An Advent Sermon

preached in Wootton, near Woodstock, by Professor Basil Mitchell, DD, FBA

on December 1st, 1996, and November 28th, 2004

This is the first Sunday in Advent. In the media the season is called `the run-up to Christmas' and even in the Church we rarely give much thought to it. But if we do think about it, it seems to play strange tricks with time. We all know it as the season when we look forward to the birth of Jesus. It heralds the approach to Christmas. But, as is clear from our Advent hymns, we also look forward to the Second Coming of Christ. So we sing `O come, O come, Emmanuel'; but we also sing `Lo! he comes with clouds descending'.

When we talk of `looking forward to the birth of Jesus', we know that this is only a manner of speaking. The birth of Jesus took place some two thousand years ago, and what we now look forward to is Christmas, our annual celebration of that event. Older English could express this distinction better than modern English, as in the Collect for Christmas day itself: `Almighty God, who hast given us thy only begotten son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin - - ' When, however, we look forward to the Second Coming we are in our own present time gazing to an unknown future.

The Collect for Advent, which we have just heard before the Readings, brings out this play with time in q most startling way. Unlike most of the collects, which come down from the medieval church, the Collect for Advent was composed by Cranmer himself when he was compiling The Book of Common Prayer. Listen to it again:
`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 Ghost, now and for ever, Amen'
`Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, NOW . . ' Suddenly it is not the historical past or the unknown future that is brought before our minds, but the immediate present---Now in Wootton at twenty five minutes to eleven on Sunday 1 December 1996; it is NOW that we are to cast away the works of darkness.

But then, as the collect goes on, this present moment is extended back in time: `now in the time of this mortal life'---for each of us the whole of our life---every moment of it---is the time to cast away the works of darkness. And then, as the collect continues, it takes us still further back in time, back in history to the earthly life of Christ: now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility'.

So at Advent we look back to the birth of Christ and his ministry on earth: we look forward to our yearly celebration of his birth at Christmas; and we look still further forward to his coming again, when he will judge the living and the dead. But to put it just like that is to forget that emphatic NOW. If on Advent Sunday all we do is to look back to Christ's earthly life and forward to his coming again, our present life seems to occupy a sort of interval when nothing much is going on. Something decisive happened in history; something decisive will happen beyond history, but nothing decisive happens now. Christ came to visit us two thousand years ago and, we believe, will come again, although we cannot picture what that will be like---or rather we can picture it as Charles Wesley does in his marvellous hymn `Lo! he comes with clouds descending', but we know, as Wesley surely knew, that the reality will far transcend our picture of it. But meanwhile we are, it seems, left with nothing but remembrance and anticipation, as if in the long interval between the two Christ was altogether absent.

Cranmer, in his prayer, twice warns us against this; first in that emphasis NOW, and then, at the close of the collect, when we pray that `we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth . . . '

As you will have noticed, when Cranmer began his collect `give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light' he was drawing upon the words of St Paul in our reading:
`Now it is high time to wake out of sleep, for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Let us, therefore, cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light.'
There is an enormous sense of urgency in this, which is well brought out in the New English Bible translation of this passage: `In all this remember how critical the moment is. It is time for you to wake out of sleep' The Authorized version conveys this too with its `Now it is high time to wake out of sleep'. The moment is critical because it depends on our decision now. Whether Christ is received into our hearts and whether his love is shown in our lives. When the collect says
`now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility', we are to think not only of his life and death in Palestine but also of the risen life which he shares now with all who will receive him.

We find this double emphasis in many of our Christmas hymns. For example the writer of `O little town of Bethlehem' takes the Christmas story and applies it to our present experience:
`How silently, how silently The wondrous gift is given! So god imparts to human hearts The blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming But in this world of sin Where meek souls will receive him still The dear Christ enters in.
`No ear may hear his coming'. It need not be a dramatic incident like St Paul's encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. In the Gospel for today, the parable of the sheep and the goats, the righteous, who are to inherit eternal life, are unaware that Christ has visited them and that they have received him:
`Lord when saw we thee anhungered and fed thee, or thirsty and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger and took thee in or naked and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison and came unto thee?' And the King answered them `Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me'.

This double emphasis in the Christian Gospel is, then, the central message of Advent. On the one hand there is the story of our redemption set in the past, and a story of judgement and forgiveness to be realized in the future; and, on the other hand, a call to accept Christ into out hearts and lives here and now. But, once we have recognized this two-fold pattern, we shall find it on every Sunday of the year, when ever we celebrate the Eucharist or Holy communion.

The Eucharist is an act of remembrance and of anticipation: `and in his Holy gospel command us to continue a perpetual memory of that his precious death until his coming again'. We are looking back in time and looking forward in time to consummation beyond time. We are thus made aware week by week of our place in a great cosmic drama of redemption which gives meaning to every moment of our lives. But we also `feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving' and, in the prayer of Humble Access, we pray that `we may so eat the flesh of thy dear son Jesus Christ and drink his blood that . . . we may evermore dwell in him and he in us'.

Unless we allow Christ to enter into our hearts here and now---to visit us in great humility---the story of redemption fails to come alive for us, the work of redemption is not fulfilled in us.

All this, in a miracle of compression, is set before us in the Collect fr Advent, with which I will end as I began:
`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 Ghost, now and for ever, Amen'
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