Advent I, 28 Nov 21
People sometimes regret what they write on signs. Take, for example, a sign that was found on a Church door during the height of the restrictions late year when many churches closed. The sign on the Church door said, “God can be worshipped anywhere but not here because this Church is closed.” We live in a society where there are soo many signs. Covid made it worse with signs saying this way, that way, space, hands, face, etc etc. But driving has for some time, especially in London, felt particularly dazzling with all these signs. The latest invention is these school safe streets, which you may have seen have been created where only authorised cars can drive down streets where there are schools. While driving a car and tapping the steering wheel to your favourite tune, you also have to slow down sufficiently to read these very in-depth signs saying cars can only drive down this street between these hours on these days unless exemptions apply. Too many signs.
So it might with some sense of exhaustion that we hear our Lord say in today’s Gospel, “There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars.” Oh no, not yet more signs! In this season of Advent as we await the celebration of the Lord’s birth we will be reminded at various points of the prophecy from Isaiah 7:14: “The Lord Himself will give you a sign. Look, the maiden is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name Him Immanuel.” This is meant to be of encouragement to the House of David, ruled by King Ahaz at the time, going through particular difficulties because was not being faithful. Those problems are solved by the birth of Hezekiah who will not see Judah be party to the wickedness of Babylon. Far greater and more far reaching problems are solved by the Lord’s birth, the problem of sin and our waywardness from God. We are preparing ourselves in this season of Advent to celebrate this great victory of God coming to earth for us.
We sometimes hear people who point to the world’s problems of wars and famines and pandemics and say, “Well, the world is nearly over.” And they’re sort of right but I think, “Well, what’s not exactly news, is it? Jesus told us this centuries ago.” The Church has always lived in this light, knowing that this world will pass. And the Church spans in to the world to come. The Church Triumphant, as she is sometimes known, is the Church where she already worships Christ face-to-face in Heaven. We share in that community by worshiping Christ through faith today. When these self-proclaimed prophets tell us next time the world is ending don’t succumb to the pressure to become over-excited, which is what they want. Our Lord’s words in today’s Gospel will lead us to something quite different: sober, calm, patient, prayer and devotion, not hysteria or shouting or panic.
But what are these signs in the stars of which our Lord talks? St John Chrysostom explains the passage by saying that just as the moon and the stars are dimmed when the sun rises, so all these lights made by God at the beginning will be dimmed when Christ our Righteousness appears in all His glory: “The stars shall fall from Heaven stripped of their former attire that they may put on the robe of a better light” (quoted in Catena Aurea) In Heaven, we’re told, God’s people need neither lamp not light for the “Lord God will be their light,” (Apocalypse 22:5). We live here on earth dependent on these lights for growth and warmth and so we can see. To get to Heaven, we need to realise a yet greater dependence on God who placed them there.
Some people still look to the stars to tell their fortunes. They think they should only fall in love with Capricorns or that they will win the lottery as long as they but the ticket when the newspaper says they’re going to have some luck. What rubbish! This fatalism and determinism irradiates the wonderful liberty God has given us, His Church, and it undermines our capacity to make decisions, made in the image of God as we are. By all means read the stars for a bit of a laugh but don’t take what you read there about your future seriously. God has given us the Holy Spirit, such an immense gift: what a waste of time that would be if it was all predetermined and revealed in the stars.
This falling of the stars and the moon and the sun refers in some ways to those things we put our trust in. Some of those things will be long term problems: we can’t imagine ourselves not working, we can’t countenance surviving without our family or without our car or without the amount of money we have currently. All this reveals we need to reassess how we live our lives, seeing where we put our trust in the things of this world rather the grace of God. But there’ll be other things we simply put our trust in temporarily, because we’re tired or stressed or bored or excited, in the moment we think we just need that meal to go well, or we just need the car to work, or we just need the children to behave. At that moment we have created a god out of some set of circumstances and when that fails we crumble, we burst in to tears or we despair. We should not be living like this; we should only be putting our trust in God. Hence our Lord says the end days will cause fear because a whole load of stuff that we can’t imagine life without will suddenly go. Best to live with them out now.
Back to signs more generally. We have to be very careful about our use of the word “signs” in terms of our faith. For in one sense we have ditched signs, as St Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom but we proclaim Christ crucified,” (I Corinthians 1:24). Jesus’ teaching is also critical of this generation demanding signs (St Matthew 16:4). What’s the problem with signs? Well, I think in part the problem is that the request for them simply becomes an excuse for us not to accept responsibility ourself, an opportunity to blame someone else: “Oh, no one told me … You should have said … If only you’d asked …” Saying to God, “Give me a sign,” is ordering God to act and gets the relationship wrong: how dare we think we can order the King of Heaven and earth around, demanding this and that, asking for signs!
Signs are also only needed if there is an element of distance in the interaction or an absence of a personal relationship. If there was a police officer at the road junction there wouldn’t need to be a sign, she or he would just blow a whistle or raise his or her hand up. If you see someone crossing a road when it’s dangerous and there’s a red light you don’t just point them to the traffic light, you shout out, “Get out of the way.” We’re called to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, who is Head of the Church, whose Body and Blood are offered on this altar at every Mass, whose life vivifies us who are baptised in to His Name. A flourishing relationship doesn’t need signs.
It’s for this reason that the Sacrament of the Mass cannot be simply a sign, as Protestants would argue. “This is my Body, This is my Blood,” Jesus says at the Last Supper. In the words of the 1662 Prayer Book we are to be “partakers of His Body and Blood.” The bread and wine are not signs but the material of the Sacrament, the visible stuff, containing that which we can only see by faith here on earth: that which was pierced on the Cross and that which flowed out for the forgiveness of sins. Part of our personal relationship is being close to Jesus here, listening to His heart beat, hearing His words, watching His life poured out for us, perceiving His grace in those whom we encounter here.
Our relationship with Jesus cannot be restricted to what goes on in our heads and in our hearts, no one can live on in the heart and the head of another - that’s bonkers! - only memories, feelings, intentions and desires reside there, not individuals. This season of Advent prepares us for the birth of the Saviour. Part of the symbolism of the violet or purple used on altars and pulpits and vestments in Advent is that we’re waiting for a King and the royal colour has traditionally been purple, hence the robe our Lord has placed upon Him before His Crucifixion is of this colour too (St John 19:2). We’re waiting to celebrate His birth, when God comes among us in flesh. This is how God chooses to dwell among us, not just in privately in hearts and minds, but substantially, really, with all the concomitant vulnerability and outpouring of charity, given for us.
I love the hymn we started Mass with as a reminder of the purpose of Advent. We sang the chorus, “O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for thee.” Is there room there for the Lord or are there too many other cares, too many pressing demands, too many expectations from others? This season of Advent is a chance to remove that clutter, those worldly distractions. It is an opportunity for us to grow in our relationship with the Living Lord, who’s given us already all the signs we need and wants us to get on with it. Amen.