That day is called the birthday of the Lord on which the Wisdom of God manifested Himself as a speechless Child and the Word of God wordlessly uttered the sound of a human voice. His divinity, although hidden, was revealed by heavenly witness to the Magi and was announced to the shepherds by angelic voices. With yearly ceremony, therefore, we celebrate this day which saw the fulfillment of the prophecy…(St. Augustine sermon clxxxv)
Tonight, we come to the cradle, the manger, and the cave in Bethlehem to worship God’s own Word made flesh, beginning with a meditation upon the Incarnation by St. Augustine of Hippo. From the human side of this reality, we can hear only silence. The Word of God made flesh has no words; he is as speechless as every newborn babe. The Word of the Eternal Father, His only and everlastingly begotten Son, is made man for us and for our salvation. From conception in the Virgin’s womb, and now in His birth, he is intent upon redeeming man, all men, you, and me. Conception has been redeemed in the womb and now birth is redeemed. There is the silence of the child himself. From the child, the only sounds that emerge are the inarticulate cries of a new-born babe. The sound of this infant’s voice must be heard. But first, it is not to be understood. God never forces His Word and Will upon anyone. The gift of God in Jesus Christ must make its way into the unruly, antagonistic, unfriendly, and hostile world of good and evil. The gift of God’s redemption for us that will be found in this child will not be received truly and sincerely until it is heard by the ears of the human heart. What we must hear first are the cries of an infant babe.
Jesus Christ is God’s eternally begotten Wisdom and Truth. St. Augustine tells us that,
Truth is sprung out of the earth: and righteousness hath looked
down from heaven. Truth, eternally existing in the bosom of the
Father, has sprung from the earth so that He might exist also in
the bosom of a mother. Truth, holding the world in place, has
sprung from the earth so that He might be carried in the hands
of a woman. Truth, incorruptibly nourishing the happiness of
the angels, has sprung from the earth in order to be fed by human
milk. Truth, whom the heavens cannot contain, has sprung from
the earth so that He might be placed in a manger. (Idem)
Some two thousand and twenty-three years ago, Truth or the Word of the Father looked down from Heaven to Earth. Eternal Truth, the Everlasting Thinking and Speech of the Father will come alive in birth from an earthly mother. Truth and the Word that hold the world in place, gives it meaning, desires its perfection will be held in the hands of a woman. Truth and the Word that inform, define, and nourish the life of the sempiternal angels, will begin to live in the Babe of Bethlehem, nourishing the same Babe on mother’s milk. God has become Man. The Word has been made flesh. The Truth and Word that the heavens cannot contain, limit, constrain, and constrict now comes alive in the Babe lying in a manger, poor, hungry, constricted by the earthly elements and yet destined to live, breath, think, know, understand, and reveal the will of God the Father in human flesh. The Truth and Word shall be discovered and revealed in the Second Adam, Jesus Christ. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. (St. John i. 14)
Jesus Christ is God’s Word, Wisdom, and Truth made flesh. God did not send His Son into the world with a blast of paranormal, miraculous otherworldliness. He is God. He needs nothing. He is alive in His Word made flesh, needing only a mother’s milk, care, and love. The eternally begotten Word made flesh is Truth. He needs only the simplest of things to begin His journey. We should cherish and treasure the gift of the Word made flesh in an Infant Babe. God wants to share His own great goodness from conception into birth. Silently and quietly, we must go to the Manger. With all humility and meekness, we must contemplate the way our God comes to us. Selflessly and generously, we must bring our hearts and souls to Him in order to see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. (St. Luke ii. 15) St. Augustine stirs us up to God’s awakening of the world in those infant eyes that look out on the cosmos that He has made now with awesome wonder. Be still and see that the Word though whom all things were made and without Him was not anything made that was made. (John i. 3) now sees it all for the very first time as a baby. All the potential for new human life is taken on by the Infant Babe of Bethlehem. Jesus Christ enters human life to recapitulate and reconstitute human nature from the very beginning, first in the womb and not as a newborn infant. We must hear the message of the angels:
Arouse yourself, O man; for you God has become man.
Awake thou that sleepest, and rise up from the dead, and Christ
Shall give thee light! For you…God
has become man. If He had not thus been born in time,
you would have been dead for all eternity. Never would
you have been freed from sinful flesh, if He had not taken
upon Himself the likeness of sinful flesh. Everlasting misery
would have engulfed you, if He had not taken this merciful
form. You would not have been restored to life, had He not
submitted to your death; you would have fallen, had He not
succored you; you would have perished, had He not come. (Idem)
The world and all of us have lived in sin and its reward — death. For man to be saved and for our human nature to be redeemed, God must get under our skin and come into our condition. He would later remind us that Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (John iii. 3) We cannot be born again unless the Spirit of God revivifies the flesh of man in Jesus Christ. And he was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. Heaven has come down to earth. God has come down to man. The Divine has become human. Not only does He submit to our conception and birth. He submits to our death. He is conceived as one of us, He is born as one of us, He lives, learns, grows, as one of us. And He dies as one of us. Had he not come, we would die a death that never ends.
