Today is the third Sunday of Advent. It is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is Latin for rejoice. This Sunday’s readings are noticeably less gloomy than the readings for the other Sundays of Advent. And some parishes mark the semi-festive tone of the day by using rose-colored vestments and paraments, instead of violet ones. (But in my humble opinion, rose is just a fancy way of saying pink, and I refuse to wear pink!) But as you are probably not terribly interested in my color preferences, let’s just move on and take a look-see at those “less gloomy” readings.
Isaiah by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel
The first reading from Isaiah really has no hints of gloom at all. It prophesies the return of the people to Zion in the midst of a sweeping transformation almost beyond imagining. Isaiah prophesies that those who are marginalized due to disabilities will be healed and reincorporated into society. And not only will the people be transformed, even the wilderness through which they pass will become a luxuriant garden. Finally, we are told, that “they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” What a fitting reading for Rejoice Sunday!
The context of the original prophecy was the Babylonian Exile, which was to last some 70 years. The prophet wrote this inspired poem to give hope to a captive people as they awaited the day of their return. And return they did, but the blind and the lame and the deaf and the mute were not restored to wholeness, and the wilderness was not transformed into a new Eden. The prophecy was fulfilled only in part, it seems. Christian scripture hints that there is another, deeper fulfilment of this prophecy yet to occur. We find references to this in the Gospel reading from Matthew. It implies that the complete fulfillment of this prophecy will come only at the consummation of the Kingdom of God, which began to break into this world with the first coming of the Messiah and will reach its fullness only at his second coming.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and the church begins another liturgical year. We ought to call the season Advents, with an “s.” Because this season has two distinct foci: the first coming, or advent, of our Lord some 2000 years ago and the Second Coming when Christ will come again in glory to judge the world. This season is marked with darkness, both literally and figuratively. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the days are getting shorter and the nights longer. That’s the literal darkness of which I spoke. The figurative darkness is the spiritual eventide in which we find ourselves living today, that turbulent time between the two Advents of Christ when the world suffers the birth pangs of the Kingdom.
The church marks the season with the use of violet vestments and paraments, just as in Lent. And as in Lent, the singing of the Gloria on Sundays is forbidden. But unlike Lent, we are allowed to say and to sing Alleluia. Liturgists argue whether the season is a penitential season or rather a season of preparation. Perhaps the correct answer is that it is a bit of both. For spiritual preparation often includes penitence.
The world outside the church has already turned its eyes to Christmas. Trees have already been decorated. Strings of colored lights are going up on houses even as I speak. And Macy’s is already playing Christmas carols over its loudspeakers. But those of us inside the church are asked to slow down a bit, to allow ourselves some time to contemplate the coming feast of Christmas, and just as importantly, to allow ourselves some time to contemplate the Second Coming of Christ.
The first reading from Isaiah speaks of the prophesied Kingdom of God. In that Kingdom, all nations will worship one God together. Through God’s arbitration, all hostilities between nations will cease. War and conflict will be things of the past, and there will be peace and abundance on earth. This is God’s will for us. And the Church exists for one express purpose: to make sure that this Kingdom is well populated!
St. Paul advises us to wake up. He warns us that the Second Coming will soon be upon us. Well, it’s clear that he was wrong about the timing. He expected the Day of Judgment in his lifetime, and that didn’t happen. Instead, two millennia have passed. And after 2000 years, it is hard to maintain Paul’s sense of expectancy. But there is something to be gained if we make the effort! Though we may find it hard to believe that the Last Day will happen in our lifetime, it is not so hard to believe that we could very well experience our own personal Last Day at any time. All of us here know just how quickly death can come upon us. So St. Paul’s warning to lay aside the works of darkness and to clothe ourselves with the protective garment of life in Christ is as apt today as it was when he originally wrote it. And we would do well to heed his words.
This very same message is driven home by Jesus himself in the Gospel reading from Matthew. Jesus reminds us that, in the time of Noah, the people who were destined for destruction went about their daily lives oblivious to their situation until it was too late to act. Jesus goes on to say that at the Last Day some will be gathered up by angels for salvation while others in the same household will be abandoned to their fate. When this Day of Judgment will occur even Jesus doesn’t know. And so he counsels his followers to forgo sleep and to be spiritually prepared at all times.
As someone who suffers from occasional insomnia, the prospect of staying awake for the rest of my life does not sound appealing. But no need to fear! Spiritual wakefulness does not have the same deleterious effects that literal sleep deprivation has. Quite the opposite! Spiritual wakefulness just makes our spirits all the stronger. Both Jesus and St. Paul ask us to be alert at each moment of our lives to what God is calling us to do in that moment. And by so doing, we prepare ourselves to meet our Maker. Every moment of our lives presents us with decisions, with choices. And we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, are expected to make choices that are loving. We are to ask ourselves at each juncture, How might I love God and my neighbor in this moment? Now, we are only human, and sometimes we will get it wrong. The important thing is that we persist in the endeavor. And with practice, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can hope to grow in virtue and righteousness. As with so many things, practice makes perfect! Just as athletes, dancers, and musicians train their bodies to perform without conscious thought, developing “muscle memory,” so we can train ourselves in righteousness, so that we can act virtuously without even thinking about it.
In a sense, we are being asked to live as if—as if the Kingdom of God were already among us in its fullness. How do we do this? Well, the Scriptures have given us plenty of guidance as to how to go about it. We have the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount: to be poor in spirit, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers, and so on. Jesus advises his disciples to keep the three traditional Jewish acts of piety: to pray, to fast, and to give alms. We have a hidden commandment in the Lord’s Prayer: to forgive others their trespasses. We have the continuing guidance of the Ten Commandments. And finally, we have the Summary of the Law: to love God and to love our neighbor. We are not wanting for instruction in righteous living.
