for the
First Sunday
of Advent



'Lord, you are our Father,
we the clay,
you the potter,
we are all the work
of your hands.'


Pastoral Letter for the First Sunday of Advent - 2011

To be read or made available
on the First Sunday of Advent
Sunday, 27th November 2011


'Behold, I stand at the door and knock;
if anyone hears my voice, I will come in to him ...' 


Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

As I write this Pastoral Letter to you, I am looking out of my window at a very gloomy scene. It is growing dark and the street lamps are struggling to shine through the thickening fog which has become a feature of these last few days of November. That rather depressing scene is reflected in the latest news headlines of a deepening economic crisis and rising unemployment especially amongst the young. It is mirrored in the struggle of many pensioners to find sufficient money to pay for heating during the coming winter; in the reports of lack of care for the elderly in some of our hospitals and care homes, and now we hear even in their own homes. It is mirrored in a growing anxiety and even fear as we hear of the seemingly muddled and fruitless attempts by governments to solve the world’s economic and financial problems. In the Middle East there is a resurgence of violence, killing and injustice on the part of some political regimes and in some countries the persecution of Christians and other minority groups. Yet in the midst of this darkness, the light occasionally shines through. Just last week the “Children in Need” appeal raised £27 million pounds from ordinary people in this country despite the difficult financial circumstances we all face to a greater or lesser degree.

How, then, do we reconcile all this with the season of Advent which we begin today - a season which the Church presents to us as one of joyful expectation as we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation, the coming into the world of God in the person of Jesus Christ, our Saviour? Has the God of unconditional love, mercy and compassion abandoned us? Surely he must see the suffering and distress of so many people in our society and world? Does he not care? Such questions remind me of the one put to our Lord by the disciples in the boat, overwhelmed by the storm which threatened to destroy them: “Lord, do you not care? We are going down!” Jesus’ response was not an answer, but another question: “Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?”

Advent is a fruitful time for us to examine the depth and strength of our faith in God and in his providence. In the person of Jesus Christ, whose birth we will celebrate at Christmas, we see made visible the God we cannot see; the God who asks to be invited into our innermost lives in order to share his love with us. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice, I will come in to him…” But the door to our hearts can only be opened from the inside, and Christ will not force his way in - he waits with great longing and patience for us to invite him to come in. He longs to take away our fears and anxieties and convince us of his unconditional love for each one of us - a love which is steadfast and enduring and which will never fail whatever the storms of life bring. In the words of St. Ambrose: “Blessed therefore, is the one at whose door Christ knocks. Our door is faith, which, if strong, fortifies the whole house. It is through this door that Christ comes in.”

In today’s short gospel passage, Jesus three times urges his disciples to “stay awake” because he doesn’t want to find us asleep when he comes knocking at the door. In this context, to be asleep signifies self-centredness, selfishness and spiritual exhaustion; a turning in on ourselves and a turning away from any concern for the needs of others. To be awake means to live with a firm and lively faith, and to live a life of outgoing love towards God and our neighbour. It means to trust in God’s presence and providence, alert and attentive to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit who wants to transform our lives and fill us with the love of God. That transformation is both spiritual and moral, and allows the Spirit to draw us closer to Christ in a deeper personal relationship through prayer and the celebration of the sacraments, in particular the Eucharist.

As we grow in the love of God, we inevitably grow in our love for our neighbour. The gospel we listened to last Sunday, the Feast of Christ the King, makes very clear what that means in practice. Jesus fully identified himself and his mission with those in need: the poor, the hungry and thirsty, the oppressed, the outcasts. Whatever their circumstances, they need to be loved, valued and respected because they are created in the image and likeness of God. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ, these are our neighbours, these are the ones in whom we meet the suffering Christ. He told us that the poor will always be with us and in the present circumstances there is certainly no lack of them in our parishes and neighbourhoods. Whilst these are truly our neighbours, we are only truly his disciples if we do what he asks of us, because on that we shall be judged on the last day. “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick and in prison and go to see you? And the King will answer, ‘I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’” But have we the eyes to see them, or the ears to hear their cry? Have we the love and generosity to give of our time and talents to help them in their need? Are we awake and alert to their needs here in this parish, in this neighbourhood?

We cannot hope to fulfil the challenge Christ puts before us every day unless we are firmly rooted in the spiritual life, in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Only then will we be able to listen and respond to the word of God speaking in our hearts. Only then will we recognise the prompting of the Holy Spirit and be able to discern what the Spirit is asking of us in our own lives and as members of the local Church. As the prophet Isaiah puts it: “Lord, you are our Father; we the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hands.” This is literally a “labour of love” in which he asks us to freely and generously co-operate. So I commend to you the words of St. Paul in his Letter to the Colossians: “You must live your whole life according to the Christ you have received, Jesus the Lord; you must be rooted in him and built on him and held firm by the faith you have been taught, and full of thanksgiving.”

With an assurance of my prayers and blessing for you all this Advent,

Archbishop of Southwark
Given at Southwark,
22nd November 2011,