ADVENT IV – Memento nostri
Introit: (Ps 106) Remember us, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit us with thy salvation; that we, beholding the felicity of thy chosen, may rejoice in the gladness of thy people, and may glory with thine inheritance. Ps. We have sinned with our fathers: we have done amiss, and dealt wickedly. Glory be … Remember us …
Collect: Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy power, and come among us, and succour us with thy great might: that by thy grace whatsoever is hindered by our sins may speedily be accomplished through thy mercy and satisfaction; who with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, livest and reignest God, throughout all ages world without end. Amen.
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility: that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
OT Lesson: In those days: Moses spake unto all the children of Israel, and said: The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken; according to all that thou desiredst of the Lord thy God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not. And the Lord said unto me, They have well spoken that which they have spoken. I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him, saith the Lord Almighty. (Deuteronomy 18.15-19)
Gradual: (Ps 145) The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him: yea, all such as call upon him faithfully. V. My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord: and let all flesh give thanks unto his holy Name.
Epistle: Brethren: Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord. (Philippians 4.4-7)
Alleluia. Come, O Lord, and tarry not, forgive the misdeeds of thy people. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: The Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to John, to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that Prophet? And he answered, No. Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias. And they which were sent were of the Pharisees. And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not the Christ, nor Elias, neither that Prophet? John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; he it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose. These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing. [The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.] (St John 1.19-29)
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light … that cometh into the world.” (St John 1.6-9)
This is the week of the darkest time of the natural year, but we look for the return of the light in a spirit quite different from the world of paganism into which that light comes. Our waiting is in joyful expectancy, not in fear and anxiety. For us, the darkness of the Advent season has far more to do with our spiritual lives than with the natural phenomenon of the winter solstice. Our darkness dwells in those forms of spiritual wickedness and folly in each of our lives, individually and collectively: the night of our turning away from the light of God’s love—the darkness within. To be awakened to that perception is the purpose of the Church’s season of Advent.
“Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Our repentance brings us to an even greater joy at Christmas, because it reminds us of the purpose of Our Lord’s coming and the divine humility of the Word made flesh. The darkness gives way to the great Light of Christ. The majesty of God is manifested in the humanity of the Son of God, the Word made flesh and the Light of the world. Today’s Epistle reading sounds a note of praise, a return of the light, in the midst of our darkness—not the darkness of nature, but the darkness St Paul names as our anxieties, literally, being “full of cares,” overwhelmed by our own preoccupations and busyness, especially in this pre-Christmas season—exhorting us to “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say, Rejoice!” This is the note echoed in the refrain of the Advent hymn, Veni, Emmanuel. We rejoice because “the Lord, Emmanuel, is at hand.” John the Baptist’s mission was to prepare the Lord’s way by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We were introduced to John last week. He was the last of the great line of Prophets and, as Jesus Himself says, he was the greatest of them all, because he not only foretold the coming of the Messiah, he had the privilege of pointing out to his audience the Son of God in human form, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. Yet John was sent not only for his contemporaries, but for people of all time. Like the Pharisees of those days, people today are often controlled by pride, self-centredness and self-righteousness. The modern age makes them feel that God is not necessary – no longer relevant – in the “advanced” and “enlightened” scientific and technological world of today. Now, more than ever, people need that prophetic voice.
Let us listen, then, to the call of John the Baptist, and respond to the God who is coming to us, and is even now in our midst. As the greatest of the prophets and forerunner or herald of Messiah, John identifies himself in, through, and by his relationship with, Jesus. Whereas Jesus defines himself as “I AM,” John defines himself by “I am not.” He is not that Light that shines in the darkness. He is not the Messiah, he is not Elijah, he is not the “Prophet like Moses.” He is not even worthy to untie the shoes of the One who is to come. Yet, even in his resolute claims about who he is not, who he is and why he is here is defined by and inseparable from the presence of the Word made flesh. John understands his own identity only in connexion to Jesus’ identity. Can we make similar claims about our purpose? Can we locate our identity as intimately with Jesus?
Immediately after our Gospel pericope, we learn more about the witness that John gave. We hear, “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me.” John called the people to repentance in preparation for the coming of Messiah. We hear this even in his quotation of Isaiah, as he says, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Yet the Gospel places a far greater emphasis on the fact that Jesus had come to offer Himself as the sacrificial Lamb of God to expiate the sin of the entire world. John, in fact, says this twice, since the following day as John was standing with two of his disciples, he saw Jesus walking by and again said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” Christ was conceived and born into this world in order to give His life for you and me. During Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, we rejoice that, as the Evangelist says earlier in this chapter, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus was greater than John the Baptist. He came before John, because He is the eternal Son of God who took on human flesh – a human nature – without ceasing to be God.
