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!