Thursday, 4 December 2008

The great king's feast

On this day in the year 1637, a man reported a vision that he had seen. ‘I have been at a great feast,’ he said, ‘O, magnify the Lord with me.’ One of his hearers asked him, ‘At a feast?’ and he replied, ‘Ay, at a great feast. At the great King’s feast.’

These were the last words of Nicholas Ferrar, who died at Little Gidding shortly after midnight on Monday 4 December 1637, just as Advent Sunday had ended.

In Advent the Church traditionally focuses on ‘coming’. Perhaps primarily we think of the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, but the lectionary reminds us of other themes too: the role of John the Baptist; the prophets; judgement; the kingdom that is to come.

Ferrar’s vision of a feast was and remains one of the central images of the coming kingdom — a time of plenty, a time when all shall be welcomed to eat at the table in God’s household. It’s an image that Jesus uses frequently in his parables about the kingdom, and it is an image that comes to us from the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah foretells that God ‘will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines’ (Isaiah 25.6).

In Isaiah this is all seen as part of the time when God shall rule the earth from Mount Zion, and the poor, the humble, the downtrodden will be raised up to a place of honour. Death itself will be swallowed up for ever, and God will wipe away the tears from the people’s eyes. Isaiah’s prophecy was made at a time of great difficulty for the people of Israel and it proclaims his belief that, however bad things looked, the God of Israel would remember those who were faithful.

Isaiah, moreover, proclaims his great idea that the God of Israel was supreme, the only god, and that God is a lover of justice and mercy, rather than an unfaithful tyrant. Jesus develops the idea further: he does not simply talk about feasting in God’s kingdom; in addition he actually sits and eats and drinks with the underclasses and the unclean, declaring by his actions that their sins are forgiven (because they needed no further ritual cleansing) and that they are favoured by God. Jesus’s respectable contemporaries were scandalized by this behaviour, but it is all too easy for us not to see the scandal, and even easier for us to pay lip-service to looking after those less favoured by society in our own day.

Nicholas Ferrar and his family, living a quiet and godly life at Little Gidding, did not forget the poor and needy. They welcomed into their household a number of poor widows, they provided alms and education for many, and Ferrar, utilizing his training in medicine, ran a dispensary for the neighbourhood. And we too, each of us in our own lives, can perhaps take some simple and practical steps to alleviate the suffering around us. In this way, as well as by prayer and faith, we will help to realize God’s kingdom here on earth, and proclaim the Advent hope to the world. That is our challenge this Advent.


Today at Little Gidding, a service of Holy Communion will be celebrated at the tomb of Nicholas Ferrar to honour his memory and his example of spiritual determination and faith in an age of great trouble. In the eucharist we enjoy a foretaste of the banquet in God’s household. May we, with Nicholas Ferrar and all God’s holy people, sit at the great King’s feast!

Posted by Simon Kershaw on Thursday, 4 December 2008 at 8:08am GMT | TrackBack
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Comments

Simon, that's lovely.

Posted by: acb on Thursday, 4 December 2008 at 2:53pm GMT

Did not know about the vision -- thank you.

Posted by: ThriceBroad on Thursday, 4 December 2008 at 6:23pm GMT

Hear, hear! [Read about Ferrar a few years ago, and was SO inspired---would love to revive "Little Giddings", all around the world (including one where I might live!)]

Posted by: JCF on Thursday, 4 December 2008 at 8:02pm GMT

Yes - one of my areas of teaching and study included Donne, Herbert, Sir Thomas Browne. This is a part of that story I have forgotten about. Thank you. I do often wish that all of us had the very irenic spirit [at least towards other Christians].

Posted by: Cynthia Gilliatt on Thursday, 4 December 2008 at 8:24pm GMT

I'm pleased to see some comments on this thread. It gives me hope. I have been fond of Nicholas Ferrar, and the life lived at Little Gidding, for years. I have even been known to sit Night Watch, reading the Psalter right through. Perhaps tonight would be a good time. Anyone want to join me? Tomorrow night, Friday, would be fine too, if you get this too late for Thursday night - in memory of Nicholas Ferrar.

Posted by: Rev. Lois Keen on Thursday, 4 December 2008 at 11:59pm GMT

Beautiful

The Lord's prayer "May God's will be done on earth, as it is in heaven."