Let us joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and
redemption. Let us celebrate the festal day on which the great
and timeless One came from the great and timeless day to this
brief span of our day. He has become for us ... righteousness, and
sanctification, and redemption… (Ps. lxxxv 11) (Idem)
Will this Word be made flesh for us and in us tonight? Or are we people of the Law of Sin and Death? Will the Word of God be conceived in us as He was by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary long ago? Will the timeless One, the Word of God enter the brief span of our day and be born in us as He was in Bethlehem? If He is to be born in us, He must be born in silence, in quiet, in awesome wonder at the creation He had made, depending only the simplest of things, as on a lowly mother, thankful for nothing but the milk of Mary’s kindness. You and I must become infant babes of Bethlehem.
Many Christians will depart this life having never revealed to the world that Christ was born in Bethlehem. But we must remember that
Truth is sprung out of the earth because Christ who said: ‘I am the truth’ was born of a virgin; and righteousness hath looked down from heaven because, by believing in Him who was so born, man has been justified not by his own efforts but by God. ‘Truth is sprung out of the earth' because 'the Word was made flesh’/ and 'righteousness hath looked down from heaven' because 'every good and perfect gift is from above.’ (Idem)
This memory must become the reality of our lives. Christ’s new birth which we celebrate this night is Truth sprung out of the earth, truth born of a virgin, and longing to be born in you and me. This is Heaven’s truth which will be born in us by Grace, by God, by the Gift of Christ. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. (James i. 17) The Babe of Bethlehem longs to be born in ustonight so that we go tell it on the Mountain that Jesus Christ is born and bringing us to salvation! Tonight, Heaven and Earth meet in the heart of Jesus Christ, the Babe of Bethlehem as one life, one energy, one wisdom, and one love.
The author of the Hebrews reminds us:
God…hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son, whom He hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the Word of His Power, when he had purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high; being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent glory than they. (Hebrews, 1-4)
The Eternal Son of God became a baby. So too must we. Babies have all the potential to become more excellent than angels. Angels are pure spirits. But we can become spirits in bodies, the Word made flesh, a culmination of all creation. Humility and faith must be our virtues. The wisdom of the poet exhorts us to the Imitation of Christ.
WITH a measure of light and a measure of shade,
The world of old by the Word was made;
By the shade and light was the Word conceal’d,
And the Word in flesh to the world reveal’d
Is by outward sense and its forms obscured;
The spirit within is the long lost Word,
Besought by the world of the soul in pain
Through a world of words which are void and vain.
O never while shadow and light are blended
Shall the world’s Word-Quest or its woe be ended,
And never the world of its wounds made whole
Till the Word made flesh be the Word made soul! (Arthur Edward Waite)
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice.
On the Last Sunday in Advent, you and I are called to come to know the Word made flesh and to Rejoice. Our recognition of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, and our rejoicing are gifts coming to us from the heart of John the Baptist. Today John the Baptist prepares us for Christ’s coming into his Body, the Church, and especially for His first coming, which we remember on Christmas Day. We are called to discover the character which both knows Jesus Christ as the Word and Wisdom of God made flesh and to rejoice in Him.
But first, in today’s Gospel John the Baptist teaches us to know ourselves and our need for Jesus Christ. The Jews sent Priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. John the Baptist never pretended to be Christ, and neither should any Bishop, Priest, Deacon, or Layman. He confesses that he is not even Elijah the prophet. Malachi had foretold that Elijah would come before the Second Coming of the Lord. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. (Mal. iv. 5) But the Angel Gabriel insists that it is John who shall go before [Jesus Christ] in the spirit and power of Elias (Lk. i. 17). Both are messengers and forerunners. Neither one of them is the Christ. John prepares for the first coming and Elijah for the second. John shares with Elijah the vocation of precursor and preparer. John Baptist says, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaiah. (St. John i. 23) John has come to prepare the Jewish people for the coming of the Lord. His preparation begins with a confession of who he is truly. He calls us too to knowourselves as those who need always make straight the way of the Lord. (Idem)
John comes and teaches us to know who we are. Repent ye, for the kingdom of God is at Hand. (Matt. iii. 2) John teaches us to repent because we are always sinners in need of the Saviour. With John, we are called to confess our sins. John, like Elijah, is a messenger of repentance. Because we are neither righteous nor virtuous, we must make repentance an habitual part of our spiritual lives. But his confession also reveals to us that repentance is only a beginning. Repentance prepares us for the salvation that Jesus Christ alone can bring into our lives. John tells us: I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not: he it is who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose. (St. John i. 26) From the depths of John’s heart we come to know that repentance empties us, unselfs us, and make us that spiritual place in which Christ can come alive. John has a baptism with water for repentance, but Christ shall baptize…with the Holy Ghost. (St. Mark i. 8) John’s baptism will cleanse us; Christ’s baptism will sanctify and save us. The one removes sin and the other infuses righteousness.
With John the Baptist, you and I must move out of the world and into the soul. We are too much at home in this world. John comes to teach us that this is not our home. Christians ought to know that this world is a place of passage and pilgrimage, from wilderness and exile to the true homeland and City of our God. Like John the Baptist, like the Apostles, you and I must become courageous searchers and seekers, “who would not cease from exploration…until at… the end of all exploring they would arrive where…they… started from and know the place for the first time. (Eliot, Little Gidding) With them, we must earnestly prepare for the Lord’s coming?
We live in a time when the human heart seems so far removed from any need to seek out and find God. We live in a world whose idolatry conceals the knowledge of God. John the Baptist, bearing the spirit of Elijah, calls us away from our idolatry. Anything that claims our time, attention, and money more than God is an idol or false god. Anything that consumes, owns, and possesses us more than God is an idol. The idol could be a political platform, a romantic notion, or even an arrogant assertion of our own will to power. It could be a large house, an expensive car, an obsession with money and taxes, or an addiction to another person. None of these things must ever claim our hearts more than our love for God. If anyone of these things stands between us and God, we must know to get rid of them. Anything that does not reveal to the world our humble, unmerited, and undeserved receiving of God’s costly and precious mercy is an idol. Anything with which we cannot part is an idol. And that idol may stand in the way of another’s coming to Christ. Not only does our attachment to idols stand between us and God but it might very well turn others away from Him also! Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew vi 24)
John Baptist comes to join him in that spiritual journey that calls us to sever our ties to the false gods and idols of this world. He knows that repentance and self-denial might be dangerous. We might become proud of our good work of repentance and self-emptying while failing then to undertake the more difficult labor of embracing God’s goodness into our souls. Bear fruits that befit repentance, he cries, for even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (St. Matthew iii. 8, 10) With John’s contemporaries, we might ask, What then shall we do? John the Baptist tells us not only to repent but to purge. He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise. (St. Luke iii 11) He tells us not to desire more than is our fair share in the earthly city. Collect no more than is appointed you. (Ibid, 12) To the soldiers he says, Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages. Why? Because while John baptizes…with water for repentance, He who is coming after me is mightier than me, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Ibid, 14-16) This is serious business. It might even get confusing. Charles Williams remarks, Let the man who has two coats give one to the man who has none. But what if the man who has none, or for that matter the man who has three, wants to take one from the man who has two- what then? Grace of Heaven! My Sainted Aunt! Why, give him both. If a man has stolen the pearl bracelet, why, point out to him that he has missed the diamond necklace in the corner! Be content…
The outside world and our dependence on it could land us in Hell. With John, let us know that we have been too attached to the things of this world. Let us repent. The old man must quit splicing hairs and counting the cost! The old man must see that the time has come to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (St. Luke vi 31) John wants us to know that the character of the soul must be prepared to know and welcome the coming mercy of God. We must know also that it is more than we either desire or deserve. God’s Mercy is coming to us and will be made flesh. The coming Christ invites us to knowthe pattern and movement of perfect love. John tells us to share everything, and if we think that we have given too much, we must interrupt our self-congratulations and know that the most that we can give is nothing in comparison to what Christ comes to give us! The Virgin Mother of our Lord has a nice rebuke for us: The rich he hath sent empty away. (St. Luke i. 53) It is all consistent with John Baptist’s insistence that our souls should know Christ’s coming.
John also exhorts us to mourning. We acknowledge our sins, and we ought to mourn over their effects. We mourn our own lost opportunities to die to ourselves and prepare more seriously for Christ’s coming. We must pray for the gift of tears. Our physical tears begin to heal those who grieve. Our spiritual tears begin to cleanse us from sin, as St. J. Chrysostom says. Our repentance and mourning promise to play the greatest part in our coming to know God and rejoice in His coming. Our bodies will begin to heal, and our souls will be altered for the better. The water that John pours over the heads of penitents symbolizes the tears that purify the soul that awaits the coming of Christ.
