Advent 3, 2021, 12 Dec 21
Well, it won’t have escaped your attention today that the chasuble and stole the priest is wearing today has a definite hint of pink about it. The altar frontal and the pulpit fall similarly. Why? Well, it’s basically meant to be a white-infusion in the purple of the season of Advent. Purple is about awaiting the coming of the King while sorrowful for our sin and repentance of theme. The Church’s celebration colour of white or gold is coming, Christmas is not far away and we’re reminded that this is our goal in these holy days of Advent.
The Liturgical Year is a great gift, which has at its root has the life of Jesus, his birth, life, death, Resurrection, Ascension and empowering of the Church through His Holy Spirit at Pentecost. (It’s a shame that Christians outside the Church have dropped large parts of this annual cycle). It ensures a comprehensive approach to our worship and stops gatherings of Christians being all the same or determined too much by the priorities of the person putting it together. The Liturgical Year also unites us together with the majority of Christians, which is part of the great blessing of prayer. We know that were to enter most churches throughout Europe, North and South America, and even South Asia we would be celebrating Advent with them. We don’t climb the ladder up to Heaven by ourselves or off our own back. We do so with others.
So, what should I preach about today, with all this pink around? Well, I concluded there had to be at least amention of the best known thing in pink in our society, Peppa Pig, of course. Let’s see how we get on.
Peppa Pig has books with her going to the Museum, to the Dentist and even rescuing Tiddles the Tortoise who gets stuck up a tree. I’m not aware however that there is ever a “Peppa Pig goes to Church” or “Peppa Pig gets baptised.” I was thinking of this the other day when baptising a toddler that if only there was a “Peppa gets baptised” book the child would have known exactly what baptism looks like.
We have to be very careful with the grace of Baptism. It’s a precious gift God gives to His Church, baptising us when we are still sinners but thereby giving us a fresh start and forgiving us our sins; baptising us while we are still ignorant of His wonders, yet infusing us with the Spirit of Wisdom and of the Fear of the Lord. One thing we need as an appreciation of this gift is better godparents. In reality I fear what happens in so many instances of the godparent system is that one person’s set of lacklustre Christian principles gets handed on to his or her godchild, who becomes equally lacklustre.
I hope very much - and I’ve said this many times before - that we can become a Church where young parents can come with their children and find people willing to be godparents. If you’re a young mum or dad with a child, it’s quite likely these days that you don’t know any other Christians and have no other family members who are active Christians. So, the young mum or dad goes to Church, called by Jesus to start exploring the faith and wanting to become a disciple and naturally asks about baptism for his or her child. They have no one who can be a godparent. It should be the case if we’re functioning properly as the Body of Christ and God’s family in this place that we are all speaking to each other sufficiently that that young mum or dad has befriended someone already in the Church family such that they can ask, “Will you be a godparent please?” And remember, being a godparent does not mean you automatically end up looking after the children if the parents die. Being a godparent is about ensuring your godchild turns to Christ and renounces sin, flourishing as a member of a local church. It’s a tall order but it’s got to be done and it is perfectly do-able with God’s good grace.
So, Peppa Pig makes us think about where new Christians are going to learn about the faith. Our involvement in the Church is to ensure this is a place where that can happen and not a place where bad habits of irreverence and half-heartedness just get passed on. But - and you may or may not like this - Peppa Pig perhaps also leads us to think about bacon. I love a bacon sandwich and one of the best things about Christmas (apart from going to Mass of course) is pigs in blankets, those little sausages you get with bacon wrapped round them.
Pigs are declared unclean in Leviticus 11:7 and so Jews continue to be forbidden from eating pork. There’s no particular “why” with God’s laws other than God chose of old to forbid His people from doing this. There seems to be widespread agreement among scholars that the culinary restrictions placed originally by God on His people would have been quite a good set of survival techniques for those travelling through a wilderness in the ancient world. Pig meat couldn’t be guaranteed to be particularly good for you in such circumstances and so best avoided.
The eating of pork becomes one of the those defining moments in the Jewish identity in part because of the persecution they faced. In II Maccabees, for example, we read of Eleazar who is forced to eat pig’s flesh. This is part of the wicked King Antiochus IV’s assault on Judaism, trying to force them in to giving up bits of the faith instituted by God. This is all happening 167 years before the birth of Jesus. Some suggested that Eleazar should pretend to eat pig flesh so his life could be spared. Eleazar however in his old age defiantly decrees, “Such pretence is not worthy of our time of life for many of the young might suppose that Eleazar in his ninetieth year had gone over to an alien religion … and they would be led astray because of me, while I defile and disgrace my old age,” (II Maccabees 6:24-25). As he is executed for this defiance Eleazar says, “In my soul I am glad to suffer these things.”
Eleazar’s martyrdom and the martyrdom of Christians for centuries is meant to inspire us when we grumble about the requirements our faith puts upon us. Every day in the world it’s estimated that 13 Christians are killed because of their faith. In countries like North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya this is a common experience for those who share a common baptism with us. Jesus says we are not to fear those who threaten us with death (St Matthew 10:28) and so how much more is this to be the case when it comes to the relatively mild inconveniences that detract us from the practice of our faith. Often we go along with what others do out of fear, fear of rejection, fear of sticking our head above the parapet, fear of being ridiculed. The lesson from our readings today is clear: Paul reminds the Philippians and the message to Zion in our first reading was the same, do not be afraid.
Back to bacon. As Christians we are not bound by the same dietary rules because St Mark is very clear in His Gospel that Jesus declares all foods clean. This comes out of a criticism the Pharisees makes of the Apostles for not washing their hands before eating. Now, it’s good for us to wash our hands before we eat, especially in these days of pandemic but this was a ritual washing because the hands might have come into contact with something ritually unclean. Jesus rebukes them, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach?” St Mark adds an explanatory note: “Thus He declared all foods clean.” (St Mark 7:19-20).
So, we’re not bound by these rules concerning bacon - and I’m jolly glad it’s the case to be honest. But there does need to be ways in which we are different to others: on the subject of food, fasting regularly is commended to us. Fasting for at least an hour before we receive Holy Communion is a good practice. We commemorate Jesus’ death on the Cross on a Friday by avoiding meat. We shouldn’t be gluttonous, eating more than we need. We should avoid waste for this is being ungrateful for the food God has given us. Hospitality in our homes and contributing to the hospitality the Church tries to offer on different occasions are all ways in which we can show we approach food with God’s generosity in our hearts. We may need to diet at times but we’re not going to be obsessed with our physical appearance, that would be vanity.
The people in today’s Gospel go to John the Baptist and know their behaviour has to reveal what their taking to heart: “What must we do?” they ask. John the Baptist talks about sacrificing possessions and fighting against the grain. For it was expected that tax collectors would exact more than was asked because they weren’t given proper wages. Ditto the soldiers, who could loot and pillage because that’s how they got remunerated. The Gospel called them to a different way of life. So it is to be with us. Forgiveness is to go to seventy seven times. Love is to be unimaginable without duty and sacrifice. We will try to enter Heaven through the narrow door. We will not fear those who can harm the body but prize above all else the beauty of our soul. I could go on.
So, Peppa Pig in his pinkness shows us the joy of our faith as we wait for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ - and He is near indeed. We’ll be mindful always of the need to welcome and draw in those we see around us to a lively relationship with Jesus Christ and ensure our bad habits in the faith are not passed on. We’re not bound by the Old Testament rules banning pork but the call of Christ will make a tangible and noticeable difference in our life as we show we are preparing ourselves for that day when our Sweet Saviour shall come again.