First Sunday of Advent : Vigil Mass for the Ordinariate Parish Mass
Church of the Holy Rood, Oxford
30 November 2013
Looking at the readings that set the course for a new year in the Latin Church, I am forced to recall how as a newly ordained curate I had to cover an interregnum for two years and when the second Advent dawned, I realised I had run out of the things to say that I had stored from my time in training. I therefore decided on a course of sermons at our Parish Mass, teeming with families and children, on the Four Last Things. Thus Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell were the cheering preparation for Christmas 1986.
I trust I did no lasting harm, since in those days people attended Church in good number for the Lord, and less hinged on the techniques of the priest and the disposition of those who heard him. But my mistake had been to confuse the beginning of Advent with a preoccupation with the Coming of God for the Last Judgment at the End of Times.
True: in the reading from the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 2. 1-5) we are inspired with the vision of the Temple Mount in the City of God, towering over the hills that currently dominate it, all lit up to reveal the right and safest paths to it from wherever you are starting, meeting you halfway with God’s own commands to give judgment on the injustices in which you are complicit, and then to reconfigure you as people shining with his reflected peace.
And in the Gospel that is nowadays chosen for this Sunday(Matt. 24. 37-44), we are asked to contemplate not bathing in the light of the New Jerusalem but a second great Flood that could take half of us away in an impenitent instant, or a Christ who is the thief in the night to steal the unwary soul.
So we have become accustomed to a frisson of rapture mixed with dread at the forthcoming end of time. We love nothing better than to sing a hymn that alternates our response to the sight of the true Messiah’s return with “Alleluya” in one verse, and “Deeply wailing” in the next (from “Lo, He comes with clouds descending”). But this Sunday will pass and we will quickly get on with our anticipations of Christ’s Nativity, the first coming of the Messiah.
Yet, here again, we would be missing the point of Advent. It is not so much a few weeks of preparation for Christmas, as the six or so weeks that form the season to prepare us for the great Baptismal Feast of Epiphany on January the Sixth. The Feast of the Nativity has come in along the way; but, just as Easter has its Forty Days and Pentecost its Fifty, so Epiphany is the object of this season upon which we are setting out today. For the Second Coming that is envisaged is not only the vindication that will come at the end of time, but the second Nativity of our Lord that comes into effect when the believer becomes a new creation in Christ at his baptism. Will we not be singing in a less than a month’s time, “Cast out our sin, and enter in: be born in us today”?
For the new Christians who once were baptised at the great celebrations of initiation that took place at Epiphany - and that still mark the liturgy of the Eastern Churches for the feast of Theophany, as they call it, the manifestation of God at his baptism, marked with the blessings of water and the copious lustral showerings of the people – for these new Christians, the culmination of a whole season’s preparation would be entry into the life of Christ incarnate and Christ victorious over death by His Resurrection in the flesh. For it is the constant Resurrection that is the Second Coming of Christ; and we are caught up in its constant happening by Baptism, the New Order on which there is no going back and the life of which is eternity now. Thus for new Christians, it is Baptism that is the end of the world they once lived in, and the beginning of the new. It is the end of the old living, the old sins, the old faults and the old memories; now it is the time for new living in the life of the Resurrection, with new virtues and new memories of new holiness: no longer the enervating disappointment of failed effort and spoiled attempts. Baptism is the illumination from the City of God’s Peace of which Isaiah speaks - not a lightning judgment that condemns, but one that reveals the truth and wins concurrence, and then wins hearts. So the great Epiphany event of baptism six weeks away, anticipated from the beginning of Advent, comes not to catch the unwatching soul in order to condemn it, but to take it through a journey of realisation, of revelation about itself, of repentance and conversion, and finally joyful desire to be living in Christ and as Christ.
St Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, set for this day from time immemorial (Rom. 13. 11-14), tells us that the time of God, the Day of the Lord, is not then in the future, but now. We are to wake up and leave the cover of darkness and stand up to do something very different, in the different Light that is now rising. The only armour we will need for protection in our new work is the life of Christ that we lead as His Body.
The Gospel in the Old Mass for today, from St Luke’s Gospel (Lk. 21. 25-33), warms to the same theme. It begins with signs in the firmament and distress among the nations, but points out that the coming of Christ is not a matter of grim destruction and fear, but of Glory settling what sin has disturbed, of high hopes, and of a summer of redemption that is coming very near, and coming in us. The comings and goings of generations are not the point; we will pass through earth and we will pass through heaven. But what abides is the Word of the Lord, Christ in us, and we in Christ. The fundamental reality we face in our faith is the reality of me and the reality of God, an inescapable truth, one that inescapably binds me to Him and He to me. Blessed John Henry knew this; and will we, too, not soon be singing, “O come to us, abide in us, Our Lord Emmanuel”?
Even the Gospel appointed for today in the Book of Common Prayer, the Palm Sunday story, drawn from the Sarum Rite’s lectionary for the Sunday before Advent (Matthew 21), reminds us that the King has come to us for the moment of NOW. We call on Him to enter His own City - namely our otherwise impregnable soul - by naming Him its Saviour. Thus the thief in the night subverts the den of thieves. The first thing He does is to throw out all that is wrong in us, to cleanse us, to convert us back to being Temples for the Holy Spirit, and then to pray within us, taking his rightful place on the only throne that matters to Him – the human hearts made for the love of God alone.
The reason we do well to concentrate on the true purpose of this season that will take us up through the events surrounding Christ’s Nativity, to the moment of his Epiphany before the Kings and the Peoples, and pre-eminently at his Baptism in the Jordan, is that it restores our perspective. Our reference point is not a feast that will come and go, now that it has been largely reclaimed as Yule; nor is it the recapitulation of all things when the constructs of time and space cease to bear relation to us and our Maker. What we have to be concerned about is the eternal present of God’s moment when it comes. Jesus lamented the Jerusalem of his days for failing to realise the present action of God. So it faced its physical, moral and spiritual collapse. It could be the same for us, if we do not live in the new life that is our constant state of baptism, our risen life in Christ, our unendable endowment with the very nature of God that is the reason God in Christ came to endow Himself with ours.
This week Mr Speaker Bercow opined that the reason a series of Members of Parliament have been convicted following an expenses-fiddling scandal in which many more were shown to have no idea of the difference between right and wrong is because they were “bored” and “under-occupied”. Is this the best defence that humans can make before the bar of public opinion? Will it win acquittal and exoneration? If this ruse works, can we run the same defence past the Almighty? Clearly, if there are those who still care, they may well think so: “And he, seeking to justify himself said, ‘I was bored and under-occupied’.”
Not many people believe in sin, except it is other people’s. Not many people believe in forgiveness, unless it is their own. Not many people believe in mercy, unless it is something withheld from the offender. It is a strange phase in our society which once, for good or ill, had a corporate sense of its identity as Christian. This meant the values not just of what used to be called “respectability” – an ambition to behave in a way that others could honour, especially in adversity – but also honesty and virtue in personal conduct, as well as fairness and humanity in dealings with others. Integral to all getting along - for it takes all sorts to make a world - were the qualities of patience, of charitable outlook, of non-aggressiveness in thought, deed and word, of mercy towards those who failed and compassion to those without aid. Most of all, even amid the more oppressive constraints in society, there has nonetheless often been an instinct for forgiveness offered, in the hope of forgiveness to be received, sometimes characterised by the prudent phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I”.
These outlooks are by no means general now. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor once observed that throughout his life it was as though we were all acting out the drama of our British way of life, while slowly behind us the backdrop of Christian values, of mercy, forgiveness and redemption, had been rolled up. To hear of people speak so vehemently of disaffected teenagers, of the fearful dangers posed by the imminent arrival of Bulgarian and Romanian jobseekers (mark you, our fellow Christians as Orthodox), of how every adversity now has to be someone’s glaring omission, and every public servant a blameworthy object of life-destroying retribution, is all so merciless. It is perhaps the greatest victory of the secularists that, having dethroned Christ from his English Christendom in schools, local authority services and our very culture, people have been left with nothing to fall back on, no story to remember that explains our deepest questions of why life and death and suffering and hope are as they are, no words to articulate in a moment when people feel they are “not religious but spiritual”, no prayers to say, no example to emulate and internalise so they know from deep in their heart of hearts what it is second nature to do, what is right and what is wrong - even if they feel “bored” and “under-occupied”. This latest of passing ages is serving people ill, for now there is no King to cry “Hosanna” to, no God to hope in, no Lord whose yoke I take and path I follow. I am my own judge; my own the law made up as I go along; my will the counsel in my court. I am left to be my own sovereign; there is no City set on hill that lights the paths for us all to start out on; there is no Law that binds me as much as it binds others, and no perspective on God the closer he comes. He draws up, he passes near; I cannot tell the distance, nor can I see how my NOW has to fit into eternity. Instead, I am left, not with his righteousness, but my own self-righteousness. It is a poor substitute; and the indignation, the frustration, the selfishness, the egos competing for prevalence, the urge to do what is advantageous in the moment regardless of what is good, the material covetousness that indulges our feelings but safely insulates our souls, the self-acquittal that is couched in the denunciation of others, is a dark and bitter place, where there is no satisfaction for all the effort and self-delusion we put into it.
Better then, as we look forward and look around, to take our bearings from the Epiphany, from our baptism, when Christ came again, risen from the dead and making us a new creation. Better for us to come out of doing whatever it is that we do in the dark, and to see where to stand in the light of the City of God’s peace rising, where to tell that the warming approach of God is on its way, and call out as it comes, “O Lord, shew Thy mercy upon us: and grant us Thy salvation”.
There, as new creatures, not the old deathful and dying spirits who destroy and are destroyed, let us be seen by God’s grace as the City of Light and Peace, about whom the Lord can say, “Come and walk by this light”. `