The tears that unceasing prayer offers…are resurrectional. (Philokalia) Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. (St. Matthew v 4) Rejoicing and Joy constitute our end. Our preparation for the coming of Christ, heralded by St. John the Baptist intends to make us new and ripe for rejoicing in Christ’s Holy Incarnation. St. Paul says today Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say Rejoice. (Phil. iv. 4) We must rejoice in Jesus Christ’s coming to the soul. John’s cry for confession, contrition, and compunction prepares us to be filled with the salvation that Christ’s birth brings. Sorrow must yield to joy. If this power becomes operative in our lives, we shall instinctively perfect confidence and hope in God’s future glory. Today, Christ promises to infuse us with His presence to generate, deepen, and perfect our belief and hope that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. So let us close by praying with St. Ignatius of Loyola:
Fill us, we pray, with Your light and life,
that we may show forth Your wondrous glory.
Grant that Your love may so fill our lives
that we may count nothing too small to do for You,
nothing too much to gizxve,
and nothing too hard to bear.
Teach us, good Lord, to serve You as You deserve:
To give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do Your will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?
(St. Matthew xi. 2)
We have said that Advent season is all about our preparing for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ at Christmas time. In history, Jesus Christ, the Desire of God, was made flesh some two-thousand years ago in ancient Palestine. At that time, the historical Jesus had come to summon His followers to God’s Kingdom through the one oblation of Himself once offered. (Consecration Prayer, BCP 1954) As the Holy Spirit began to touch and move people through Him, He initiated the return of man to God the Father. He desires to do the same today. History has been in the process of being swallowed up into eternity ever since God the Father called Abraham out from Ur of the Chaldees. Having overcome all potential obstacles to communion with our Heavenly Father in His Son, the Father continues to draw back to Himself those who are ready and willing. The Ascended Christ continues to make history as He does the Father’s bidding and comes to be made flesh in us through the indwelling of His Spirit.
We have a future, and our destiny is to be with God the Father. In today’s Gospel we are charged to prepare for that future in a very specific way by John the Baptist. John’s mission is to make ready and prepare the way for the coming of Jesus Christ, and so his life is a paradigm and pattern for our Advent preparation. His life is summarized in these words: He must increase, and I must decrease. (St. John iii. 30) John the Precursor, John the Preparer, is on a mission to discover that spiritual character that makes room for the coming of Jesus Christ. Yet, he knows that Christ cannot come to us until we have been emptied of our sins. Our sin takes up too much space! Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (St. Matthew iii. 2) He calls us to make room in our hearts for Jesus Christ. John lives in the wilderness where he discovers himself. He sees himself clearly in a place far removed from relations to other people and things. He sees himself, mostly, as far removed from God. Here he discovers his sins and his need to repent of them. The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice even with joy and singing. (Isaiah 35, 1,2) John Baptist’s wilderness is unlike nature. Nothing grows in a lifeless desert. But in John Baptist’s wilderness God will give the increase. John Baptist commands the coming of Christ. As Romano Guardini writes,
The herald proclaims his message with authority, and what he says is framed in terms of a command. There is always a sense of urgency in what he announces. Though it may conflict with what is in men’s thoughts and interrupts them in their business, he cares less to conciliate them than secure their attention. (The Lord...)
The hard truth that John proclaims is that God alone can save us from the wilderness that He demands.
John commands us to share his repentance over his self-willed alienation from God. Repentance is the hard dry truth that knows of no growth or harvest in self-will. Repentance generates an abyss, a void, a barren wilderness, into which alone the coming Lord can work His healing redemption. John knows that the wilderness that his repentance has created is an empty cistern that can hold no water. With John, we must experience this emptiness that comes in and through ourselves and our best efforts. We must be unselfed in a purely potential state so that Christ might begin to redeem the raw materials of our being.
And yet how can we do this? It sounds so much easier than it is. Repentance is difficult. What we are speaking about is not being sorry to others for sins committed against others. What we are talking about is being convicted by the Holy Spirit of our sin against God. Oswald Chambers tells us that, when the Holy Spirit rouses a man’s conscience and brings him into the presence of God, it is not his relationship with other men that bothers him, but his relationship with God –‘against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned and done this evil in Thy sight.’(Ps. li, 4; My Utmost, p.342) We cannot become the space that is prepared to welcome the meaning and purpose of Christ’s coming until our carefully contrived worlds of respectable goodness come crashing down. (Idem) What we have made and what we protect jealously must be destroyed. Even our good works, our law-abiding and moral habits must perish. Being satisfied with ourselves in relation to all else must die. Natural goodness and pious habits cannot save us. Self-conscious satisfaction is a barrier to the coming of Christ in our souls and bodies. With John the Baptist, we must say, [There is one] who coming after me is preferred before me, the latchet of whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose…Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world…(John i. 27, 29) He must increase and I must decrease. It is not ‘I’. I am not He. I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord. (St. John i. 23) With John the Baptist we must embrace our own undoing before we can comprehend Christ’s coming to us. With John Baptist we remain in sin if we cease to understand the value of repentance. With him we must examine ourselves and see if we have forgotten how to be truly repentant. (Ibid)
This means that we must be found faithful to Christ in reflecting and repenting in good times and bad. We find the extreme of bad times in today’s Gospel. John Baptist is in prison awaiting execution, having been tortured severely. John is near death and his role as Herald and Forerunner is coming to an end. He awaits the blessing of the Messiah’s coming. He sends his disciples to ask Jesus, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? (St. Matthew 11. 3) He must decrease and Christ must increase. They are sent back with no promise of John’s liberation from prison or of Herod’s demise. John must be swallowed up in Christ alone.
Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Ibid, 4,5)
In other words, give to John what he longs to hear. Give him the promise of healing, sanctification, and salvation. Tell him that what he has prepared for is coming to pass. John may not be able to live to see how the great mystery of Godliness unfolds. But he can leave this world being blessed by Christ’s coming with hope. Jesus knows that John is sufficiently emptied of himself to receive the good tidings of great joy that shall be to all people (St. Luke ii. 10) that are already pouring forth from the His heavenly heart into the suffering of the Baptist.
Christ goes on to say: And, blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. (Idem) Monsignor Knox has it as, whosoever shall not be scandalized by me. The idea is that, as He says, blessed is the man who shall not be suddenly out of his stride, just when everything seemed to be going all right, by running up against an unforeseen snag or obstacle…or by falling into a trap. In other words, blessed is the man who is faithful come what may, despite all manner of unforeseen drawbacks. (Knox: The Epistles and Gospels, p. 16) Blessed is John Baptist into whose self-denial and looming death Christ can come with the spiritual hope that will save all men through all times and conditions.
Christ goes on to show that His coming is most acutely welcomed by those, like John Baptist, who are suffering and dying to this world.
What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. (Ibid, 7-10)
What should we expect to find in John the Baptist? Unwavering faith. Utter unworldliness. Suffering. Death. To repent and be forgiven as God passes by or winks at men’s sins is Old Testament Religion. The new religion will demand death like that of the Baptist. It means that every inch of my being must decrease and die that Christ may come alive in me. Can Jesus who is the one that should come really intend that I should suffer in this way? Can a loving God demand such agony of soul as a condition for His coming? Jesus’ answer is a gentle, merciful but firm. Yes. Blessed is he who is not offended in Me. (Idem) Christ says that those who follow Him must die. They may, like John Baptist, die at the hands of wicked men. In whatever condition we find ourselves, we must die spiritually to anything that opposes Christ’s coming redemption.
Christ tells us that John’s way is correct. John turns our hearts of disobedience to the wisdom of the just [One]. John invites us into the wilderness of repentance as death and bids us welcome Christ’s coming. As Romano Guardini writes:
Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life, the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being all there, receptive, alert, ready. There is nothing inert or oppressive about it. Attentiveness –that is the clue to the stillness in question. The stillness before Christ. (The Stillness and Silence of the Mass)
We have a future if we embrace John Baptist’s stillness. Only in stillness can we welcome Christ’s coming. He must increase, and I must decrease. (idem) As Fulton Sheen remarks, Herein lies the secret of mental and spiritual stability. It is only by creating an emptiness that Heaven has a place to fill. The Baptist is a steward who has been found faithful (1 Cor. iv. 2) in stillness and emptiness. Stillness and emptiness enable Christ to unself us, bring us into death, and bless us. Only then, with John, will we know that God’s coming Word made flesh will suffer more than any for us so that we may be called the children of God, and hope for a future of eternal union with His Father and ours, through the Holy Ghost.
Heaven and Earth shall pass away,
but my words shall not pass away. -St. Luke 21:33
We have said that Advent means coming, and in it, Christ comes to prepare us for His coming at Christmas. Last week, Jesus Christ came to awaken us out of spiritual sleep in order to purge and cleanse our souls. The urgency of the call was illustrated in Christ’s purging of the Temple at Jerusalem. The temple as the image of the soul and its condition – a den of thieves, indicative of the character of our souls on the best of days. For this reason, then, we prayed that He might give us Grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life. (Advent Collect) We prayed that Christ, the Everlasting Light, might come to us and penetrate our hearts and souls, freeing up as much room as possible for His imminent coming with new birth in us at Christmas time. Advent’s coming light is the unchanging Word of God, heard and moving the hearts of faithful men, as recorded in the pages of Holy Scripture, and made flesh in the life of Jesus Christ. In both manifestations, Advent’s coming light intends to make our souls spiritual spaces that Christ can indwell by Grace.
Now, on this Second Sunday of Advent, we are called to open our spiritual eyes and understand more fully the nature and work of Christ’s Coming Light. St. Paul makes it very clear in this morning’s Epistle that Jesus Christ is the Light that has come into the world to confirm the promises made to [our Jewish] fathers so that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy. (Romans xv. 8,9) Jesus Christ is the Coming Light or God’s Word of Promise made flesh. For the Jews, He will be the fulfillment of promised salvation and deliverance from the Law of Sin and Death. For the Gentiles, He will be the revelation of that mercy and forgiveness that they never imagined could emerge from the heart of a God whom they knew but with whom they could never find lasting communion. He was, in a sense, an idea rather than a Person, or something that seemed more conceptually conceived than actually received in the hearts of pagan men.
Because the promises of deliverance and salvation were made only to the Jews, the spiritual preparation for Christ’s Coming can be found expressed on the pages of the Old Testament as the Word of a Personal God heard and hoped for by the Jewish patriarchs, priests, prophets, and kings. St. Paul tells us that ancient books of the Old Testament were written aforetime…for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. (Ibid, 4) The Word of a Personal God was full of promise for His Chosen People, Israel. To them, God spoke His Word. His Word was Christ. Through Christ the Word, God promised to come to save His People from the sin and death that separated them from Himself. In the Old Testament, we read of hope for deliverance from Original Sin. Through many dangers, toils, and snares, the Jews persistently remembered God’s Word of Promise and believed that God would come to save them. To the hearts and souls of the ancient Jews, the coming light was God’s written Word as Promise.
The Coming Light to the early Christians was the fulfillment of that promise in the life of Jesus Christ. For both Jew and Gentile, the Coming Light was embraced in the heart by faith as the unchanging Word of God. The struggle for both the ancient Jews and the early Christians was the temptation that Christ’s Coming Light might be darkened and even extinguished by the changes and chances of this fleeting world.
And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. (St. Luke xxi. 25,26)
Men in every age would come to see that the powers of heaven themselves will be shaken as the Word of God judges history.
We Christians must realize that Jesus’ depiction of His Second Coming reveals creation as always changing, coming to be, and passing away. When men are mostly moved by earthly things and what comes to them naturally, they are always in danger of failing to use the creation in the service of their salvation. Distress, anguish, and disappointment are the logical consequences of misplaced hopes and confused loves. Those who put their trust in the false gods of mammon, power, or prestige shall always be filled with fear over the future. They are hewing out for themselves broken cisterns, which can hold no water. Jesus uses the parable of the fig tree to describe how most men receive Christ’s coming.
Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise, ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. (Ibid, 29-31)
St. Remigius says this:
Or, when this fig shall again bud, that is, when the synagogue shall receive the word of holy preaching, as the preaching of Enoch and Elijah, then ought we to understand the day of consummation is at hand. (Catena Aurea)
Men with the eyes of faith will see that ancient Jewish Law and even Greek pagan Wisdom will be judged by Christ the Coming Light like the fig tree. St Gregory writes, the fruit of the world is [always in] ruin [and] the powers of heaven shall be shaken. (Idem) To both the Jews who seek for a sign and the Greeks who search for wisdom, the Second Coming will judge man’s earthly Law and secular Wisdom as limited and incomplete, at best. What both missed was that the first coming of Christ in the flesh was the Incarnation of God’s Word and Demonstration of His Loving Will for Man.
This Coming Light of Christ that we embrace in Advent is the brilliance of the Word who comes to judge the world here and now. We can see Him only with the eyes of faith. We need not wait for the Second Coming for Judgment. For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? (1 Peter iv. 17)
Jesus says that heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall never pass away. (St. Matthew xxiv. 35) So Christ the Coming Light and Word of God, must judge us now. Jesus says In patience possess ye your souls. (Ibid, 19) He means, Be vigilant, wait, and watch. He comes to us in this season of Advent, as one who judges the world and reveals that it is always passing away. Our Gospel teaches us that the fear of the Lord, holy terror in this present time should move us to endure patientlyChrist’s Judgment of us. So, we should pray:
O Lord, let us fear thy Coming Light here and now with wholesome wonder that submits humbly and heeds faithfully thy judgment of our lives. Shed thy Coming Light upon our sins, that we may claim and confess them. Give us deeper sorrow for them. Help us to love the thing that is good and hate that which is evil. Give us patience to suffer for holiness and righteousness’ sake.
