THE FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT– Aspiciens a longe
First Mattin Responsory
Looking from afar, behold I see the Power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth: * Go ye out to meet him and say: * Tell us, if thou be he that should come: * Which same shall reign * among the people of Israel. V. Ye inhabitants of the world and sons of men: rich and poor, one with another. R. Go ye out to meet him and say: Tell us, if thou be he that should come: Which same shall reign among the people of Israel. V. Hear, O thou Shepherd of Israel: thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep. R. Tell us, if thou be he that should come: Which same shall reign among the people of Israel. V. Stir up thy strength and come, to save us. R. Which same shall reign: among the people of Israel. V. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. R. Among the people of Israel. Looking from afar, behold I see the Power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth: Go ye out to meet him and say: Tell us, if thou be he that should come: Which same shall reign among the people of Israel.
Introit: (Ps 25) Ad te levavi. Unto thee lift I up my soul: O my God, in thee have I trusted, let me not be confounded; neither let mine enemies triumph over me: for all they that look for thee shall not be ashamed. Ps. Shew me thy ways, O Lord: and teach me thy paths. Glory be … Unto thee lift I up …
Collect: Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy power, and come: that by thy protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins, and saved by thy mighty deliverance; who livest and reignest with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, 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 the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow unto it. And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it. For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever. In that day, saith the Lord, will I assemble her that halteth, and I will gather her that is driven out, and her that I have afflicted; and I will make her that halted a remnant, and her that was cast far off a strong nation: and the Lord shall reign over them in mount Zion from henceforth, even for ever. (Micah 4.1-7)
Gradual: (Ps 25) All they that look for thee shall not be ashamed, O Lord. V. Make known to me thy ways, O Lord: and teach me thy paths.
Epistle: Brethren: Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now isour salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof. (Romans 13.8-14)
Alleluia. Shew us thy mercy, O Lord: and grant us thy salvation. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: When they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives, then sent Jesus two disciples, saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto me. And if any man say ought unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them. All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass. And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, and brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon. And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee. And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. (St Matthew 21.1-13)
“Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.”
Today we begin a new year according to the Church Calendar. Advent, which means “Coming,” is the season which encourages us to prepare, by prayer and meditation, fasting and almsgiving, for the Coming of our Lord. But the Advent season is multi-dimensional. It looks back to the coming of Christ as the Babe of Bethlehem two thousand years ago; it looks forward to the consummation of all things in the coming of Christ as Judge; but there is yet another dimension of importance for our spiritual life: Advent looks inward to Christ’s coming to us here and now. St Thomas Aquinas wrote of these three dimensions of Advent: the coming of the Son of God in carne—in the flesh, historically; His coming ad judicium—to judgement, at the end and as the end of history; and His coming in mente—in our minds and souls, now, by grace. And in many ways, Advent is about this third dimension: Christ’s Advent in mente, the present coming of the Word of God into our hearts and lives. And if we consider the appointed lessons from that standpoint, we see how in each instance the Epistle lesson underlines this present dimension of the Gospel. The Epistles and Gospels for the four Sundays before Christmas, as they appear in the Book of Common Prayer, are precisely those appointed in the Sarum Missal of the mediaeval Church of England (with the exception of a slight extension of a couple of the readings in 1549), which are, in fact, the same as those listed by St Jerome back in the Fifth Century. What we have, then, is not a random selection of readings, as in the newer lectionaries, but a coherent, thoughtful, and time-honoured series of lessons, in which Epistle and Gospel interpret and supplement each other.
The Advent journey is not an easy one. The cost of Christmas is that the crib also leads to the cross; that that birth leads to that death. So even as we recognise the difficulty of this journey we also recognise that this is indeed a fitting place to begin. For centuries, the Church used Advent to reflect not simply on the promise of a birth, but to spend this time reflecting upon our own mortality, our own fragility and limitations. This has traditionally been done through and examination of the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell; and Advent was the season that was especially set aside to ponder and prepare for these things. This reflection on our limitations, and our total reliance upon the gift of that promised birth, is why it is so important to maintain Advent as a penitential season. Advent has always been a season of solemn supplication as we prepare our souls for the coming of Our Lord, asking Him to help us to die to ourselves so that we might live in Him. So, if we think of Advent like the start of any journey or venture, it is of extreme importance to know the end or goal before we begin. How can we set out on a journey without a goal? How can we attentively walk through life, if we have no idea of our end?
