, those whose hearts are broken, those whom society locks away for one reason or another.

Like John the Baptist, we have been given the task of being witnesses, testifying to the light that is in Jesus. Who we are, what we are, doesn’t matter. What matters, especially at this time of year when thousands, maybe millions, of people allow themselves to wonder whether the old stories, the old rumours they have heard, might after all, be true – what matters is that we point to him, to the one who stands among us and whom the world does not know: except that signs of his presence can be recognised in the comforting of those who mourn, the rebuilding of ancient ruins, the raising up of former devastations. What matters is that we are honest with those who come to us, that we play down, as John did, the expectation of an instant answer to every question: “Who are you?” I am not the Messiah. “Are you Elijah?” I am not. “Are you the prophet?” No. Not just playing down others’ expectation, but overcoming our own desire to be the people who have the right answers instantly to hand. We too are “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

What we offer is not an answer, but an invitation. That invitation is to join in the search for the one who stands among us and whom the world does not know, to look out for those places where his “righteousness and praise… spring up before all the nations.” That can’t be done by simply proclaiming rigid certainties. It can be done by taking seriously what James Ramsay had to say about the attractiveness of Francis Bassett. ““He lived true to his vocation”. “He bore witness, through the integrity of his way of life, to the kingdom professed in his faith.” Francis was who he was. He lived out his own integrity personally in a burning concern for peace, in a willingness to weigh in on the side of justice, and in a deep respect for the integrity of God’s creation. He lived it professionally in his work for the deeper unity of all Christian people. Francis Bassett was, in many ways, a true Franciscan, blessed, as James Ramsay reminded us on Friday, “with a gift of perseverance that buoyed up others… a doggedness that was an expression of faith, hope, and love.”

That doesn’t sound very different from what St Paul has to say to the Thessalonian Christians in today’s second reading.

Paul invites the members of that community to a life marked by joy, sustained by unceasing prayer, and expressed in thanksgiving. He encourages them to be open to God’s Spirit, to those who are attentive to God’s word, but to check what they hear against what they know, and what they have experienced. He urges them to “hold fast to what is good” and to “abstain from every form of evil.” That isn’t about laying down the law, but about being open and attentive. It isn’t about playing everything by the book, but living with integrity and encouraging others to do the same, sharing a journey rather than laying it on the line, encouraging others to look out for the one who stands among us and whom the world does not know.

In one of his short stories, the 19th-century Russian writer Ivan Turgenev describes how in a dream he saw his younger self in an old country church, dark and dim, with icons and candles, surrounded by a large congregation, most of them peasants. “All at once”, he continues, “some man came up from behind and stood beside me. I did not turn towards him; but at once I felt that this man was Christ. Emotion, curiosity, awe overmastered me suddenly. I made an effort … and looked at my neighbour.” What he saw was “a face like all men’s faces… What sort of Christ is this?... Such an ordinary, ordinary man!” In disappointment he turns away, but the feeling grows. “I felt again that it really was none other than Christ standing beside me. Again I made and effort over myself… And again the same face, like all men’s faces, the same everyday though unknown features. And suddenly my heart sank and I came to myself. Only then I realised that just such a face – a face like all men’s faces – is the face of Christ.”

To the hidden Christ, with the Father and the Holy Spirit…