The First Sunday of Advent (Year C)
2 December 2018
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, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
The other day I got an email from my colleague, the new rector of the Church of Saint John in the Village. He was looking to borrow a violet chasuble to use in Advent, as he did not approve of the shiny, viscous, blue vestments with which his predecessor had replaced their violet silk set. I sent him pictures of our old low mass set that we don’t use very often and he came round and collected it (including the maniple which I basically forced him to take). We got to talking about the colour for Advent and how the idea that somehow blue was the authentic, old English colour for the season had become such a popular myth. I explained that we have blue, not because we believe in the romance of “Sarum blue,” but in large measure as a choice to distinguish Advent from Lent.
Despite both seasons being generally regarded as “penitential” ones in which the hymn, Gloria in excelsis, is omitted at mass, Advent is not mini-Lent. By using different vestments, different colours, different symbols, therefore, we are able to tease out the unique significant of each. Lent is an extended season of preparation for Easter, and it was during Lent that, from earliest days, catechumens were prepared for Baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. Lent is a penitential season, in which we strip things bare, barer and barer in fact, right down to the silence of Holy Saturday, so that our experience of the Resurrection, our experience of the triumph of life over death can be felt down to the marrow. Lent is entered on one end at Ash Wednesday with its reminder that we are dust, and it is unto dust that we shall return and we are reminded on that First Sunday in Lent of Jesus’ own temptation and his time of fasting in the wilderness. It is a time of self-reflection and of discipline, the discipline of giving up certain practices and of taking on others. Lent, in many was is about us, who we are, that we are not God, but rather human, fallible and that at the other end of the season, the door through which we leave, is the resurrection, that promise that despite our flaws, our weakness, perhaps because of them, we are redeemed by a God who loves us more than we can know.
Advent, although it leads us down the path to the other great feast, the feast of the Incarnation in which we celebrate the entering into our humanity of God’s very self, takes place on a grander scale:
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.
Advent is the time—in the midst of life—to take up arms, the armour of light so that we might contend with change that will come on a cosmic level, the coming of nothing short of the Kingdom of God.
As we enter Advent and a new liturgical year, we have left the world of Mark’s Gospel and entered into Luke’s. While the two books have very different perspectives on events, we pretty much pick up our story where we left it two weeks ago, when Mark’s Jesus predicted the desolating sacrilege that would take place in the Temple. Luke’s version tells it like this:
But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are the days of vengeance, to fulfil all that is written .... and Jerusalem shall be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the time of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:20-22, 24b).
This is a prophesy of something that the first readers of the Gospel (for Luke probably did appear first as a book) would have seen come to pass. Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans, the Temple destroyed, Judea erased and renamed Palestine as an affront to the Jews.
Formulated by Luke with hindsight, Jesus has just foretold the end of Jerusalem, its desolation by the pagans. He then announces, in passage we have heard today, a prophesy of events that the readers will not have recognised as already come to pass. It is something to be fulfilled. While Mark linked the fall of Jerusalem with the end times, Luke separates them and suggests that this event lies in the future.(1)
And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
Here Jesus describes the experience of all people at the time of judgement, not just of believers or simply the fate of Jerusalem. The events described are not ones of regular human life, like war or famine, “but entirely cosmic events in the sun, moon, and stars, the tumult of the ocean, shaking of the heavenly powers themselves.”(2) Jesus wants the people to be able to read the portents, to see the signs of God’s Advent and the restoration of all things under God’s rule.
And this is why he tells that parable about the fig tree:
“Look at the fig tree, and all the trees; as soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
Jesus suggests that the people need to learn how to read the signs of the world. It is like what we all do with nature. When we see that the trees are in leaf and producing fruit, then we know summer is here. The same is true when you read the signs of the coming of the Kingdom.(3) Jesus has told us what to look for and we need to be watchful, be ready, because we do not know the day or the hour.
This message of impending cosmic change, far from intending to send us running to the hills, into caves, bunkers, or our panic rooms, is meant to steady us. In what follows, Jesus advises the people what to do while they wait: stay awake, be alert, and behave themselves. Jesus wants us to keep on living our lives and following the commandments to love our God by loving our neighbour. Knowing that God is working at all times to bring to fulfilment the reign of Love, we carry on and cooperate with this work in whatever way we can. It is in this context that we “put upon ourselves that armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life,” so that we can contend with all the world throws us against us, all that is thrown against us by the forces working against the emerging Kingdom of God. We wait, we watch, we carry on, we are given hope by Jesus’ triumph over death as much as by God’s choice of entering into our humanity to effect that victory. Advent operates on this grand plain and shows us our place, which is not by any means insignificant, and teaches us the virtues of paying attention to the heavens and to the earth, watching at all times and in all places for the signs of God’s breaking through.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
1 December 2018
(1) Joseph A. Fitzmyer, SJ, The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 1348.
(2) Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina, 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), 330.
(3) Fitzmyer 1983, 1352.
© 2018 Andrew Charles Blume