Today’s story of John the Witness calls attention to a fundamental confession of the Incarnation, “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome (or understand – the Greek carries both meanings) it.” Long before “the Word became flesh,” is the claim, with overtones of Genesis 1, that light shines where light had not been before. God’s incarnation is the creation of light in the darkness. This imagery is hard for us to appreciate in our modern world when light is taken for granted on a daily basis. But for the early Christians it was far different. In the dead of winter, in the midst of the darkest and shortest days of the year, festivals of light were essential. John’s first declaration of the Incarnation, that the Light of the world is continually shining when darkness should prevail, speaks to the basic human need for light. Even before the Word was made flesh, there was the prophetic promise that in the midst of all the darkness of humanity, light will shine. Those who ignore or reject God are stumbling in darkness and wandering in the wilderness, on the road to sorrow, pain, and despair. Advent reminds us that the answer to our problems lies in God. Any unhappiness we experience is really an experience of the lack of God. The lessons we read today remind us that, if we are not finding our joy and fulfilment in God, we are under a delusion, and sooner or later that illusion will give way to reality. God is the answer. Only in God can we find true joy and happiness. As we prepare to celebrate the coming of God into our world through Jesus, we need also to remind ourselves that we have been called to be the means to bring the light and joy of Jesus into other people’s lives. It is essential to have Christ at the centre of a truly Merry Christmas.
As the dark and cold of winter encroach upon our days and the birth of the Baby Jesus draws near, we hear the word “joy” everywhere. Apparently, you can even buy it at Walmart (!) But the problem is that, for many people, this is a time of depression, not of joy. And why? Well, because the poor are still poor; people are still broken-hearted; and the captives and prisoners are not released. What has happened to the promise of the prophet’s beautiful words? How is joy possible? It might well seem safer to read and hear the Gospel as if it all applied to something that happened long ago and far away. But that is not the full range of its voice. The Good News of Emmanuel is spoken to us here and now. It is rather easy to objectify and externalize God’s voice in the world. The poor, the broken-hearted, the blind, the captives, were back then and out there. But Jesus tells us that Isaiah’s words were not merely for previous generations, they were for the present – their present and ours. It is you and I who are the poor. We are impoverished, not only in the matters of our unfulfilled desires, but in our inability to save and heal ourselves, our utter incapacity to manage our way through life. We are captive: prisoners of fear, despair, isolation, pride, selfishness, and greed. And we too suffer broken hearts. Yet joy is possible because, for the Christian, joy is not an emotion, it is a way of life; not a passive waiting for the coming of Christ, but an active participation in His presence. Joy in the Lord is compatible with waiting for the final redemption from our suffering and our sin because Christ is Emmanuel, God with us, and His love suffuses and transfigures all our suffering. In today’s Epistle reading, St Paul summarizes our Christian life: rejoice, pray, and render thanks. We rejoice in the glorious presence of God among us. We pray, even as Jesus did, to keep ourselves in union with God the Holy Trinity. We express our gratitude to Him who has graced us with a multitude of gifts. Advent calls us to be witnesses to Christ, to be beams of light in the darkness of this world. Thus John’s role is also ours. It is our role to go before Christ, clearing the way so that He may come into the lives of other people. Like John, we are not the Light, but we are called, by our baptism, to bear witness to the Light by all that we say and do. This has to be manifested in our daily lives as we prepare the way of the Lord. We rejoice in the Lord because He is coming, and is even now in our midst. In this holy season, we are waiting for the Lord who is coming to us, who has already come, and is certain to come again. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
We are preparing to celebrate the birth of the Son of God into our world. We will all expend great effort in this celebration. We put up Christmas trees and decorations, bake Christmas dainties, and buy gifts. Yet what is the witness that we give about the One whose Birth we celebrate? What do we say to others about Jesus? Do we confess that this Baby born at Bethlehem is true God and true man? Do we confess that that He died on the cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and rose from the dead on the third day? Or are we silent because the world says that religion is a private matter that should be kept to oneself? What witness do our actions give? Do our lives now share this love we have received in Christ? We go all out preparing for Christmas, but do we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into our world, into our own hearts and lives? We spend so much time preparing the exterior for Christmas, but do we neglect our interior selves, our souls? It is easy to get the physical stuff looking nice and festive, but it is much harder to get our hearts in the same state. These kinds of preparations are what Advent is all about. What do we need to do to prepare for the coming of Christ? The Epistle bids us prepare to meet the coming Saviour with prayers, supplications and thanksgiving, while the Gospel, in the words of St. John Baptist, reminds us that the Lamb of God is even now in our midst, even though we may not recognize Him.
Maybe our Advent preparation means simply adjusting our eyes to see light when there seems to be none. John the Baptist came as a witness to the Word made flesh, the incarnate Son of God. He pointed to the One who was greater than he. God calls us to be witnesses, like John, who point to Jesus and say, “Behold Him!” “No, I am not the light. But I am pointing you toward the light.” In that voice crying in the darkness of our wilderness, we hear the Word of God. In the judgement that is repentance, we know the Christ who is forgiveness. Be anxious (care-full) in nothing. The Lord is at hand.
“The Light shineth in the darkness.”
Collect: Mercifully hear, O Lord, the prayers of thy people: that, as they rejoice in the advent of thine only-begotten Son according to the flesh, so when he cometh a second time in glory, they may receive the rewards of eternal life; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
May Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, shine upon you and scatter the darkness from before your path, that you may be ready to meet him when he cometh again in glory: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.