Welcome to today’s Solemn Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral, the first in our Advent season of preparation for Christmas and the opening of a new liturgical year.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was one of the wittiest ever exponents of the English language. He lived a rather colourful and controversial existence in the second half of the nineteenth century. A brilliant man, he was a poetic version of Liberace, a society aesthete, droll playwright, insightful journalist and humorist in everything.
He was responsible for some of the most memorable lines in our language. Of himself he said: “I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.” “I can resist everything except temptation.” And again: “Anyone who lives within their means suffers a lack of imagination.” From his experience he’d concluded “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants; the other is getting it.”
He knew himself; he also knew his fellows. “The world is a stage,” he agreed with Shakespeare, but the play, he thought, is rather badly cast. “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Cynics, he said, know the price of everything and the value of nothing. And so he counselled us to “Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.”
And because Wilde knew himself and his fellows, he also cared about their Church. He said rather cheekily that he thought that “God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability.” The Catholic Church, he observed, was “for saints and sinners alone” whereas “for respectable people,” who were neither in any intense way, his church, “the Anglican Church will do.” But whatever kind of Christian we are or will become, he thought that it is only through a broken heart that Christ enters in.
Less well known than Wilde’s witticisms is the fact that he converted to Catholicism on his death bed. Baptised Anglican as a child, he flirted with Catholicism throughout his life but never took the plunge, perhaps because he felt unworthy or unable to live its high ideals. Before his death at only 46 from cerebral meningitis he called for a priest, was received into the Church and received Extreme Unction. Though already failing, Wilde tried to repeat the priest’s invocation of the Holy Names and acts of contrition, faith, hope and love. He died the next day.
Wilde’s was a hopeful, in many ways beautiful, ending. As a Catholic bishop I could not recommend all that went before! A flamboyant and troubled man, he ended up being convicted of gross indecency with men and spending two years imprisoned with hard labour. In 1897, from his cell, he wrote De Profundis, a long letter about his own spiritual journey through his trials, forming a dark counterpoint to his earlier philosophy of pleasure. He died in exile and destitute, yet he was able to find peace at the last in the bosom of the Church and her Sacraments, as he went on his way to God. For God’s mercy, he realized, is infinite and comes to those who allow Him even the narrowest way in, and especially to those whose broken hearts open wide to Him. God gives us chance after chance, right up to our last breath.
Yet human beings are creatures of habit. Our characters and dispositions are formed moment-by-moment, choice-by-choice. Chances are, our attitudes to God and neighbour during our lives will be our attitudes when we die. If we kill people, we make ourselves killers; if we love people, we make ourselves lovers. Unless we repent of our course of life till now we are likely to keep going in the same direction. So if we are pious and generous and faithful, we are likely to be so when our life’s journey comes to its completion; but if we lie and cheat, refuse to forgive and act selfishly, or if we do outwardly good things while harbouring hatred and indifference in our hearts, then we are likely to be the same when our time is up. And that’s who we will bring to eternity. Mr Wilde needed infamy and imprisonment and a fatal illness before his time, to shock him into a turn-around; and he was lucky, as it came at five minutes to midnight for him.
Our readings today are full of seriousness and urgency about such matters. Advent, as we know, looks to Christ’s coming to us at Christmas and again at the End of Time, as well as our coming to Christ somewhere in between. And so our Advent readings are full of foreboding: we hear predictions of tribulation and dire warnings to be ready. Today Christ tells His disciples that the supernatural signs in the heavens and the natural ones on earth, the cataclysms among men and within them, should all shake us up so we get ready for our end here and now (Lk 21:25-36). No-one knows when (Mt 24:36; Mk 13:32), there are many possibilities of how, but the what is certain: our lives will end. So while we do not engage in witches’ prognostications or voyeur’s delight in imminent punishment for universal depravity, still we ready ourselves for Christ’s return to us and ours to Him.
So today we begin our annual Advent retreat, watching, waiting, hopeful that those “days are coming” when God will save his People and restore honesty and integrity (Jer 33:14-16). The prophet Jeremiah barely glimpsed how this would happen: somehow it would involve a descendant of David and unlike most of that family he would be virtuous. We know who that good seed, that virtuous shoot is: the baby Jesus, born of the Virgin in the stable of Bethlehem. But for all the prophesying, will Israel be ready when He comes?
Will we, will you, be ready when He comes? Will our community be ready, as the inns of Israel were not? Will your soul be open to receiving Him, like the first Christmas crib? To ready yourself Jesus says today: Watch yourselves! Don’t let evil in, lest your souls become dull or dead, closed to me forever. Pray, pray lots. As St Paul counsels, let Christ increase His love and holiness in you. Be generous, loving, blameless in God’s sight. Be saints. Don’t wait till your deathbed or for the death of the cosmos: right now “make progress in the kind of life that you are meant to live: the life that God wants” (1Thes 3:12-4:2). With our death always on the near horizon, repent, confess, be absolved, receive Christ into your hearts in Holy Communion, in the Holy Scriptures, in the watchfully praying community of the Church.
Oscar Wilde said “every saint has a past and every sinner has a future”. Many a saint, as Pope Benedict observed, made many a mistake. They were not perfect. Nor were they made perfect by their own efforts. But by their end they were letting God perfect them. This Advent we too watch and pray; we ready our community to receive the Holy Family into our inn; we ready ourselves to receive the Christ-child into the crib of our hearts.
This is an edited version of the homily given by the Archbishop of Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, at a Mass for investiture of members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem at St Mary’s Cathedral on 29 November.