It used to be quite usual for Advent sermons to focus on the Four Last Things, but this has largely fallen out of fashion in recent years, in favour of Advent wreaths with their “Hope,” “Peace,” “Joy,” and “Love” candles, treating Advent as “Christmas by anticipation,” and (im)patiently awaiting Baby Jesus in the manger. The Scripture lessons and Collects during Advent still address these ancient themes, but amazingly, we seem to find a way of skillfully avoiding them altogether. True, when we light our Advent wreath, we are probably much more comfortable saying, “This is the ‘joy’ candle” than saying, “Today we light the ‘hell’ candle.” And we would likely defend our discomfort by saying that children are too young to hear about things like death, judgement, and hell. But why? And what about adults? Why are we so uncomfortable with these aspects of the human condition and of our Christian tradition? It was not ever thus. And lest some of you think that I am going all morbid and “fundamentalist” on you, this was historically much more common in the Roman and Anglican churches than with the Protestants. In fact, the great mediaeval Sequence “Dies irae,” for generations sung at the Requiem Mass, was originally composed as an Advent hymn, which is where it still appears in our Hymn Book (#70). The Prayer Book Collect for Advent I plunges us headlong into the dichotomy between “this mortal life” and “the life immortal,” reminding us that at the moment of Christ’s second coming, whether we are living or dead, we will face His judgement. This is heavy stuff indeed, so much so that most Christians choose to side-step the Second Advent entirely, in favour of more cheery themes.
Death is indeed a hard place to start. Even if we live “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life,” there is still a stark finality to death. This is just a fact of life. In our modern world death has become a singular state defined solely as the opposite of life. But the real opposite of life is not death, but stagnation and complacency. In the world before our modern scientific age, and certainly in the world of the prophets, death had a much fuller meaning. Of course, death was that state which existed after the end of earthly life, but it was not the same as extinguishment. Not only did existence continue after death, but death was also a state which surrounded us in this life. Death in this pre-modern sense is less a singular scientific fact, and more a state where life cannot be lived. Whether through violence, or chronic illness, or the sheer fact of frequent and seemingly random mortality, death was a part of pre-modern life in a way which is hidden from the vast majority of us today in the Western world. And the more healthy and affluent we become, the more we tend to avoid and deny our own mortality. Thus, while our ancestors spent much of their religious life focussing on preparing for a good and holy death, we tend not to do so. Of course, much of our religious energy should be spent on how we live our lives here and now, but our Scriptures and Tradition call us to prepare for the reality of our death as well.
Compared to our ancestors, and to much of the world even now, we live in relative comfort and safety, but still the grim spectre of death has haunted our lives recently in ways that we would not have even imagined on the First Sunday in Advent two years ago. The reality of death and the possibility of our own deaths is probably a bit more real to us now. We have grown so accustomed to shying away from death. We see it on TV and in movies, but we do not want to talk about it or think about it “in real life.” It makes us uncomfortable. We try to paper over it with euphemisms and Astroturf. It has gotten to the point where we won’t even talk about death at a funeral anymore! What does it say about our faith as Christians, if we treat death like it is the worst thing imaginable, or pretend that it doesn’t exist? What kind of power does death wield over us, when we are so afraid of it that we can’t even bring ourselves to say the word? We have gotten so good at blocking the reality of death from our daily lives that we can hardly process it when it actually happens. We were not always this timid. Like many of you, I suspect, the very first prayer I ever learned, which I prayed every night, was the well-known
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
If I die before I wake,
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to take.
Think about that for a moment: In my first prayer as a child, I was taught about the reality of death. I didn’t find it creepy or upsetting. It didn’t give me nightmares, or cause me to be afraid to go to sleep. In fact, it gave me comfort, knowing that I was in God’s care, no matter what. Note also that it is not a prayer to be spared from death—death is not presented as something to be feared, it is just a given. The request is that if death should happen, I would be with Jesus. The main fear here is not death, but separation from God. That is the only real death. And that should always be our chief concern: in times of plague and in times of health, in good times and in bad, sleeping or waking: are we drawing closer to Christ? “Whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom 14.8). Our greatest fear ought not to be death; our concern as Christians is not whether we live or die; it is whether in life or in death we are connected to Christ. And that is what that prayer is all about.
