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,
(Collect Advent I)
Advent is so hard to celebrate properly in our own times. Long before this season even begins, we are assaulted by Christmas and a secular Christmas at that. On or even before Thanksgiving we are blinded by the garish lights and sparkling tinsel. We are bombarded with advertisements and offers meant to make this coming Christmas like none other. We are not, to be sure, aware that any Advent is present at all. Even post-modern Christians, whose sects were founded by 19th Century American “religious” upstarts, who promised, for the first time, to correct history and get the Church right after 1900 years of demonic darkness, dropped Advent long ago.
So, we are thankful that our Church still calls us into Advent as we gather here this morning. Advent is a Latin word meaning coming to. And the liturgical season which bears its name is all about God’s coming to or into His world. More specifically, of course, it is about God’s coming from Heaven into the world in the life of His Son Jesus Christ. So, Advent is, in one way, about the historical, salvific life of Christ. Advent is also about the future when Christ shall come to judge both the quick and the dead. Advent is all about death, judgment, heaven, and hell. In between time past and future time is time present, where we find ourselves today. In it, we learn that Advent is a time of Christ’s coming to us now in heart and soul. And if it is that, then we learn also that Advent is a time of penitence, a time for casting away the works of darkness and putting upon us the armour of light. (Collect) Thus, our Altar and I are draped with the purple of mourning to remind us that we are entering a season of fasting, watching, repentance, and mortification. This is a season of preparation as we ready our hearts and souls for the Coming of Jesus Christ once again at Christmas time. It is a time of introspection. Looking into our hearts we intend to identify old bad habits and persistently present vices. In the light of Christ’s coming, we resolve to die to them. Advent is a time of contemplation, in silence and with stillness. In this season, we open our lives to the judgment of Jesus Christ. We contemplate those sins which, if not overcome by God’s Grace, lead to Hell. We long to embrace the Divine Virtues by which Christ our Savior comes to dwell in us by way of preparation for the Kingdom of Heaven.
I have said this, and still, it is not easy. Jesus never said that it would be. But the alternative to embracing Christ’s Advent coming is perilous and fearsome. The dangers are great. Father Ronald Knox paints us a picture of the common variety of men who, in the course of life’s short span, never get around to contemplating God’s coming in Jesus Christ and the lasting result. He writes of those who never think about the Advent themes of death, judgment, heaven, or hell. He speaks of pagans and also of lukewarm and half-hearted Christians. Hear what he says:
Very few people feel sure that they are going to hell. Those who die in the faith, but without charity, mostly think, wouldn’t you say, that they are all right, they have just scraped through. And those who have lost the faith, or who die in sin outside the influence of faith, probably lay some flattering unction to their souls-it will be all right, they think, they will be given another chance. Up to the moment they are taken away, this world of creatures treats them no differently than any soul predestined to eternal life…So perfect is the illusion of security around them, that they forget God, and forget that they are forgetting him…And then, quite suddenly, the bottom falls out of that world…God, who gave that material world he has come from all its reality, is now the only reality left; and with a great hunger of loneliness the heart that was made for him turns back to him-and God is not there. The sinful soul has created for itself, as it were, a godless universe.’
Life is at its end, and so many people are left with nothing. The material world and its gods are gone. The body is expiring either painfully or just naturally but certainly. The soul teeters over the precipice of a godless universe. God who is always approaching, always coming, was treated as nothing and no one, and thus is absent to the barren soul. Those who have spent their lives either ignoring salvation or presuming that their superficial religiosity would save them, face the dark void. The illusion of security is now known for its false promises.
Such a spiritual condition should frighten the living daylights out of us all. It should awaken us out of spiritual sleep. It should alert our hearts and minds to the Church’s Advent, to her season of solemn warning an impending doom. It should awaken us to Jesus Christ’s Advent- His coming to us, in the past, in the future, and in the present. He came to us in the past in our flesh at the Incarnation. He will come to us in the future to judge both the quick and dead. He comes to us now through His Word by Grace and the Holy Spirit.
Jesus Christ came once for all in history in order to overcome sin, death, and Satan and to open the Kingdom of Heaven to man once again. Jesus Christ will come again to judge the quick and the dead at the end of time. But how do we embrace this hope of Christ’s coming to us now? How do we welcome His persistent coming, answering that knock at the doors of our souls, as Jesus comes to us once again to help us to get right with the Father through the Holy Spirit? Jesus knocks. We open. And we begin to see ourselves in relation to Him. He comes to call forth from us a confession of our sins. We look into ourselves and admit who we are, what we have done, and what we need. He comes to us, is silent and still. His appearance is glorious. He has ascended to the Father. We sing, Hosanna to the son of David; blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. (Matthew xxi. 9) But we see His hands, His feet, and His side. We see ours sins and the price that Jesus paid for them. We remember that He was born to die so that we might live. Our souls are startled and disturbed with the sins that still so easily beset us in contradistinction to the love and compassion that comes to us yet again. We must awaken out of our spiritual sleep. We have tried to walk honestly as in the day, not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. (Romans xiii. 13), but we feel the impending sense of doom. It seems that theologically we know what He has done for us but really and truly, in our hearts and souls, we have failed to embrace His Grace.