The above included "Jesus develops the idea further: he does not simply talk about feasting in God’s kingdom; in addition he actually sits and eats and drinks with the underclasses and the unclean, declaring by his actions that their sins are forgiven (because they needed no further ritual cleansing)..."

So, if Jesus boldy proclaims by his words and deads that sins are forgiven, why are Christian priests still rabbitting on about unclean and unforgiven souls e.g. women or in particular Eve?

Posted by: Cheryl Va. on Friday, 5 December 2008 at 7:56am GMT

"unclean and unforgiven souls e.g. women or in particular Eve?"

Christian priests don't rabbit on, as far as I am aware, that any woman is unclean or unforgiven. Not even Eve. What's more, Christians have always seen Christ as a new Adam and Mary as a new Eve. Considering that Mary's role in redemption was secondary to that of Christ, that would imply that Eve's role in the fall was secondary to Adam's. At most, they are equal. One could also make the argument that Eve fell to the temptation of the Enemy, while Adam fell to the temptation of a mere mortal, so his weakness in the Fall was greater than that of Eve, who might possibly have resisted the temptation of a mere mortal. That last bit is anything BUT traditional, of course, but the rest is very much so.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Friday, 5 December 2008 at 12:39pm GMT

I'm not so sure that what Ford says is necessarily considered a fundamental part of Christianity, rather than just an idea at the periphery; and especially, as far as Anglicans are concerned, the more Marian aspects of what he wrote and any implied parallelism with a mythical Eve figure.

But in answer to Cheryl, I think we can consider that God in Christ Jesus invites all to the feast, invites all to live in the kingdom. But living in the kingdom means trying to live a new life. The gospel parables do make it clear that not everyone accepts the invitation to the feast, to the kingdom; and indeed that not everyone who accepts the invitation lives up to their calling. These are difficult areas not easily answered in a few words in a comment. But I think they leave room for further discussion about who is or isn't forgiven or clean.

That said, it is God who invites, and God who forgives and God who makes clean. The Church, and priests acting on the authority of the Church, do so in God's name, not in their own right (being sinful men and women themselves).

Posted by: Simon Kershaw on Saturday, 6 December 2008 at 3:57pm GMT

"a fundamental part of Christianity, rather than just an idea at the periphery; and especially, as far as Anglicans are concerned, the more Marian aspects of what he wrote and any implied parallelism with a mythical Eve figure."

My understanding is that, while not a major consideration in Anglicanism, the idea of Adam/Eve parallelling Christ/Mary is pretty basic. Unless I misremember, there are several hymns in the Orthodox liturgy that speak of exactly this parallellism. They don't get into the degree if guilt for the Fall, that's my extrapolation, all the same.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Saturday, 6 December 2008 at 7:50pm GMT

The Commemoration of Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding was celebrated with due dignity in the Church of Christchurch, Saint Laurence, in the Diocese of Sydney, on Wednesday, 4th December.

It was wonderful to be able to be present in this shrine of Anglo-Catholicism in the heart of the Australian Metropolis, where it's Archbishop may never have even heard of Little Gidding - or the spirituality of it's Founder - even though Deacon Nicholas remained a devout and orthodox member of the Church of England until his death in 1637.

It was a privilege, also, to be present at High Mass on the following Sunday, where the Advent Season was honoured by the Solemn chanting of the Litany at the beginning - something which is not common in many churches of the Communion, but which would have pleased the High Church members of the re-Asserters - despite their antipathy towards the acceptance of women and gays that this community encourages and celebrates.

One couldn't help feeling that Nicholas Farrer might have heartily approved of the services, and maybe even the liberal catholicism represented within the family of the Anglican Communion.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Wednesday, 10 December 2008 at 10:35am GMT

"Christchurch, Saint Laurence, in the Diocese of Sydney"

A longsuffering(how often do you get to use that word twice in a day?) parish so I understand. No chazzies, since we all know sacraments are rendered invalid by certain garments, and their weareres all packed off to perdition. And being an inclusive parish under Jensen can't be a frolic. Imagine the persecution stories we'd have if it were a "conservative" parish in a "liberal" diocese. Is this the parish about which I have heard the likely apocryphal story of a Corpus Christi procession that went to the parish boundary and solemnly gave Benediction in the direction of the cathedral? Lovely act of catholic defiance, but I find it hard to believe the Jensen's would tolerate a monstrance.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Thursday, 11 December 2008 at 1:16pm GMT
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