Advent I, 27 Nov 22
Well, it will soon be panto season. Oh yes it will! And like so much good story telling be it film or book or art or fairy tale, we have to know easily whether people are good or bad. And so when someone bad comes on stage, the lights go dark, the music becomes sinister, someone who looks ugly and dresses like a witch will come on. Similarly when someone good comes on, it’s all sunny and light and twinkly, everyone looks fresh and happy, the music is serene and so on. We know then when to clap and cheer, and when to boo and hiss. These are efficient and natural ways of communicating to us the nature of the person who is coming so we know how to respond.
Happy new year everyone! Yes, the First Sunday of Advent is the beginning of a new church year. And what could be a better start for us as we strive to be faithful than to have a fresh impetus to look for Jesus coming in to our lives and to welcome Him appropriately. It’s why I think the first hymn we sang at the start of Mass is so appropriate with its chorus: “O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for thee.” Advent means “arrival” and this season is one of preparation, we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Lord on 24th and 25th December, when God came to earth in human form; and we also prepare for the second coming of the Lord, at the end of time, when He shall judge the living and the dead and hand over His kingdom to His Father.
Much that happens in our liturgy is there to remind us that at particular points in the liturgy Jesus is particularly present so we then know how to respond. Now, God is present everywhere, I hear you say, but, of course, God is present everywhere because He is present somewhere, that’s how this world which He has created works: we have bodies which exist in particular time and location. God in comforting us knows this is how His presence is to be too. Hence we have Sacraments and Church buildings so that there can be particularly places and moments of intense union with God that we may know His presence with us 24/7.
So, when the bells are rung, or there are particularly more candles round the altar, or when someone like a priest is wearing fancier clothes than others, it is to signify the presence of Jesus and who He is. We saw a particularly good example of this last Sunday with Benediction, when the Lord present under the form of Bread from Mass, imparts His blessing to us, and so incense is offered, the organ fanfares, there are more candles, we all kneel down. Jesus is the King of Heaven and earth and our posture, our behaviour and our thoughts reflect that, along with the liturgical paraphernalia. We learn too from this that Jesus is God and so is to be worshipped, just as the Wise Men did when they went to visit that newborn child two thousand years ago: they bend their knees and adore Him (St Matthew 2:11).
So, we have a twofold challenge for this season of Advent, which I hereby solemnly give you: to ask yourselves who is Jesus and to ask if your life teaches others this. This is what the worship in our Church does here and it is what we are to be outside in the world.
Let’s see what our readings teach us on these two questions:
In Isaiah 2, the prophet received a vision of the Temple of the Lord, high and raised up on the mountain - a nice image for us to have before us as we look at the Rood Screen in St Mary’s with altar now elevated and therefore more visible. The God whom the prophet looks for comes to “wield authority over the nations and [to] adjudicate between many peoples.” Jesus as King has authority over us, we are to be his servants, and so often when we see that word servant in the Scriptures the actual word is slave. It might make us uncomfortable but this is how we are think of our relationship with God. Remember the centurion’s words to the Lord “I also a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes and to another, “Come” and he comes,” (St Matthew 8:9) and Jesus praises this centurion’s faith. Faith then is about living under authority and knowing there are obligations we fall short of.
I overheard a great example of this in, of all places, a pub the other day. Two business acquaintances were boasting about their season tickets at local sports clubs - yes, one including that one up the road - and one of the guys said, “Yeah, but I can’t go on Saturdays because I go to Church.” Now, he was Seventh Day Adventist and so goes to Church on a different day to we as Christians, but he nicely showed how we could reveal that Jesus has authority over us and we are following Him. “This is something I can’t do because I am a Christian. I am under authority.”
Secondly, Jesus is the Prince of Peace, as Fr Beer reminded us on Remembrance Sunday, and we are therefore to be at peace with each other, revealing we know who Jesus is, as we heard in our first reading, “these will hammer their swords into ploughshares, their spears into sickles.” If you have a sword at home, turn it into something useful. If you or someone you know has a knife at home to be used for so-called protection, go get rid of it. But also if there is bitterness or enmity within your heart towards someone, someone here in our Church family, or someone at home, or someone who lives near you, then that no less needs to be gone.
Thirdly, in the run up to Christmas there is a great danger of materialism, in one of the most horrifying ironies of human society. In our own day where there is a great worry about not having enough of stuff, the danger of being overly materialistic is actually no less, for the worry about not having whatever it might be - money, turkey, heating, food - actually just perpetuates the materialism within ourselves. It is not money, remember, which is the root of all evil according to St Paul in his letter to Timothy, but the love of money, and this we can have in our hearts whether we are rich or poor or just somewhere in the middle (I Timothy 6:10).
Love of the things of this world does not prepare people for the coming of Jesus Christ. As our Lord says in the Gospel today, “As it was in Noah’s day, so will it be when the Son of Man comes. For in those days before the Flood people were eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands, right up to the day Noah went into the ark, and they suspected nothing.” Now notice how none of those things Jesus lists there are wrong in themselves. It is not the case that eating, drinking, or getting married are bad things, indeed we hallow the former by saying grace before meals, and the latter is a sacrament of the Church. Through man and woman become an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual union Christ is to have with His Church. But it’s very easy when doing those perfectly harmless things to turn in on ourselves and thereby think only about ourselves or our own loved ones. Such introspection becomes selfish and arrogant as we set ourselves up as a god: all things become oriented towards our own happiness and survival.
One of the challenges then of this season is not to get caught up in the wave of eating and drinking to the detriment of our looking for the coming of Jesus. Our families, homes, communities, schools and work places should be places where people are not put under pressure to buy a million presents or to take out loans to pay for things, not because we’re scrooges or just want to store up worldly wealth for ourselves, but because we know no matter how much money we spend, or food we eat, or drink we drink, or tele we watch, there is nothing to compare with the joy of hearing Heaven’s angels sing as we welcome the newborn King.
We see then in Jesus a life well-lived and completely fulfilled: and this is true in the drafty smelly stable with no comfort and on the lonely, painful altar of the Cross. Our simplicity of life should witness to this so that people know what Jesus is really like. As we contemplate more deeply who Jesus is may our lives reflect His truth, the only Truth. May we be peaceable and ministers of reconciliation. May we not be materialistic. May we live visibly under the sovereignty of God. And thus others will see the Lord Jesus and want to welcome Him in this season of Advent too.