So, what are we to do? Today we are called to remember that the process of Christ’s coming to us is no easy business. There is always the tension between who He is and what we have not yet become. Our Gospel reminds us that though we sing Hosanna to the Son of David, Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord, the same Lord who comes to us means business. He comes to knock at the temple of our souls in time present because He does not want to have to invade the temple of our souls in the future as He with the Temple at Jerusalem in time past. He desires to purge and to cleanse us. He intends to drive out and banish all false commerce, wrong thinking, wicked speaking, and evil living. In time present, He comes and He knocks. He allows us the choice of opening the door and welcoming His entry. In time present, He offers to make our bodies and souls the temples of His indwelling Spirit. In time present, He awaits our response to His Gracious Invitation for our future salvation.
Advent is all about Christ’s coming to us. He comes to us with that piercing eye that penetrates the condition of our souls. He comes to us to elicit a full and honest confession of who we are now because of what we have been in time past. He desires that we should identify our sins and give them over to Him. He longs to grasp them in His wounded hands to cast them into death. This we must do if we intend to have any part of His coming sanctification, redemption, and salvation.
Our Epistle this morning reminds us that Christ’s coming to us in Advent is serious business. Owe no man anything but to love one another. (Romans xiii. 8) If we shall be right with God, we must be honestly respectful of all others. We must keep His Commandments. 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 neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Ibid, 9) To prepare for Christ’s coming, we must confess that we are all sinners in need of His salvation. This will enable us to know the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. (Ibid, 11)
Now is high time to awake out of sleep. (Idem) St. Paul exhorts us with urgency to cast off the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light…that we may welcome the Lord’s coming love, and put…on the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans xiii. 12, 14) The end of each day reveals that time passes quickly. The night is far spent, the day is at hand (Romans xiii. 12). This Advent let us open the door to Christ who comes and knocks. Let us welcome the coming of Christ’s loving correction and even chastisement, as He comes to purge and cleanse the temples of our souls. Let us allow Him to prepare us for a deeper sense of His coming at Christmas. If we don’t do this, we shall find sooner rather than later, that it will be…too late -too late, when we awaken to the fact that we had forgotten that we had forgotten Him.
After this I beheld, and lo, a great multitude, which no man could number
Of all nations and kindreds and peoples, and tongues, stood before the
Throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, palms
In their hands, and cried with a loud voice saying, Salvation to our God
Which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.
Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, and on this special day in the Church’s calendar we are called to reflect upon the meaning of this name for our common life together. With the Church Universal, we remember that great number which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues. (Idem) With Christians in all places, we thank God for the combined witness of so many different faithful people, called out from every culture and race, time and place, predicament and situation to blend their spiritual gifts for the glory of God and the salvation of the nations through one Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Teachers (Ephes. 4.11), Confessors, Doctors, Martyrs, Widows, Virgins, Kings, and Servants all comprise that glorious fellowship who with one voice forever sing Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb, because they became members of Jesus Christ’s Mystical Body long ago.
But in order to better grasp why we celebrate their lives today, first we should look at the definition of a Saint. Our English word Saint comes to us from the Latin sanctus, meaning holy, virtuous, confirmed, or set apart. The word in Greek is hagios, which, in the ancient sense, means full of awe, sacred, hallowed, and devoted to the gods. From our Epistle lesson for today, we learn that the Christian Saints were those who came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Rev. 7.14) So they are set apart because they were made sacred and hallowed by struggle, trial, and suffering.
Yet they were unlike their Greek and Latin pagan progenitors because their virtue was clearly not the result of good works and human effort. Rather, they opened their hearts and souls to that conversion and sanctification that comes only through the blood of the Lamb, shed by God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, once for all on Calvary’s Tree for the sins of the whole world. And what this means is that they were made holy, spiritually unique, distinct, and unlike all others because something happened to them, which had never before happened in the history of the world. In fact, what really happened to them is that rather than resting on the laurels of Greek Philosophy or even the merits of the Jewish Law, they opened their hearts to the God of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, they found that God was at work reconciling the world to Himself. (2 Cor. v. 19)
They were washed in the blood of the Lamb. What this meant was that as excellent as so many of them were by earthly standards and in faithfulness to the moral Law of the Jews and the Greeks, they were nevertheless sinners in need of a Saviour. Because they were so conscious of the sin that weighed them down and prevented them from ultimate and lasting union with God, they came to understand that God alone could save them from themselves. They were washed in the blood of the Lamb. With faith, hope, and love, they began to see that only God in Man, Jesus Christ, had taken on the problem of man’s sin, had overcome it, and had redeemed it. What they came to believe was that Jesus Christ alone had reclaimed human nature for God and had invited all men to share in the fruits of His accomplishment. And so, in some inexpressible way, His death on Calvary Hill would become their first step into the new life that He would offer to all of them. Christ’s all sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, in which He died to the world the flesh, and the devil innocently and without stain of any sin was thus made good. Through Jesus Christ, has become something radically new. Death now is good. Death is the first moment of new life. Christ’s Death to the sin, death, and Satan is now the pattern and model of Man’s Redemption and Reconciliation to God. This Death now constitutes the necessary first step out of corruption and into incorruption, out of sin and into righteousness, out of condemnation and into the forgiveness of sins. This Death is offered to us by Jesus who has become the forgiveness of sins in the flesh. And it is through His death and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that all who turn away from earthly sin and the fear of earthly death can begin to die in a good and wholesome way to themselves as they simultaneously rise into the new life of Christ’s abiding virtue.
