Texts: Romans 13:8ff, Matthew 21:1ff
In this part of Texas, by the time we get to the first Sunday in December, most of our neighbors are in full Christmas mode. Lights and trees are up, the airwaves are full of new and old covers of Christmas carols, and we’ve all put on about five pounds! Judging from social media and TV, I think that’s pretty much the norm in most of America these days. Come Christmas Day, most folks are ready to end the season. Presents are opened, trees are taken to the curb, and lights come down (except for San Antonio, where in several neighborhoods, we’ll see the lights up until Easter)! The Church Year, by contrast, doesn’t start Christmas until the 25th, and keeps the Feast for a full 12 days (yes, like in the song), all the way until Epiphany. For the traditional Church Calendar, this time of year begins Advent, not Christmas.
When I was younger, I just assumed the two terms were synonymous. Christmas, or the Feast of the Nativity, is, of course, the celebration of Christ’s birth, the celebration of his Incarnation. But Advent is a four-week time of preparation and expectation, when we await the coming of Christ. On the one hand, we remember what it was like for God’s people in the centuries between the return of the Exiles to the Holy Land and the fulfilment of the Prophets’ predictions about the coming of the Messiah. On the other hand, we remember that we, too, are exiles in this world, simultaneously living in God’s Kingdom and expecting its fulfilment, as we await the Messiah’s return.
In our day and place, it’s probably nigh-impossible not to mix in a bit of Christmas celebration during Advent. But I would encourage you to be sure to focus more on the expectation for the next few weeks. There are a few ways we’ll do this as a community, and some suggestions for how to do it as individuals or families.
First, notice that we’ve changed the vestments and paraments to violet. This reminds us that Advent is a time for repentance and even mourning. Advent becomes a little Lent, as it were. We should use Advent as a time to take stock of our lives, to remember God’s Law, to see our failures to keep it, and to turn back to God. Perhaps go to Confession. Perhaps do a little fasting. Certainly, spend time in the Scriptures. St. Paul speaks of this kind of thing in our Epistle reading for today from Romans 13:8 (page 90 in the Prayer Book).
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
This part of the Epistle encourages us to love our neighbor. And we all can easily and instantly see where we’ve failed at that. Therefore, we must repent. Return to God, and then empowered by his Spirit, change our ways. Advent is a good time to do so. A neighborly spirit is usually in the air. Especially look out for people in your lives who are hurting at this time of year. People who have lost family, people who are less materially fortunate, and neighbors who don’t know Christ. Reach out to them with the love of Christ. This is a good advent discipline. But let it also bring you to focus on the Lord himself. Verse 11:
Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Though this season can foster good cheer and neighborliness, it can also foster fleshliness. I’m pretty sure I’ve already got to repent for gluttony, and we’re just a day in! But it can also be a time when we indulge in selfish behavior of various kinds. I was listening to a podcast from a retailer in Mississippi the other day, and he mentioned that most folks coming into the store are buying more for themselves than others. And we’ve got the family dynamics that can be anything but peaceful. Resist walking after the flesh in this, even if the rest of the world is. Rather, turn to Jesus, focus on him, be willing to deny the world, the flesh, and the devil, with the help of the Holy Ghost.
This is one of the reasons we do things like lighting the Advent wreath and have special services like Lessons and Carols. These are opportunities to bring us back to Christ. Even at home you can do some of these things. In its simplest form, you can pray today’s collect (after all, the rubric assigns it for every day of Advent, not just the first week), sing a hymn, like “O Come, O Come Immanuel,” and light the candle. Perhaps the kids have an Advent calendar, or the readings and activities for the Jesus Storybook Bible we posted on the Facebook page. Perhaps you pray the full Matins or Evensong, or read a passage from Lillie’s devotional (also on our website and Facebook page). The point is to build up an expectation of Our Lord’s coming, both as we celebrate it in the Nativity, and for his return.
This is why our first Gospel Reading of the Season is the Triumphal Entry, from Matthew 21:1 (page 91 in the Prayer Book):
Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
“Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.”
The passage begins with Jesus sending the disciples to find a donkey in fulfilment of Zechariah 9, read last week in Matins if you’re following our full-year lectionary. The fulfilment of the Prophecy is a bold statement that Jesus is the one we’re waiting for, the one we’ve been expecting. Presents, good food, family, and the “Christmas spirit” can point us to the better things that Jesus brings us. Or, they can be poor substitutes when we look to them instead of Jesus. Use Advent to bring your eyes back to the King who entered Jerusalem on a donkey.
After Jesus enters Jerusalem, he cleanses the Temple. Verse 12:
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.
Jesus cleanses the Temple and heals the blind and lame. We all have areas of our lives that need cleansing, areas where the world, the flesh, and the devil, have set up shop. Let the Lord cleanse the temple of your soul. Let his word drive out anything that trespassing. Advent is a good time for that sort of cleansing. And then, be healed. The Lord’s word cleanses and heals. The Lord’s Spirit cleanses and heals, preparing our souls to be the very Temple of God.
Ultimately, this is what Advent is about: preparing us for the Lord’s coming. Just as he entered creation in the Incarnation, just as he entered the Temple in Holy Week, just as he entered Heaven at the Ascension, he will return in glory to judge the quick and the dead, and to set the world to rights. May we be ready when he comes and have a fruitful Advent as we await him in expectation and faith.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.