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Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

An Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic Tradition Where All Are Welcome

The First Sunday of Advent (B)
30 November 2008

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Canon Andrew McGowan, Ph.D.
Warden and President of Trinity College, Melbourne

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor 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, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Isaiah 64: 1-9a
Psalm 80
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Mark 13:(24-32) 33-37

As Advent begins once more the haunting, prophetic words echo down through the ages to seize us and shake us from complacency:

“You better watch out, you better not cry,
you better not pout, I’m telling you why…”

Or Perhaps - “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil.”

There are, we could say, two competing traditional scripts for the season – both involve preparedness for the coming of one in whose hands lie both judgment and hope.

Of course it is common at this point in the year for preachers to beat up on secularism, commercialism, over-consumption and so on, by making uncomplimentary references to the portly gentleman in the red suit to whom the song refers and who just arrived at Macy’s. If this has become an important part of Advent preparations for you, hold that thought for a moment.

First let me suggest that those of us who are trying to prepare for Christmas as a joyful celebration of the incarnation are not the only ones who are up against it. Spare a thought for Santa. The Santa Claus of the mid-twentieth century and before was a kind of good-hearted moralist, who was at least interested in who was naughty and who was nice. Convention meant he was allowed to drop lumps of coal into some stockings – at least this is what I have been told, and feel free to press senior members of the congregation on the truth of the rumor. Economic necessity meant that even the rewards were more like sugar plums (whatever they were!) than the latest excesses of merchandizing lying in wait for us from Black Friday on.

Yet now even Santa has been thrust a different script for the season; even he has to pretend that we are all always nice, and that we not only deserve everything conceivable, but that we deserve it NOW. A story whose meaning and power, such as it was, depended on attention, readiness, a moral response, and the reality of judgment as well as that of hope, has evaporated.

If that is what has happened to the Santa story, so be it.

Our concern must be that this not happen to the Jesus story. We have hope in Jesus because there must be judgment. We have hope because not all is well. In this city and this year that hardly needs to be argued; and if our own losses and insecurities heighten our awareness of the universal character of the need for hope, we may have to take that unwelcome reminder as a kind of gift.

We need hope for ourselves, and also because the cries of the poor rise from the earth daily, and because the earth itself strains under the weight of our careless stewardship – not everything is nice at all. In Advent we must somehow find a way to acknowledge the necessity of judgment without which the fulfillment of our hope, once at Christmas and once again in God’s future, would be meaningless.

Such a time of reflection, examination and preparation is of course called a fast. Feasts like Christmas need fasts to make any sense, just as judgment and hope need each other; and many have no means to distinguish feasts from ordinary time except by superabundance. Since the privileged already live in abundance in any case, there is now a kind of crisis of festivity, overconsumption laid over customary excess, a kind of desperation to mark celebrations with still more and more of everything in a hopeless exponential expansion.

The crisis about what Christmas means is not about Christmas – it is about the rest of the time. The loss of spiritual disciplines such as fasting in Western culture is not, I suggest, an accident, given the global reality. The gross disparities between rich and poor are a perverse parody of the rhythms of fasting and feasting, and of judgment and hope; feasting and “hope” always for some, fasting and judgment for the rest. Yet the permanent establishment of need as the norm for most in the world, but abundance as the norm for the few, brings with it not only the obvious suffering of the poor but a cost even to the privileged, a deep spiritual cost and moral damage.

Some in the community of faith are calling us to reflect on how we might rethink celebrating Christmas, with simplicity as well as joy. Our response to this loss of the story must, however, not just be to do less, and thus level off the celebrations to make them more like ordinary time; rather we must recover fasting as well as feasting; ordinary time itself must be lived differently.

And so I invite you to the great and wonderful opportunity that is the observance of a holy Advent. Advent is not ordinary, but it is different; it is not just a different color of liturgical ice-cream for the jaded appetite of the soul. It is a time of anticipation rather more than of fulfillment, a time of preparation rather more than of celebration, a time of building expectation rather than of mere exhaustion, a time of self-examination rather than of mere indulgence.

May we, as the apostle says, be “enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind-- just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you-- so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And when our savior comes, let us be ready for the great feast and the great exchange of gifts, where there will be enough for all.


©2008 Andrew McGowan