What this means, as our Gospel indicates today and history teaches us, is that the sinners began to become saints as they denied themselves, took up their cross[es], and followed [Jesus] (St. Matthew xvi. 24) through spiritual death and into new life. They became poor in spirit, knowing that they were powerless and in possession of nothing but sin and death, nothing of any worth coming from themselves that could ever make them any better. And so, trusting in the rich mercy of God in His Son, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. (St. Matthew v. 3) They mourned over how their sins had earned their own spiritual death and spread such vicious infection to others, and so they are comforted. (Ibid, 4) They were meek and supple, humbled under the might hand of God (1 Peter ii. 5), knowing their limitations, now knowing that man is only and ever derived from God and dependent upon Him. And so, they inherited the earth (Ibid, 5) as the unmerited gift of Grace that began to make time and space forever new with the beautiful possibility of an abounding salvation that they had not earned and never deserved. They hungered and thirsted after righteousness, seeking first [God’s] Kingdom (St. Matthew vi. 33) and so were filled (Ibid, 6) with that spiritual bread from Heaven, even God’s own Word, His Son, Jesus Christ, bettering and perfecting them as they grow from strength to strength. (Ps. lxxxiv. 7) They [were] merciful, forgave every man his trespass against them (St. Matthew xviii. 35), and so they obtained mercy (Ibid, 7) as Christ the Forgiveness of Sins overtook their hearts. They [were] pure in heart or loved the Lord [their] God with all their hearts, souls, and strength and their neighbours as themselves (St. Matthew xxii. 37, 39) and so, now, they see God (Ibid, 8) They [were] peacemakers, and so their reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ made them the children of God (Ibid, 9), by welcoming others into the new birth that His peace creates. They [were] persecuted for righteousness’ sake…[were] reviled and slandered for [Jesus’] sake (Ibid, 10, 11), and so rejoiced and [were] exceeding glad…because they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name (Acts v. 41), for great is their reward in Heaven. (Ibid,12)
Together All Saints form a Communion or community of individuals who spent their lives trying to embrace and exchange the virtuous and godly life that the Beatitudes engender. They are the friends of Jesus as members of His Body, friends of one another, and our friends too. Together in communion and fellowshipthey are redeemed and sanctified, of one mind and one mouth glorifying God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans xv. 6) As Hans Urs Von Balthasar writes,
The Communion of Saints is a communion of open hearts, concerned only
with their common object, no longer preoccupied with the boundaries of the
‘I” and “Thou’. Since this dividing line has been pulled down, and the bastions,
once demolished, will never be re-erected, henceforth God’s salvation and His ultimate and conclusive love can be encountered only in the ‘We’.
(H. Von Balthasar: You Crown the Year…)
Purity of heart is summed up in the sacrifice of self for the sake of a Communion and Fellowship –the ‘We”, who are moved collectively as friends through the love of Jesus Christ that yearns at all times for the salvation of all men. In this Communion of All Saints, God’s gifts and treasures in the life of each Saint blend into one harmonious song as God’s desire is multiplied and expanded into the community of His love. With songs of praise this community forever receives His love; with songs of desire its members forever long that His love may continue to reach all men in all ages.
So today on this Feast of the Solemnity of All Saints we thank God for the Mystical Body of His Son and the blessed company of all faithful people. Especially we remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom we for evermore are one. (Prologue: Lessons and Carols) We are one with them in the desire that God will do with us what He did in them. We are called into the Mystical Community of Love that Christ generates out of them. With Cardinal Newman we remember that,
So many were the wonderful works which our Saviour did on earth, that not even the world itself could have contained the books recording them…Surely not even the world itself could contain the records of His love, the history of those many Saints, that "cloud of Witnesses," whom we today celebrate, His purchased possession in every age! We crowd these all up into one day; we mingle together in the brief remembrance of an hour all the choicest deeds, the holiest lives, the noblest labours, the most precious sufferings, which the sun ever saw. (Parochial Plain Sermons: 32)
Today so many Saints call us into the life that they live in and through Jesus Christ alone. Because they live and are not dead, their unceasing prayer is that we with them might be caught up in God’s His incessant desire for the salvation of all souls, the Mystical Civilization that Christ’s love forever longs to make. So let us love and follow their godly way, and make the Communion of Saints a point of our practice…being lovers of all good men, honoring them that fear the Lord and esteeming them very highly for their worth’s sake. Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: