When I was growing up, my father was in the Navy, so we moved around every three or four years. He was raised Episcopalian, but my mother was raised Roman Catholic. Each duty station, my folks would check out both options, looking for a parish in either tradition where the priest preached Christ. So, I ended up splitting my childhood between the Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church. I don’t know how things were in other generations, but for me as a child in the late 70’s and early 80’s, it was often hard to tell the difference between the two traditions! That said, the Episcopalians had the Catholics beat in one major area: the books in the pews. In those days, most every Episcopal Parish still had the Prayer Book and Hymnal in cloth-covered hardback in every pew. In the Roman Catholic parishes, we just had the paperback “missalette.”
Even as young as age six or seven I loved flipping through the Prayer Book and exploring the different services. I remember specifically comparing the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed and wondering why we always recited the former, but never the latter on Sunday Morning. And I loved the big, fat hymnal with its seasonal divisions and special service music section. One thing I never properly understood, though, was why there were separate sections for Advent and Christmas. After all, the songs I knew well from home and school were in both sections. And we started singing all of them just after Thanksgiving. Like most Americans, I just assumed Advent and Christmas were two words for the same holiday.
This was, of course, a wrong assumption. You see, Christmas is the celebration of our Lord’s incarnation, our Lord’s birth and nativity. Advent, on the other hand, is the time when anticipate or expect his coming. As we’ll see over the next few weeks, this expectation isn’t only about, or even primarily about, his first coming. Rather, the main focus is to use the anticipation of his first coming as an allegory or illustration of our expectation of his second coming. Our Collect for today, which is to be recited daily throughout the Advent season, sums up this focus quite well (page 90 in your Prayer Book):
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigns the with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
Notice the theme of repentance: casting away the works of darkness, putting on the armor of light. Why? So that we might be ready for Christ’s return in judgement. So that we might rise to life immortal. We need God’s grace to cast away the works of darkness so that we would not be cast into darkness when our Lord comes back.
The penitential nature of Advent is why we vest in violet. It’s why we put away the Gloria in Excelsis for the next few weeks. It’s why we add practices like lighting the Advent candles or reading Advent devotional. It’s why we began today’s service with the Great Litany, just like we do in Lent. Advent does indeed become something of a mini-Lent for us. In fact, in the Eastern Churches, the “Nativity Fast” is 40-days long just like Lent. For us, we see a remnant of a longer Advent with our “Sunday Next Before Advent” or “Stir-Up Sunday” in the Book of Common Prayer.
If there’s one biblical image that best illustrates Advent, it’s St. John the Baptist. The Season of Advent is a prophetic voice urging us to repent, operating in the spirit of Elijah, turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers. Advent is a voice crying in the Wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Next week we’ll focus more on St. John the Baptist and his ministry, but for today, keep in mind that rugged, fasting, blunt, prophetic call to repentance as we look at today’s Epistle Reading. Please turn to Romans 13, beginning in Verse 8 (page 90 in your 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.
These first few verses were not in the medieval version of our assigned Epistle reading but were added by the English Reformers for the original Book of Common Prayer. When we repent, we look to God’s Law as the standard for our behavior. God’s law defines sin and righteousness for us. It’s not arbitrary, it’s not merely societal or cultural constructs; it’s a standard we receive from God himself. Knowing this, the Reformers wanted us to be reminded of the summary of the Law: love of God and love of our neighbor. Love, as defined by Holy Scripture, is the fulfilling of the Law. The verse opens with the phrase, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other.” This is, of course, to owe everything! Love is a debt that we cannot pay in full! St. John Chrysostom says that love is a continuous debt. He writes:
For he does not wish it to ever be paid off, or rather he would have it always rendered, yet never fully so, but to be always owing. For this is the character of the debt, that one keeps giving and owing always.
In our parish, we recite the Summary of the Law most at least three Sundays each month, so we know this passage well. And what is our liturgical response to the command to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves? “Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us.” Part of repentance is realizing how bad we are at it in our flesh. Part of repentance is throwing ourselves on the mercy of God because we aren’t loving the way we’re commanded to be. Today, as is our custom for the first Sunday of the Month, we recited the entire decalogue, the 10 Commandments, to get a more complete picture of God’s moral law. And what was our response to each? “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” When we repent, we ask the Lord for a change in heart. Sin is ultimately a heart problem. Our Gospel reading for today ended with the cleansing of the Temple, with Jesus driving out the swindlers and corrupt money-changers from his Father’s house. In the New Covenant, we’re told that the heart of the Christian is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Lent is a good time to ask the Lord to drive out the corruption and vice from our own selves. While repentance isn’t easy, and often comes with at least a bit of pain, it certainly doesn’t need to be the harsh judgement of Jesus using a makeshift whip and overturning tables! We have the opportunity to submit to the Lord’s gentle correction in our repentance as we ask for a change of heart. The Good News is that the Blood of Christ does indeed change us from the inside out, giving us a new heart, new life, making us a new creation.
Let’s continue with 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.
It is from this passage that we get the first part of our Collect with its reference to casting off the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light. Martin Luther noted that this passage is full of vivid imagery: “Armor,” “work,” “sleep,” “wake,” “darkness,” “light,” “day,” “night.” He says that this is all used as an exhortation, a call to action, not a new teaching. “Exhortation,” Luther writes, “is inciting and urging to duties already well understood.” Even when we don’t fully understand the difference between Advent and Christmas, it’s clear that this time of year particularly appeals to children. The candles, the lights, the songs: these are all things that we use to pass on our culture and values to the next generation. But it’s also good for adults to be reminded of these things as well. The duties to love our neighbor, to remember that Christ is coming back, to cast off darkness and put on light are indeed already well understood by the mature Christian. Advent is that reminder we need. Advent is that exhortation, that call to action, that wake-up call.
On the other hand, it is indeed all-too-easy to surrender to the desires of the flesh at this time of year. Much of American Advent and Christmas culture is designed to stoke the fires of greed, gluttony, and other fleshly indulgence. While it is good to enjoy the gifts that God has given us, including presents, treats, and our fellow man, we must not let those gifts be misused sinfully. That’s why it’s good to have an Advent fast before the Christmas feast. That’s why it’s good to remember that the Lord is coming back to judge the quick and the dead. As St. Paul said, salvation (that is, the final salvation) is nearer than when we first believed. We don’t want to be caught unprepared at his coming. Let’s keep short accounts with each other and with God, always looking to pay our debt of love.
I’ll leave you today with the first stanza of Oxford Father John Keble’s poem for Advent Sunday:
Awake – again the Gospel-trump is blown –
From year to year it swells with louder tone,
From year to year the signs of wrath
Are gathering round the Judge’s path,
Strange words fulfill’d, and mighty works achiev’d,
And truth in all the world both hated and believ’d
May we be among those who awake, believe, and welcome the coming of the Immanuel, our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.