Admittedly, it takes real effort to maintain such righteousness. And it takes attentiveness. It’s so easy to fall asleep spiritually. Going to church can get to be a chore, so maybe we begin to go just once a month. Surely that’s enough to satisfy God! Maybe we cut back our giving to charity. After all,they’renot going to take care of us if we run out of money! Maybe we decide it would be absolutely delicious to hold a grudge against someone who hurt us. Clearly, someone like that doesn’t deserve forgiveness! Then there’s the task of daily prayer—it can be so tedious and time-consuming, and it doesn’t do any real good anyway. …And so we drift asleep.
Well, wake up and smell the coffee, folks! “The night is far gone, the day is near.”Now is the time to prepare for our judgment. So, let us continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers. Let us persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. Let us proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. Let us seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. And last but not least, let us strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. Brothers and sisters in Christ, know this: if we but keep these promises made at our baptism, we will be judged worthy to live with Christ in his Kingdom forever!
✠ In the Name of him who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.
Today is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, and Christmas is right around the corner. (But I bet you already knew that!) The Gospel reading we heard today is a familiar one. We hear the first part each year at the feast of the Visitation, and we hear the second part at the feast of St. Mary the Virgin. On those feast days, the focus is quite rightly on Mary. Today the focus is on what God has done in the past, continues to do in the present, and will do again in the future—and what that means for us!
The story takes place right after the archangel Gabriel has announced to Mary that she has been chosen to bear the Son of God. Her response is to visit her elderly cousin who is miraculously pregnant. The Church Fathers assure us that Mary does not visit her cousin Elizabeth so as to verify what the archangel had told her. Mary is not a doubter. But perhaps she just needs to share her joy with one who will understand it.
At the moment that Mary enters Elizabeth’s house and greets her cousin, the child in Elizabeth’s womb, the prophet John the Baptist, recognizes the presence of his Lord in Mary’s womb and gives a mighty and prophetic kick. At that same moment, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and with a mighty shout, she prophesies the message that her unborn son cannot yet proclaim: namely, that Mary and her child are uniquely and supremely blessed by God.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
Advent is a time to rehearse the stories of the first coming of Jesus Christ at his birth, as well as to prepare ourselves for his Second Coming. At the risk of being called pedantic, today’s Gospel reading doesn’t actually focus on either; instead, it focuses on the antecedent to the first coming, namely, the virginal conception. It is the story of the angelic Annunciation to the Virgin Mary that she will conceive and bear God’s Son.
The angel’s greeting in this story has inspired composers throughout the history of the church to try to capture the essence of that moment in a musical setting of the “Ave Maria.” And this story has appealed to the visual imagination of countless Christian artists, from the Middle Ages up to the present day. The museums of Europe are full of paintings of the Annunciation. A typical painting would look something like this. A young woman dressed in a diaphanous blue gown is seated on a throne, her head surrounded by a golden halo. Before her there kneels an angel of ambiguous gender with hands devoutly clasped in prayer. Above is a white dove in a golden nimbus, and from the dove a ray of light emanates, aimed at the head of Mary—as if Jesus is to be conceived in Mary’s head!
A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on December 7, 2014, the Second Sunday in Advent.
Lewis Thomas died 20 years ago but I remember him in connection with today’s Old Testament reading. I read a magazine article in the New York Times some while ago about Lewis Thomas and his thoughts about life and death and the words of Isaiah in the first lesson today seemed to connect: “All flesh is grass” the prophet tells us,
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8)
So who was Lewis Thomas? He was dean of the medical schools at NYU and Yale, chancellor of the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Scholar in residence at Cornell Medical School and author of essays collected in books called “The Lives of a Cell,” “The Medusa and the Snail,” “The Youngest Profession,” and others. I enjoyed reading them. They are wise and warm and endlessly interesting observations about human nature and about the human race.
When Lewis Thomas learned that he was terminally ill someone interviewed him and wrote about it so I read the article with special interest and I was disappointed because he was a man who had seen so much and understood so much and now he was dying and it turned out that he didn’t have a clue about some pretty basic things like God and heaven and life hereafter. Whatever ideas he had picked up on the subject could have been picked up secondhand from a church school dropout.
Recently Fr. Joe Holt and I were discussing the tradition of singing ‘O Antiphons’ during advent leading up the Christmas Eve. Not being familiar with this tradition, I did some research and I discovered a fascinating history of the church where seven antiphons that start with the letter O (hence called the O antiphons), followed by the Magnificat were sung or recited at vesper services during Advent.
Each of the seven antiphons are sung from Dec 17 – 23 culminating and pointing towards Christmas eve on Dec 24. The seven antiphons highlight a title of the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel.
If one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia, you get the Latin words ‘ero cras’, which means, “Tomorrow, I will come.”
You can find more information here. You can also here a chant version of the antiphons here. A beautiful setting by Arvo Pärt can be heard here: Part I,Part II.
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Sunday services at Incarnation:
8 a.m. (Rite I) (Traditional English),
10 a.m. (Rite II) (Choral Eucharist, Modern English),
11:30 a.m. (Chinese).
You can find the readings for Advent IV here. Have a blessed day!
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Sunday services at Incarnation:
8 a.m. (Rite I),
10 a.m. (Rite II),
11:30 a.m. (Chinese).
You can find the readings for Advent III here. Have a blessed day!