“In the midst of life we are in death,” we hear in the Burial Rite from the Book of Common Prayer. These words are drawn from the mediaeval monastic prayer offices during Advent and Lent. Media vita in morte sumus. But the prayer continues: “Of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord … Yet, O Lord God most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not at our last hour, for any pains of death to fall from thee.” [These last words, for some inexplicable reason, have been omitted in the last iteration of the Canadian BCP, rendering it rather pointless.] This is essentially just a “grown-up” version of “Now I lay me down to sleep.” In the midst of life we are in death. In this world, death is a constant companion. But it is no longer the dreaded enemy, and our Christian hope is that at the end of our earthly sojourn, God will enfold us in His arms and receive us into His presence. Thus St Francis could say, in his beloved “Canticle of the Sun”:
Praised be Thou, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no man living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those who shall find Thy most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.
Thus, Advent is the celebration of our union with God. It is a union that we await with great longing and expectation, a union that will be completed at our Lord’s second advent, a union that we have glimpsed in our Lord’s first advent. We live our lives in between the two advents. This season encourages us to live—and die—as people who are longing to be with Our Lord. That is what Advent, and the entire Christian life, is really all about. As Christians, we believe that the world as we know it will one day come to an end and that Christ will once again break into our reality in power and glory. But that end will also represent a new beginning, a new creation—a new heaven and a new earth. Things that seemed everlasting, like the sun, moon, and stars, will fade into insignificance in the light of the eternal creative Word of God. Things that we thought were of utmost importance will no longer be so. Advent is about longing for God to be present in our world and in our lives. When Jesus talked about the coming of the Son of Man, He used the image of a fig tree bursting to sprout new leaves. In other words, this is something urgent and inevitable, that will represent new life and new fruit. It is not just an end, it is also a new beginning.
Today’s Gospel, at first glance, would seem to have nothing to do with Advent. It is the Palm Sunday story of Our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem at the time of His Passion, and we have difficulty getting beyond the literal sense of the text. But the ancient Fathers saw a deeper level of spiritual interpretation, according to which this story becomes a dramatic parable of Advent: the coming of the Son of God as the Messianic King, as Judge, and Redeemer of the Holy City. On this deeper spiritual level, the Temple is the human soul, and Christ comes to the soul to awaken and purify it. It is this dimension of the Gospel that the Epistle illuminates: “Knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep.” The Word of God approaches His temple: “the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light … put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.”
Jesus first visited the Temple when He was brought as a baby by Mary and Joseph for the rites of redemption and purification. On that occasion, Simeon was there waiting for Him. Simeon has spent his whole life in expectation of the coming Christ, and now that his Messiah has come, Simeon is ready to die in peace, singing: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2.29-32). At His second Temple visit, as Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on the donkey, the people acclaim Him as the Prophet of Nazareth, but unlike Simeon, they are not prepared for the true person and mission of Jesus. They see Him as their political saviour, so they were surprised and shocked by what He did next. When Jesus enters the Temple this time, He has to cast out thieves and impostors—prayer, communion with God, has ceased. The likes of Simeon are gone, and now God’s Temple has been defiled. If we read these two visits as parables of our own lives, we see two different responses to the advent of our death. We can be like Simeon, who prepares his entire life through prayer so that when Jesus comes, he recognises Him and may die peacefully. Or, we can be fooled by the promises of the world—we can name Jesus, but not recognise his true mission. Then, our temple is filled with robbers and liars, and we are no longer in communion with God. The season of Advent assures us Christ is coming, and calls us to awaken our souls and prepare our life in the knowledge of our coming death. So, how do we, like Simeon, prepare ourselves to die in peace?
First, as Christians, we know that Christ has conquered death. Death has lost its sting and its finality. Therefore, we have hope in knowing that what God has declared, He will do. Our souls will be reunited with our bodies, and we will live with Him in everlasting life. Thus, we prepare for our death by claiming the hope we have in Christ’s work, and can say, as in the Introit: “Unto thee lift I up my soul: O my God, in thee have I trusted, let me not be confounded; neither let mine enemies triumph over me: for all they that look for thee shall not be ashamed. Shew me thy ways, O Lord: and teach me thy paths.”
