Collect for Advent I
ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour 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 reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Isaiah 64, Vv 1 – 9
1 Corinthians 1, Vv 3 – 9
St Mark 13, Vv 24 – 37
The thirteenth chapter of Saint Mark’s Gospel, from which our Proclamation came, is reckoned by many scholars to be among the most difficult to interpret in the whole of the New Testament. It is filled with allegory and metaphor and readers have to put themselves into the minds of first century Palestinians to understand what it means, a process that theologians call exegesis. A lot of the chapter is about the Parousia, the technical name for the Second Coming of Christ. We have to be careful what we read into this chapter because we must understand that there were many conflicting thoughts about that event. Let us try, for a few moments, to put ourselves into the mindset of the ordinary people of Jesus’ time. The Jews of Palestine were a subjugated nation, under the heel of their Roman overlords. They had been so for almost a century, since 63BC when the Roman general Pompey had entered the Temple and forced a settlement with the then Hasmonean dynasty. Over the decades the Jews had negotiated certain privileges from their rulers: they had maintained their Temple worship; they were ruled by members of the Herodian family who, descended from King Herod the Great, at least claimed to be of the Jewish faith. They had, for normal commercial use, a form of coinage that was untainted by graven imagery and, certainly, in religious matters, they were essentially self-governing. Despite all this, family incomes were low, food supplies were scarce and everyone was subjected to penurious taxation. We only have to read of the crowds who followed Jesus everywhere he went; many because they had little else to do with their time. If we consider the large numbers of impoverished and diseased people that he met and cured we may perhaps better understand the privations suffered by God’s Chosen People. Among all this anguish and distress the nation looked for the coming of a Messiah, a leader who many thought would take up the sword like a latter-day King David, rid the nation of its Roman overlords, reassert the dignity of the people and bring a reign of peace and prosperity. Down the ages prophet and seer had foretold of this event. A number of potential Messiah-like figures had appeared on the scene, like Judas of Galilee who in AD6 led an insurrection against the Romans, but none had accomplished the expected revolution. First century Palestine was ripe for another Messianic appearance, the people cried out for a saviour to come to their aid. Jesus would himself have had such cravings. As a young man, running the family building business, trying to get his bills paid, he would have seen at first hand the poverty, deprivation and destitution around him. And he would have wondered…
Then God’s call came and his earthly ministry began. If he was to be the Messiah promised from of old, how was he to accomplish his task? Was he to assume the mantle of a warrior and lead his people into battle, a newfound king on a caparisoned charger, riding proudly before his troops? During his temptations in the wilderness Jesus was led to understand that his ministry was not to be conducted along militaristic and combative lines – he came to bring peace and repentance to a Kingdom of God on earth. He taught his disciples his ways of peace but he also explained to them that his life on earth was of finite length; he came from God, he would die, making a full oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the world, and he would return to his heavenly Father. But, he also taught that that was not to be the end of the matter. He would come again, this time in the full Majesty of God as the Judge of all the peoples of the Earth. All space and time would cease. At his Father’s request, and through the power of the Spirit, he, Jesus, had created it all – it would be his task to consummate it and bring it all to an end. What Jesus, and others in these early days of the church, did not seem to comprehend was the time scale of this latter event. In our Gospel passage Jesus makes it clear that he knows what will happen; he knows it in startling detail. The sun will be darkened, the stars will fall and angels will be sent out to gather the elect. Despite these dire predictions Jesus does have to admit that even he, the Incarnate Son of God, does not know when these things will happen. He said, ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’ Jesus gave the impression at times that he expected this Parousia to be imminent; to take place soon after his death and resurrection. It has been cogently argued that Saint Paul, certainly in his earlier writings, equally expected that this event would occur in his lifetime, hence his determination to evangelise the whole world before it happened. I am sure that, after the Ascension, the other Apostles would have waited earnestly for the return of their friend and Saviour. Yet it was not to be. Two thousand years have passed and still the church waits. How much longer will it be before the Second Coming?
If I was wearing my scientific cap I would tell you that astronomers, cosmologists and astrophysicists argue that our sun, our nearest star, will run out of hydrogen, the fuel for its nuclear furnace, in about five billion years. After that the residual helium will cause it to expand enormously into what is called a red giant until it engulfs the inner planets and annihilates them. Is this what Jesus meant when he said that the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will fall from heaven? If that is the time scale then we need have no worries, with so long to wait we can live our lives to the full: eat, drink and be merry. If we have another few billion years then we need not even begin to think about the Parousia, it won’t happen in my lifetime, or yours. But, wait a minute. Although Jesus claimed not to know the hour, and he didn’t have our modern, scientific knowledge about the Big Bang and a possible Big Crunch, he did tell us to keep alert. He compared the expectation with a man going on a journey who leaves his household in the care of his slaves, but commands the door-keeper to be on the watch. ‘Therefore keep awake,’ he said, ‘for you do not know when the master of the house will come.’ He concluded with a blunt statement – ‘what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!’
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, another New Year for the church. Advent, which typically occupies the whole of December, plus a few days of November, depending on which day of the week Christmass falls, is a necessary preparation for the great Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. Analogous to Lent it is a period of making-ready for the festival. I regret to say that today’s Christians seem less ready to observe Advent in a religious sense – they are perhaps over concerned with the practicalities of the season and the commercial pressures that ensue and that seem to get more stressful, and start ever earlier, with each passing year. During this important penitential period we are expected by Mother Church to consider, think and pray about three areas of preparation. These are: waiting in patient expectation beside The Blessed Virgin for the birth of a son who will bring our salvation; waiting in our everyday world for the coming of that Saviour in his sacramental presence to feed our souls for our onward Christian pilgrimage towards our ultimate home; and waiting for the Parousia, that great and mighty Second Coming of Jesus Christ that he promised. The first is relatively easy, or, as we actively prepare for our Yuletide festivities, it ought to be. But, do we wait patiently beside Mary, casting all of our cares upon God and saying to him, as Mary did, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word’? Do we find time in our frenetic rounds of parties, present buying, meal planning and all the other trappings of this season to sit quietly, in earnest expectation of the birth of the Son of God? The second ‘waiting’ also ought to be easy. All we have to do is turn up for church on Sundays and at other times and receive the bread and wine of the sacrament. But, we should ask ourselves, as part of our Advent discipline, do we come properly prepared to meet our Saviour at the altar rail? Do we empty our hearts and minds of worldly concerns and concentrate only on that solemn acceptance of the Body and the Blood? Are we, as the Prayer Book asks, ‘in love and charity with our neighbours’? Can we do better in this preparatory season? And thirdly: how do we get ready for the Second Coming of Christ? Are we to believe that, because nothing has happened in this regard for two millennia, nothing is likely to happen now, soon? Can we take comfort from the scientist that we have aeons of time before the sun and the stars disintegrate and that it is no concern to us today? No, Jesus may not have known the day or the hour but he did admonish us to be ready, whenever this event happens, for happen it most assuredly will. We should try to live our lives so that if the world ended tomorrow, or even this afternoon, we could expect to hear the Judge of all say to each of us, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’
Let us pray that we may give some serious thought to the church’s teaching on Advent in our several preparations for the Feast of the Nativity and that we may be led by the Holy Spirit to understand better the threefold discipline of waiting on God as we advance towards the wonders that will be Christmass.
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