Faith and Reason: A liturgy set in historical time: David Martin, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and an assistant priest at Guildford Cathedral, gives us a sermon for Advent

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The Independent Online
ADVENT opens the first half of the Church's year in which we accompany step by step the story of redemption. But why begin here? Why not begin at the beginning with the Creation of the World? Why are we concerned about redemption?

Imagine, for a moment, a rather different revised liturgy. There would be a whole season centred around Genesis chapter 1 which would parallel the season centred on St John chapter 1. The dramatic announcement 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth', heralding Creation Season, would complement the announcement 'In the beginning was the Word', heralding Redemption Season.

The first Sunday of this new season would be called Creation Day and dedicated to the Sun, the Moon and all the Stars. A sacred minister would walk through darkness and total silence to the chancel steps to cry 'Let there be Light'. Then, as slender fingers of light gently suffused throughout the microcosm of this holy temple, the choir would break into a triumphant 'The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handiwork'. The second Sunday of the Creation season would be the Festival of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. We would say together the Benedicite omnia opera: 'O all ye works of the Lord: bless ye the Lord'.

On the third Sunday in the Creation Season we would celebrate the Festival of All Creatures. First, there would be a protective litany for the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, and the fishes of the sea, especially that great Leviathan, the endangered whale. Then there would be a second protective litany for tree and verdure, flower and fern, wheat and vine. A solemn moment of silence would follow in recollection of the destruction of creatures and the decimation of resources.

On the fourth Sunday we would gather for the Festival of our Common Humanity, or of the Creation of Man, and we would remember that 'Thou but made man but a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honour'. And here there would be a second moment of solemn silence as we asked ourselves 'What is Man?' And we would recollect that we are merely dust and to dust we shall return. We would remember death.

Perhaps the final Sunday of the Creation Season would be a festival of Reverence for Life, for the contemplation of the infinite variety of species and kinds and orders of being; for the returning mystery of times and seasons, seedtime and harvest; for the mystery of Desire, for the cleaving together of man and woman and for the mysterious emergence of the newly born.

A liturgy of this kind corresponds to the way many of our contemporaries feel, especially younger people. They feel protective about the earth and about its resources: they desire to save the whales or save the trees or the biosphere. Their rites are rites of natural harmony following the rotation of Spring and Autumn, Midsummer and Midwinter; their temple is any numinous knoll in Arthur's country or Merlin's land. Such people seek after a wisdom of the body, of the self and the earth, and uncover that wisdom by contemplation and natural spontaneity.

But there are difficulties, which are partly indicated by a dispute between my youngest son, Magnus, and his dog, Megan. Out of respect for the brute creation Magnus gave up meat, but he went on to propose that Megan do the same as a measure of cross-species solidarity. He met with a rather 'brutal', indeed a rather dogged, response. Megan is a 'good dog', as doggedness goes, but in her part of creation, though it wouldn't be true to say that 'dog eats dog', dog definitely does eat meat.

The point is that Megan behaves well, but she does not reflect on the nature and quality of her acts, which is to say she lacks language, and morality, and history. Megan is innocent and natural; she is not Christian. We, however, speak, reflect, know good and evil, and have been ejected from nature into history. We cannot live in the garden of nature doing what comes naturally, unaware of time except for the rotation of the seasons and the phases of the moon.

We remember, we anticipate, and our language shows we have reflected, and know good and evil. Of course, we are also part of nature and caught up in its rotation of life and death: Genesis is the background to our liturgy. The heavens do tell the glory of God. But a liturgy which has regressed from history to nature does not speak truth to our condition, even though it cannot evade the knowledge of death and of misuse and disharmony. It has, at least, to have those two moments of silence.

So Christian liturgy is set in historical time and tells a story of remembrance and anticipation, good and evil, promise and judgement.

Nature being neither moral nor historical can be accounted innocent. Being natural requires us to cope with disharmony merely by adjustment and to cope with death merely as an item in the natural rhythm of existence. To partake of such an innocence is to share the life of the garden before acquaintance with good and evil. But in truth we have been ejected from the garden and cannot regress to innocent ignorance.

Nevertheless, we pretend, and that pretence leads us into several kinds of abuse. We abuse the idea of innocence by claiming it means moral goodness tried and true rather than this simple ignorance of good and evil. And then we go on to suppress the reality of evil, and claim it is merely the upshot of circumstances, and can be dealt with by altering the circumstances. Therefore, it requires no forgiveness or redemption. Of course, circumstances and contexts matter a great deal. But when we have monitored and uncovered every circumstance, we are still left with the mystery of iniquity and, therefore, with the necessity of redemption. That lost experience and crippled humanity has to be brought back and restored.

The Christian religion is not based on a response to a local disharmony, or on a small crack just at the edge of the human mirror of the image of God. It is based rather on a fundamental fracture or primal crime in which we are all implicated by being human. That is why this Advent Season leaves aside the cycle of nature and instead aligns itself with human history and focuses on time to come.