Second, we prepare ourselves by heeding the words of St Paul in today’s Epistle. These are very powerful words—in fact, the last phrase, “put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ,” was the verse that finally converted St Augustine. Paul further tells us in Romans that “we are buried with Christ by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom 6.4). At baptism we are engrafted into Christ and infused with those theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. But while God does equip us with these virtues, they need to be nurtured and realised in our own lives. Here we enter into a great mystery, that goes far beyond just moral commandments. We begin, imperfectly, during our lives here and now, to live a new life in and for God through Jesus Christ our Lord. But to do that, we must enter into Christ’s death through Baptism, and then continue to die daily to ourselves. Jesus tells His disciples: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt 16.24-25). So the key to living in Christ is death—a daily death of dying to our own desires and living for God, in order that, in the words of St Paul, “you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Rom 12.1).To die continually to self and live unto Christ is literally to offer our lives as a pleasing sacrifice to God. It is a life of death. But this sacrificial life is an imitation of Christ. As we are baptized into His death, we are raised with Him into His life. This must change our goals and priorities. Our desires, hopes, loves, and actions are now pointed toward Christ.
Last Sunday, as we ended the Church Year, we noted that as followers of Christ, we live in the world, but we are not of the world. As we make Christ our Lord and King, He changes our loyalties. He has given us new life, and yet the life we live here is just a foretaste of the Kingdom which is to come. Jesus ushered in that Kingdom when He came in the flesh at His first advent. But His is not like any other kingdom. Earthly kingdoms are generally about conquest. Christ’s is a spiritual kingdom, and its purpose is life and redemption. And He establishes His Kingdom right alongside the world’s kingdoms until His second advent, when there will no more be two kingdoms side by side, but God’s Kingdom alone.
God’s Kingdom grows as His people share the good news—the Gospel—with the world around them, as they live it out in their lives and manifest the power of the Spirit to change hearts and loyalties, as they demonstrate what it truly means to live as God’s people. Today we are reminded not to be complacent in our faith or to take God’s grace for granted. This is truly what our celebration of Christmas is all about. As we stand before the manger, we are reminded of the reason for it all. The cradle and the cross cannot be separated. Those people who lined the road to welcome Jesus as King had heard His teaching and seen His miracles. They gave Him praise and spread their garments and palm branches on the road before Him. But within the week they were crying out for His death. Are we like those people? Having once heard the Gospel, are we tied up and obsessed with life in the world’s darkness leading only to death? The Gospel gives us a very stern warning in the example of the Temple—the very centre of God’s worship. The Lord entered the Temple and turned over the tables of the moneychangers and chased out the merchants who were defrauding worshippers. “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.” When Christ enters our temples—our hearts and lives—what does He find? Worldly idols set up alongside His altar? Money-changers and usurers robbing people of the riches of God’s grace? Merchants and mercenaries hawking worldly fare? “Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in revelling and drunkenness, not in immorality and lust, not in strife and jealousy. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” Much of our Christmas preparation has to do with making provision for the flesh. But in the true spirit of the Season, let us try to make it more a matter of putting on the Lord Jesus Christ; more a matter of cleansing of the temple, the purgation and refocussing of our lives and loves, of casting off the works of darkness, and clothing ourselves with the armour of light, now, in the time of this mortal life.
Advent proclaims God’s three-fold coming: in carne, in mente, and ad judicium. And those three dimensions are always interconnected: Christ’s coming in the flesh—His atoning work—is the means of His coming to our souls in grace; and His coming in judgement is the final summation of all His comings in grace and what we have done with them. The Four Last Things remind us of our limitations, and encourage us to humility and godly living. We are not God, no matter how advanced we become with modern medicine, science, and technology. We will always be finite mortal beings. As such, we will all die. But we need not die alone or having lived in vain. Because of Christ, death no longer has the last word. And Christ’s Body, the Church, gives us a community within which we are equipped to live a holy life and die a holy death. Let us use this Season to reorder our lives, 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 Christ our King and Saviour.
“All they that look for thee shall not be ashamed, O Lord.”
Collect: O God, so rule and govern our hearts and minds by thy Holy Spirit that, being ever mindful of the end of all things, and the day of thy just judgement, we may be stirred up to holiness of living here, and dwell with thee forever hereafter; through Jesus 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.