HOMILY at the 9h and 10h30 MASSES for ADVENT SUNDAY (C) 2018
A new beginning once again this morning. Another new Church year comes with Advent Sunday. And before we consider the theme of today’s Eucharist, it might be good to ask ourselves just why it is that we keep these liturgical seasons?
So what is Advent about? It began life as a three-week season of preparation for the feast of the Epiphany – and S. Hilary of Poitiers in the fourth century mentions this as the practice in France, and the Council of Saragossa in 380 gives details of it in Spain. In the fifth and sixth centuries, it was lengthened to forty days and calculated backwards from Christmas day. Bede the Venerable tells us that S. Egbert and S. Cuthbert fasted for forty days before Christmas – but I suspect that they probably fasted rather a lot anyway! In Rome, only a single day’s fast was prescribed before Christmas. Interestingly, as late as the 12th century, Advent was celebrated in parts of the Church as a festal season with white vestments and the singing of the Gloria in excelsis. The great Anglican liturgist, Percy Dearmer, wrote the tendency of the present day to make another Lent of Advent is much to be deprecated. The O Sapentia in our Kalendar and the use of Sequences in the old English books may remind us of the spirit of joyful expectation which is the liturgical characteristic of Advent.
And there, as in so many other things, I agree wholeheartedly with Percy Dearmer! S. Bernard of Clairvaux preached much on the subject of Advent and spoke of it focussing our attention upon three comings of Christ. First, into the world at Bethlehem, born of Blessed Mary. Second, his coming again with glory, and third his coming here and now in and through the life of the Church. The great 20th century spiritual writer and Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton, studied Bernard’s writings on Advent and concluded that for S. Bernard, Advent does not merely commemorate the Incarnation as a historical event, nor is it a devotional preparation for Christmas, nor is it an anticipation of the Last Judgment. It is above all the ‘sacrament’ of the presence of God in the world and in time in His Incarnate Word, in His Kingdom, above all His presence in our own lives as our Saviour. The sacrament of Advent is the needful presence of Christ.
This is important for us to grasp – not just in Advent but in all our celebrations of the Christian Year. Our understanding of time as Christian people is something that is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures and their grounding of the works and presence of God in the shape this takes in human history. So key events in that history become times of regular celebration, not only in terms of remembering and still less in the form of dry re-enactment. For the Jewish people, our ancestors in faith, the yearly cycle of the year represented occasions of shared celebration of and commitment to God who is always present and involved in the life of God’s people.
So the keeping the seasons of the Church’s Year, familiar practice as it is to us, represents a whole series of important interfaces. Between God and the Church, between the Church and the world, between the Bible and the Church, between the corporate and the individual. Keeping the seasons is not just a pious remembering of history but a celebration of the one Mystery of God in Christ which allows the Christ of faith to grow in us and in the Church.
Advent, then, is – like the other seasons – the time when we encounter the Mystery of God in Christ. I have always found it a season that is much loved by Church people. It is truly a time of joyful expectation – a time when we are filled with the longing for Christ to come.
Listening to today’s readings, how do we experience this? Certainly the Gospel reading we have just heard is not terribly encouraging at a superficial level. We’ll come back to it in a moment. The reading from the prophet Jeremiah however just oozes longing! This passage is the end of the prophet’s Book of Consolation which was addressed to a people exiled from their homeland, exiled from their central religious observances, a people for whom hope was in danger of being completed extinguished. And here at the end of this book of Consolation, Jeremiah brings the light of hope to them. There will be a new King from David’s line – he will restore righteousness and justice and Judah and Jerusalem will be saved.
As Christians we believe that this new King of Justice and Righteousness came in Jesus, and comes to us now, having conquered not a warring army but the last and ultimate enemies of all humanity – those of evil, sin and death.
The second reading set for today – from Paul’s first letter to the Christians at Thessalonica – moves us to think not so much about Christ’s first coming but what we describe as his Second coming. This is an aspect of Christian doctrine which – as one great theologian of the mid-20th century put it – lies dormant in the Church! Except, that is, for a certain kind of weird and very unhealthy preoccupation with it by certain Christians on the periphery, and largely found the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
But we cannot altogether escape this. And the Gospel reading for today seems to plunge us right into it. What does this picture, painted in such vivid if stark colours by S. Luke, of Jesus’ teaching about eschatology have to say to us? Particularly to those of us who are assembled here in the Advent Season – time of joyful anticipation? For what is spoken of here is more akin to the dramatic poetry of the Dies Irae – written by Thomas of Celano for the Sunday before Advent, it is believed.
We have to see this in the right context. All three Synoptic Gospels have this so-called apocalyptic discourse from Jesus. Teaching which seeks to uncover deep realities – to unveil reality as it is and infuse that with a vision of what will be, a vision of hope. And this teaching draws deeply upon previous apocalyptic teaching, particularly as we find it in the book of the prophet Daniel, where we read of one like a Son of Man coming on the clouds with power and great glory. A quotation which S. Luke has slightly modified – changing the plural clouds to cloud which may be suggestive of the Ascension of Christ.
If that is so, then we have a key to understanding this difficult passage. It also takes us back to S. Bernard’s understanding of Advent and the three comings of Christ. In the Gospels, the apocalyptic discourse of Jesus comes at the end of his teaching about the Kingdom and before his Passion, where that Kingdom will be inaugurated. But Christ’s Kingdom is not what was expected. Hence the language about heaven and earth being shaken up and behaving abnormally, with signs of distress in the sun and moon, the stars and sea. Christ’s Kingdom is like turning the world’s ideas of kingdom and rule completely upside down!
And yes, there are several things here. First, we do believe as Christian people, that humanity, our world, our universe of being has a purpose, a goal, an end in other words. And we understand that end or goal in terms of God’s rule – God’s Kingdom. We also know by the Laws of Thermodynamics, that at some point the universe will cease to be and will contract, though we need not worry about this happening any time soon! But what Christ says here to us is not so much about concerning ourselves with that, but rather with staying awake and watching for his presence. Being ready to stand before the Son of Man – being ready, in other words, to recognise and welcome Christ in the here and now. That requires of us some serious readjustments in our vision. If we look at our world today, what is it that rules? Who has the power? Might is seen to be right, and wealth the path to might. In our own lives, we have seen enormous change. My grandmother – who lived well into her 90s – used to do much of her washing each week in the burn (Scots word for ‘stream’) and had none of our labour-saving devices. But she always had time for other people and delighted to get the kettle on the fire for a cup of tea for her visitors. Our own 21st technological abilities for labour saving doesn’t seem to have helped us much in the basic human skills of hospitable and harmonious living.
This encourages us to a deeper celebration of this season of Advent. A readiness to welcome Christ in our day to day lives as he comes to us in Word and in Sacrament, in the world of the present, and in the people around us. We need to see the signs of what’s really happening and to stand awake and alert to the Son of Man, risen and ascended and present always with us, calling us to make God’s rule more of a reality in our lives and our world.
Can I leave you with an image which relates to the beginning of a new Church Year? It is this. Something absolutely essential in my life!! But a good illustration of the round of liturgical seasons. A corkscrew. With every turn of the screw, you come a little closer to the reality which is within. You can’t take the analogy too far, because there never comes a moment when the cork pops out. But with every new year, every new season, there is a turn of the screw which is to take us ever closer to the Mystery which is at the very heart and core of all that is. Happy New (Church’s) Year!