ADVENT is a coming, not our coming to God, but his to us.
We cannot come to God, he is beyond our reach; but he can come to us,
for we are not beneath his mercy. (Austin Farrer)
Throughout our spiritual season of Advent we have been preparing for the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ at Christmas time. He has been coming to us in one way that we might see and experience Him in another. Of course we know that Christ is always coming to us. It is in the nature of God that He never ceases to communicate and express Himself in the rule and governance of creation and to the hearts and souls of the faithful. God speaks His Word and things are created, preserved, and related to one another. God speaks His Word and men and women, with the ears to hear, learn to obey His will and walk in His way. God never ceases to speak to us, and yet in specific seasons of the Christian Year He speaks in one way more than another. In so doing, He is always preparing us for a more advanced coming and deeper union with Himself. In Advent, he speaks as one who readies and prepares us for the birth of His Word in our souls on Christmas day.
So in Advent the Word speaks to us, calls and summons us to make ready for birth, new birth, our births. Yet for the Word to be generated within us, it must be heard and remembered. And what a challenge this task seems to be, in a world with so many words that the Word cannot be heard. If the Word is heard at all, it seems to be a Word heard only partially, refined and suited to the desires and pursuits of a godless people. Think about it: is it not the case that so many people only ever hear what they want to of God and His Word? The tendency is evidenced in the post-modern Christmas. Wouldn’t you say that there are lots of people who get rather sloppily sentimental about the birth of Christ? They like to think about His being born in a manger nestled away from the noisome pestilence of consumer society. Others tend to focus on atmospheric tenderness and climatic love that somehow permeate the environment with a global spiritual warming. Still others center their hopes on the ever-romantic peace on earth and good will to men. Even the best intentioned of respectable bleeding hearts hear what they want to hear of and from the Word, and leave the rest to God, or so it would seem. As a result, in the end, truly the Word is not heard, and most men remain all the worse off for it. Left with the bits and pieces of a deconstructed God and His half-heard Word, lukewarm believers will spend another Christmas indulging a self-satisfaction that leaves them as bereft of God’s plan and purpose as ever before. Thus the world will indulge another meaningless Christmas. T. S. Eliot wrote that Against the Word, the unstilled world still whirled/About the centre of the silent Word. (Eliot: Ash Wednesday) God’s Word remains mostly silent as the world kills its nature in a whirl of inane words.
In Advent, Christ has been speaking to us. He is the silent Word addressing us from the centre of all reality. He has called us into the silence of stillness that we might hear His Word. On the First Sunday in Advent Christ the silent Word came to purge the temples of our souls. We were then exhorted to cast off the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light. (Advent Sunday Collect) On the Second Sunday in Advent we learned that the silent Word is the permanent and unchanging Wisdom of God, which we must begin to hear with patience, comfort, and hope. On the Third Sunday in Advent the friends of John Baptist heard the Word and witnessed its power, learning that the approaching silent Word intends not only to be heard, but received and handed on, as what heals and gives new life to those who hope in His love and power. And now on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, the silent Word is still heard, as the sole cause of true rejoicing, from the ground and center of the soul, in the wilderness of the soul’s self-emptying, from a space at last removed from the false gods of this world.
Today we end our Advent journeying, in order to welcome a new beginning. The silent Word that we hear can be received only in the heart and soul that has been emptied of all pride, so that humility might courageously submit to its scope, rule, and sway. Today we hear the silent Word that has touched and transformed John the Baptist. Who is John the Baptist, we ask in this morning’s Gospel? 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. (St. John i. 21) Who is this man that awaits the coming Word, whose ears long eagerly to hear the silent Word? Indeed he is one whose own silence becomes the only space suitable for the silent Word to be heard. He is the one in whom the silent Word can find meaning and purpose. I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias. (St. John i. 23) He tells us that the silent Word has been heard in the empty wilderness of his desert home. The sterile ground of his wilderness has yielded no fruit; he has repented of his sins and discovers within himself no power capable of producing any manner of goodness. Now in the barren land of his soul’s impotence the silent Word has been heard and finds articulation in the spirit of hope. Make straight the way of the Lord, or Open up a direct route in your souls so that the silent Word can be uttered and heard. The sound and substance of this Word can approach and sound within us only when the clutter of all other disturbances and distractions are silenced. Our minds must be stilled and our souls focused only on the speech of the silent Word.
The contrast of the Word that John hears and awaits with rejoicing, with the words of a world that will not hear the Word, is striking. Over and against all human words that reveal only humanly conceived expectations, comes the silent Word which longs to be heard. The silent Word speaks to us from the mystical depths of Divine Desire. The Word will be explained and articulated in the human life of Jesus Christ. The silent Word will yearn and long for the salvation of men. The silent Word will lovingly carry those who hear into the destiny of eternal joy. St. Paul says, Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice (Phil iv. 4). He too, like John, hears the silent Word and now urges others to rejoice in its immanent approach. Like John the Baptist, he tells us to be careful for nothing (Phil. iv. 7) –to be anxiously determined and moved by none of the things of this world. Rather he says rejoice, and again I say rejoice. The silent Word prepares us for itself. The silent Word intends to be heard. It is God’s Word, which shall be spoken in and through the life of Jesus Christ. It will be the cause for great rejoicing and never-ending happiness. But it can be born in us only if and when, because we are careful for nothing, we are ready to hear this silent Word.
Being careful for nothing is, as John Henry Newman said, the state of mind which is directly consequent on the belief that "the Lord is at hand." Who would care for any loss or gain today, if he knew for certain that Christ would show Himself tomorrow? No one. (Parochial and Plain Sermons) Advent issues a needful wakeup call for Christmas. But more importantly, Advent issues an alert that the Lord is [always] at hand. What if we are destined to die this evening? Are we ready to face the final timeout in our lives? Once we are dead, our last opportunity to be made right with God will have been lost. John the Baptist’s life was cut short, but not before he became a faithful witness to that spiritual disposition which alone is ready for Christ’s coming. He empties himself and so is ready for death at any time. Are we preparing ourselves for the same immanent death?
Emptying ourselves is a necessary effect of having come to know and confess the truth about ourselves. In the 8th Century the Venerable Bede said this about John the Baptist: John Baptist gave his life for [Christ]. He was not ordered to deny Jesus Christ, but was ordered to keep silent about the truth (cf. Homily 23: CCL 122, 354). The silent Word of Christ was heard. John does not keep silent but tells us the truth about who we are in relation to the coming Word. John Baptist did not keep silent about the truth and thus died for Christ who is the Truth. Precisely for love of the truth he did not stoop to compromises and did not fear to address strong words to anyone who had strayed from God’s path. (Benedict XVI: Audience, Aug. 29, 2012) God’s silent Word will not be heard if we compromise the truth about ourselves, the truth that confesses that we are in desperate need of what this Word brings to us.
Coming to the truth about ourselves is only ever the outcome of thoughtful reflection and prayer. Rather than judging and analyzing others, let us then return into ourselves and repent with John Baptist. Let us claim with the great Forerunner and Precursor all that we are not and have failed to become. Then the coming silent Word, so unheard by a world that whirls around with words, will begin to overcome our vice with His virtue, our sin with His righteousness, and our death with His new life. Then truly He shall begin to be made flesh in us at Christmas time. Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons