The First Sunday in Advent


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Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away…
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 21:1-13

Today is the first day of the Church’s new year, the day when we begin to follow the life of Jesus from before His birth until His sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is the beginning of a season of purple, a time for penitence and preparation, a time when the peace of mind and resolution we need are overwhelmed by contemporary impatience which wants everything celebrated in advance; which, in effect, wants to deny the virtue of delayed gratification.

This is, then, the day for major themes but sometimes compilers are so deeply conscious of the need to establish surface connections between passages on major days like today that they overlook submerged meanings. Christmas, and therefore its anticipation in advent, was not such an important festival as Easter until the late 19th Century but one can hear the writer of the Collect long before then worrying about over indulgence, a theme readily taken up by the ascetic Paul in Romans and echoed in Matthew. Perhaps, too, the compilers thought about the supposed animals in the Christmas stable when they selected Matthew’s account of Palm Sunday (with his customary habit of multiply everything by two, no matter how absurd the outcome); and they might even sub-consciously have connected the reference in the Gospel to Jesus as the “Son of David” with our sharp turn towards Bethlehem, the City of David, to which Jesus came “In great humility”.

And this is the clue to one of the major threads in the three pieces: the Collect contrasts the earthly humility of Jesus with his final coming in “Glorious majesty” while the Gospel, noting the prophesy that the Messiah would come in meekness, contrives the bewildering paradox of a king sitting on a donkey, almost as outlandish as a king born in a stable or a saviour crucified.

But the most obvious themes are waiting and the emergence from darkness into light. The BCP is less inclined than contemporary lectionaries to countenance periods of waiting for waiting (Sundays before Advent) and its compilers cannot have imagined the phenomenon of Christmas paraphernalia in the shops two months before the Feast of All Saints. In the Collect the waiting is eschatological, contrasting our mortality with our rising to eternal life; in Paul the waiting is decidedly more visceral, as we live our earthly lives in temptation and fear; and, as usual, Matthew links the two ideas together as the people of Jerusalem wait for their king to make all well, a king who is, theologically, human and divine but who was both earthly king and Messiah to the Jerusalem crowd.

It is difficult today to grasp fully the true depth of meaning in the metaphors of darkness and light which bring comfort in the middle of Winter, connecting very ordinary concerns with the incarnation. It is challenging for us to imagine a society powered by candles and oil lamps that might go out at any minute, lights whose intensity was magnified by their scarcity, by the darkness of the hinterland they so feebly pierced. Whereas we think of darkness as the exception, as the environment for sleep but also of villains, for people up until the middle of the 19th Century darkness was the daily hazard of existence. The Collect calls upon us to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light and Romans says that the night is far spent and the day is close at hand, both comforting, counter-intuitive ideas as we approach the shortest day of the year but a sharp illustration of why Christianity was so keen to absorb the pagan Winter Festival.

That very idea of the pagan is surely behind the message in all three pieces about the desires of the flesh. It is one of those ironies which frequently pushes Christianity to the borders of heresy, that what is quintessentially an incarnational religion lapses into dreadful dualism. There may be very good reasons why Paul abhorred the worldly vices of paganism but surely the author of the collect was largely surrounded by sober folk whose worst excess was an extra slice of meat on one of the few occasions of the year when it was consumed by poorer folk. One senses here the impulse of incipient Puritanism. On the other hand, the balance is restored by Matthew’s attack on the shop keepers, as opposed to the shoppers, another example of a sub-conscious, highly appropriate message for the season.

The passages are individually and collectively designed to get us kick-started for Advent, to move us forward, to alert us for the need to get ready but they lack a counterbalance calling us to be still which is a contemporary necessity because of the gargantuan proportions of the contemporary lead-up to Christmas, the time of year when it is most difficult to be alone and most difficult to exercise a degree of self control and delayed gratification. Above all, this is our opportunity to begin to think about the connection between the crib and the Cross so celebrated by Medieval carol writers but somewhat lost in the Victorian sentimentalism of the manger.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Imagine a world without gas or electricity; what difference does this make to the idea of darkness and light?
  2. How does the doctrine of the incarnation of Jesus square with the condemnation of worldly pleasures?
  3. How comfortable is the military metaphor of armour in the Collect but clearly taken from Paul, within the context of Paul’s emphasis on love?
  4. How can we make the idea of the humble king relevant in a world where kingship is largely nominal and humility confused with subservience?
  5. How do we approach the waiting time of Advent when we are under so much pressure to make elaborate preparations for Christmas and to celebrate long before the special day arrives?

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