To this end, today’s Collect exhorts us to the devout perusal of Holy Scripture:
Blessed Lord who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may in such wise, hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy Holy Word we may ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life…(Advent ii, Collect)
Our relationship with God comes through His promised Word, the manifestation of Christ the Coming Light and the Word made flesh. Christ the Coming Light is the Unchanging Word of God for us made flesh encountered on the pages of Holy Scripture. In patience, we must possess our souls and embrace His Holy Word in our flesh. We must allow Him to judge, punish, discipline, and correct us so that we might more fully become His own. Patience is the companion of Wisdom, St. Augustine writes. With patience, Christ’s Coming Light will enable us to receive with meekness the engrafted Word which is able to save our souls. (St. James i. 21)
But as we await Christ the Coming Light with patience, we are not excused from cultivating desire. As real religion is filled with the fear of the Lord and holy terror, so too must our hearts be filled with desire for the coming Judgment. Ancient Christians were known for looking for Christ’s Second Coming so earnestly that they were full of impatience because it appeared to be delayed. (The Christian Year in the Times, p. 5) Much more than preparing themselves for Christ the Coming Light in the here and now, they longed for the Second and final Coming. In times of persecution, which might begin to feel again, Christians must cultivate love and desire for their End. To Early Christians the thought of the Judgment was a constant encouragement, an inspiration to continued fidelity in the face of opposition. (Idem)
Christ the Light of the World, who will pronounce judgment at the Second Coming, is the One whom we should know as Our Lord. Christ the Light is the Loving Word made Flesh who wins our salvation. The desire and love of God in the flesh, the Forgiveness of Sins must be dearest to us. Christ came into the world to conquer sin, death, and Satan from the Tree of New Life on the Wood of the Cross. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He sees most clearly what is in the heart of another. He knows our struggle to embrace His Light, for He is pure Goodness. (Idem) Christ the Coming Light is the God’s Word of Divine Desire for us in His Death and beyond. This Advent, we must prepare for Christ’s coming to see that from the Crib to the Cross there is no phase of human life that is not redeemed as Man’s desire for God and God’s desire for Man. The key to its success in us will be found in our responsibility or irresponsibility, in our approval or condemnation forever. Here and now, there is still time for repentance. Judgment bids us take heart of Grace in the conviction that the opportunity is still ours to attain a life free from past failure and worthy of Divine Approval forever. (Idem)
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought
in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them
that sold doves, and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called
the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.
(St. Matthew xxi. 12, 13)
The traditional Anglican lectionary goes back to the Ancient Church. As Father Crouse reminds us, If you consider the selection of lessons for the Sundays in Advent in [our] Book of Common Prayer, you will find that they are those appointed in the Sarum Missal of the Medieval Church of England and are in fact the same as those prescribed in the “Comes of St. Jerome,” which goes back to the Fifth Century. Our own Anglican Reformers decided to opt for the readings selected by the Ancient Fathers since they knew that they were safer guides to our salvation journey than any others.
Today’s readings are no exception. We have read this morning about Jesus’ exultant entry into Jerusalem, and literally minded post-moderns wonder why we are using readings for Palm Sunday. Why did the Ancient Fathers choose this reading for Advent Sunday? Aren’t we supposed to be getting ready for Christmas? But the Church Fathers understood that Advent prepares Christians for the coming of Christ’s birth at Christmas time. His birth is, of course, a triumphant coming into our souls once again, on Christmas night. St. Paul tells us this morning that, the night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. (Romans xiii. 12) Christmas is all about the coming Light, the Light which was the Life of men…the Light [which] shineth in the darkness, and the darkness [overcame] it not…the Light that ligtheth every man that cometh into the world. (St. John i. 4,5,9) Advent, with the Ancient Latin Fathers, means preparing spiritually for the birth of Christ the Life and Light, and this involves readying the soul so that we may joyfully receive Him for our Redeemer.
Our Advent season encourages us to prepare ourselves through repentance for Christ’s dramatic visitation at Christmas. Advent is a season of fasting, prayer, and abstinence. St. Paul insists that we should walk honestly, as in the day, not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, and making no provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof. (Ibid, 13, 14) Preparing for Christmas in Advent means readying ourselves of Christ’s dramatic coming at Christmas. Preparing for Christmas in Advent demands spiritual and bodily mortification so that we might welcome the Christ Child in a deeper way. Casting away the works of darkness, through sorrow, penance, and contrition will give us a keener vision into the need for Christ’s birth historically and spiritually. Compunctious contrition over sin reveals our distance from God. Our alienation from God demands a response to our fallen condition that God alone in His Son, Jesus Christ, can remedy. Christ came into the world to exorcise and expel all darkness from human life. Christ comesto us continually to root and ground us in His Redemption and Salvation.
To perceive the Light of Christ’s birth on Christmas Day, we must courageously face the darkness. The contrast and contradiction between darkness and light was emphasized last Sunday when we asked the Lord to stir up [our] wills to plenteously bring forth good works in Advent’s time of preparation for Christmas. Advent’s call is prepare to meet thy God. We are called to meet our God at Christmas, but more poignantly at the Great and Dreadful Day of Judgment. Christmas itself must be a trial run for Judgment Day. Casting away the works of darkness means facing our sins and ridding ourselves of them now in the time of this mortal life. Darkness is comprised of that hardheartedness that neglects and dismisses sin because we fear the coming of Christ the Light.
