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Senior Correspondent

Life, you know, is rather like opening a tin of sardines. We are all of us looking for the key. And I wonder how many of you here tonight have wasted years of your lives looking behind the kitchen dressers of this life for that key. I know I have. Others think they’ve found the key, don’t they? They roll back the lid of the sardine tin of life. They reveal the sardines, the riches of life, therein, and they get them out, and they enjoy them. But, you know, there’s always a little bit in the corner you can’t get out. I wonder is there a little bit in the corner of your life? I know there is in mine!

— From Alan Bennett’s Anglican sermon in 'Beyond the Fringe' (1981)            

Sunday last, the first Sunday of Advent, might be called “the Christian New Year." The endlessly repeated liturgical cycle of the Christian year does not begin with the birth of Jesus. The early Christians regarded that event as so stupendous as to require at least a brief period of thoughtful preparation, and this became the penitential season of Advent, which begins with the fourth Sunday before Christmas.            

The Scripture readings for the first Sunday of Advent, established in ancient times, are particularly solemn and impressive. They include the stirring passage in the letter to the Romans (cap 13) in which Paul likens the coming of the Christ to daylight breaking through the darkness of night, an archetypal image shared by many religions and philosophies, but here used distinctively by Paul as an appeal to action and the reformation of moral life. This is the very passage on which the eyes of the young Augustine fell as he brooded beneath the fig tree. The text changed his life, and with it the intellectual history of the Western world, in an instant.

Many of the great preachers of my tradition have dealt masterfully with this passage. I think particularly of John Donne’s sermon before the Prince and Princess Palatine on June 16, 1619. So naturally I was eager to hear what my own rector would have to say about it. Of course I knew in advance that this man’s homiletic style tended less to the Pauline than to the Victorine — recognizing in this term his penchant for the striking domestic metaphor. In the seventh chapter of his second book (Pantagruel) Rabelais gives an extensive catalogue of the theological titles that Pantagruel supposedly found in the famous library of the abbey of Saint-Victor, including such masterpieces as The Codpiece of the Law and The Mustard-Pot of Penance.            

Even so I was startled to hear that the anticipation of the coming of Christ was to be understood in terms of the way a viscous blob of red condiment slowly oozes from a bottle of Heinz ketchup. The image, we were told, related explicitly to one of the old glass bottles, before they came up with a squeezable plastic model, as squeezing considerably accelerates the flow. One of the geniuses of Madison Avenue had summed it all up in a TV ad of an earlier age. It takes a long time for the ketchup to flow, but “It’s worth the wait.” That’s the way to understand what Paul means when he says “now is salvation nearer to us than when we first believed!" It takes a while to get here, but it’s worth the wait. For the slow oozing of divine grace eventually builds to the crescendo poetically described by the theologian Richard Armour: "Shake and shake the ketchup bottle. None'll come, and then a lott'll."            

Historically, the sermon is actually a fairly late addition to Eucharistic worship. The sermon was of course a common enough literary genre, but most of the famous sermon collections of the Middle Ages — those of Augustine, Caesarius of Arles, or even Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century — were perhaps never actually preached. They were instead passed around in manuscript for pious reading in religious houses. They were like “closet” drama.            

While preaching as the actual center of a religious service appears only with Protestantism in the sixteenth century, the beginnings of the weekly parish sermon will be found in the evangelical revival of the thirteenth century and the coming of the friars. The real name of one of the two largest orders of friars, the Dominicans, is Ordo Praedicatorum, the Order of Preachers. The Dominicans had some really great preachers. Berthold of Regensburg, without mechanical amplification of any kind, could command an audience of thousands in the open fields for his three-hour harangues. He attached a pennant to his portable dais so that people on the periphery could see which way the wind was blowing and station themselves downwind of his bellowing. If you are architecturally savvy you can often tell a medieval Dominican church by its distinctively wide nave designed to serve the acoustical needs of large auditory. Some art historians have called these buildings “preaching barns.”            

Barns are surrounded by barnyards. The famous Franciscan preacher Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444) usually stayed indoors, but one of his specialties was the scripturally based barnyard metaphor. We are told that on occasion he did not scruple to supplement his theological point by braying like the ass on which Jesus entered Jerusalem, clucking like a mother hen, or grunting like the Gadarene swine. It was, of course, an agrarian age. Animal husbandry was everywhere the normal extension of human community; and human community was mostly small villages surrounded by cultivated fields, grazing pastures, and untamed forest. It is not too surprising, therefore, that some of the earliest Franciscans took the logical step toward indiscriminate zoological homiletics. Who has not seen at least a reproduction of Giotto’s depiction of Francis preaching to the birds? Assisi is of course a land-locked place. The next great Franciscan Saint, Anthony of Padua, actually came from Lisbon, a famous seaport. Anthony preached to the fish. With such an awesome precedent as Francis’s to compete with, he perhaps felt he had to play ketchup. But these days if you come up with a sermon that is strictly for the birds, it’s probably best preached in an aviary.   

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