Another way of facing the darkness which has a firm grip on our souls is to remember that Advent is all about the Four Last Things. What are the Four Last Things? They are Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. How do we relate to darkness? We are afraid of Death. We shall be better used to it if we start dying now. Dying to what, you ask? To ourselves, the world, and to sin. Thus, we might begin to allow the Judge Eternal throned in Splendor, Jesus Christ, to judge us now before it is too late. If Jesus Judges us now, He shall teach us how our thoughts, words, and works measure up against His Will for us. He shall show us Heaven and Hell. Either one or the other awaits us all. It is up to us which we choose by acclimating our lives to Jesus Christ or not.
Advent begins with Christ’s riding into Jerusalem. With the crowds of old in this Advent season, we should respond to Him with Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. (Ibid, 9) We should rejoice that, once again in Advent, Christ is coming to us. We sing Hosanna because the God of all glory and holiness has stooped down from His heavenly throne to enter our souls to give us one more time to repent, one more time to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light. When we proclaim Hosanna, we should mean it. We mean it if, indeed, we allow Him to be the Great Physician who comes to heal our souls. The Christ who comes in Advent intends to awaken us to the darkness that defines our lives. He doesn’t have time for cheap Grace or lukewarm religion. He knows [the] time, [and] that now it is high time to awake [us] out of sleep, for now is our salvation closer than when we first learned to believe. (Romans xiii 11: AV & Knox) Christ comes to cure our souls and to call us out of darkness.
Next, we read that
Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. (Ibid, 12, 13)
Christ means business. If we want Jesus to cast away the works of darkness in our souls, we had better allow Jesus to purge our systems of the worship of all false gods, like money, mammon, and the false security they deceptively provide! Christ is like any good doctor. Do we resent sharing our riches with others? Christ means to knock it out of us. Do we help others a little and ourselves a lot as we jump onto the computer to buy another frock, another trinket, or another house? Jesus is grieved over this worship of mammon. Do we make a God out of our loneliness and fail to take the time alone with ourselves to get close to Jesus? Jesus is angry because we forget that we are never alone. He is forever with us, longing for us to get to know Him better.
On this Advent Sunday, we must open our souls to the penetrating, invasive, determined, and dynamic Light of Christ’s coming! St. Paul tells us this morning that our patient preparation for Christ’s spiritual surgery must involve love. If Christ is to enter our souls to purge, cleanse, and wash away our sins, we must not be resentful, angry, or bitter. If Christ is to enter our souls, we must die to putting ourselves first and try putting ourselves last. We are sinners in need of a Savior. Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. (Romans xiii 8) This means that we must stop acting out of insecurity and selfishness and begin to love and give freely. The night is far spent and the night is at hand. (Idem) Christ the Light comes to us freely in love to offer us the priceless gift of salvation. Do we want it? Now it is high time to wake out of sleep. (Idem) For they that sleep, sleep in the night. And they that be drunken, are drunken in the night. (1 Thes. V. 7) Alas, for the Day. The day of the Lord is at hand. (Joel i. 15) All sinful things are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light. Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. (Ephesians v. 13,14)
My friends, today we are called to slow down and contemplate our darkness in relation to Christ the Light. Advent is all about waking up, being roused, and becoming conscious of our need for Jesus Christ. We need to admit that this world’s false gods have left us in unhappy darkness. We need to admit that they have left us further removed from Christ the Light. We need to repent. Advent is about waiting and watching for the coming of Christ’s birth at Christmas. Without repentance, there will be no room in the inn of our souls for Christ’s birth. The Advent fire of Christ’s Light can purify and heal the temple of our souls of all false commerce with darkness.
In closing, we might remember that forewarned is forearmed. Now is high time to wake out of sleep. (Idem) A friend of mine is fond of saying that is not my problem. But what if God has sent those who struggle and have needs into our lives not as problems but as opportunities. Perhaps others come to us as a Divine Opportunity to help and assist them not by compulsion or force but to prove our free love. Freely ye have received, freely give. (Matt. X. 8) It might just be that Christ is testing us against the Great and Dreadful Day of Judgment to see if we can practice love like His, love freely given and with no expectations! God loves us in Jesus Christ, no matter what! Owe no man anything but to love. (Idem) We are redeemed and saved by the Blood of Jesus Christ to commence and continue paying the debt of love. We can never pay off Christ’s debt of love to us, but we can offer it always and freely. Perhaps if we learn to love others and give to others, no matter what, in this Advent Season, Christ will come to us and be born in us, and we shall be called Christians, maybe even for the first time, on Christmas Night and others will awaken out of sleep too!
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: