Happy New Year!
A Sermon on Advent 1 in Light of Romans 8:8
Anthony G. Cirilla, Postulant
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I want to wish all of you a Happy New Year! No, I am not confused. I know I am a confused person generally, but not this time. Oddly enough, although we don’t celebrate the secular new year until the First of January, in the liturgical calendar the cycle of the year begins on the first Sunday in Advent. Roughly speaking, the liturgical calendar is designed to help us meditate on the shape of Scripture as it applies to our lives. So Christmastide reminds us of the Incarnation, Epiphany of the significance of the Incarnation for Gentiles as well as Jews, Lent of the time Christ fasted in the wilderness and the time leading up to reflection on Christ’s crucifixion. Of course Eastertide focuses on the meaning of the Resurrection, and Pentecost affirms the gift of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, the longest cycle in the calendar is Trinity Season – with the fullness of God’s nature having been delivered to the church, we spend most of the year positioned in the post-apostolic age with the Scripture’s complete revelation held before our eyes.
But if Trinity Season is the fulfillment of the liturgical calendar and so the season we spend the most time in, as it represents the general time of the Church, Advent thus calls to mind the time before Christ’s Incarnation. In other words, Advent reminds us of the time of the Old Covenant, of a world where salvation through the saving grace of Christ’s blood was not yet made fully known and truly available to the world. The Old Testament, ending as it does with the writing of the prophets, ends in a time of expectation – waiting for the Messiah. And so, our imaginations move to the time before the prophets’ expectations were fulfilled and explained. For this reason many of the Old Testament lessons throughout the four weeks of Advent are from Isaiah and Jeremiah: we are reminded that the Incarnation was fulfilling a long-awaited expectation and yet came as something of a surprise. The Jews knew that deliverance was promised, but they had not guessed the full meaning of what that promise would look like. The revelation of the Triune God and the Second Person of the Trinity was present only in a seed form in the Scriptures, waiting to burst forth like new life in the spring season.
That Old Testament atmosphere carried by Advent helps to shed some light on why our epistle reading was chosen to begin the New Year. In fact, you might notice that this same reasoning can be found in the structure of the liturgy we practice every Sunday. Every time we celebrate the Order of Holy Communion, we are reminded of the Old Testament with the reading of the Law or the Summary of the Law, of the promise of mercy found in Christ alone, of the fullness of the Faith in the Nicene Creed which reviews the doctrines of the Trinity and the established Church, and then equips us through teaching, prayer, and hymns to dwell in the Trinity Season of the Life of the Church which each Christian should always strive to inhabit. We remember the Crucifixion and Resurrection in the Prayer of Consecration, immerse ourselves in a tactile reminder of His grace in the Lord’s supper, and show forth the same faith as the Apostles in the singing of the Gloria and the blessing that calls us to live as befits our faith. You could say then that the meaning of the whole liturgical calendar is present every Sunday, but each season in the actual calendar slows that process down so we can take time to meditate on how each season within the Scriptures informs the Christian life now. This is why we begin Advent in an Old Testament register: it’s not enough to remember that Christ was born, Christ was risen, and Christ shall come again, but also to remember that his birth, resurrection, and return were all promised – enshrined in the promises of the Old Testament prophets. So it is fitting that during Advent we do not sing the Gloria: We have to remember that old covenant time of waiting to really feel the gratitude of knowing that Christ finally came as promised on Christmas Day. For that reason I have always loved Thanksgiving as a prelude to Advent.
This is also why Advent is often considered a penitential season. As with Lent before Easter, the coming of Christ was a response to the sin of Man, and so we have to remember the obligations of the Law to refresh our enthusiasm for the liberation of grace. “Love is the fulfilling of the law,” says St Paul, and we, if we are being honest, will be sensible of the fact that we are not keepers of the law because we are not naturally people who love. Mind you, this church is a particularly warm and loving place, and I am so thankful for that. But speaking of us all in absolute terms by contrast to God’s perfect love: We criticize, we despise, we argue, we put other people down, we get frustrated too easily. Or we keep at a polite distance so that we won’t see other people’s flaws and they won’t see ours. We don’t help others the way they need or we don’t confess sins we committed against each other and really seek repentance and restitution with that person. We aren’t as thankful as we should be. Often, we don’t love. At any rate, I can say I know I don’t, and the burden of the ways I do not fulfill the law through love is intolerable. I might feel love, and I try to act in love, but in the final analysis, by my own strength I just don’t love to the extent that is really demanded by God’s justice, and my breaking of the commandments confirm that but don’t even themselves fully describe how much I often don’t take the initiative the way I should. But here I stand, at the beginning of Advent, and the memorial of Christ’s birth in the past becomes fresh news in the present. I know that my Lord is coming. He is going to be born! He’s coming to make me new! He’s coming to remake me in love. So of course I need to get ready. As the collect for purity emphasizes, I need to be prepared for my Lord’s Incarnation, so that my heart is fresh and sensitive to the meaning of the Almighty Creator taking on the body of a helpless little baby, the God who put fire in the sun and smote Pharoah with plagues is going to come to Earth and need his diaper changed and make his mother worry and cook fish for a meal and cry because someone he loves died.
I need to see it all again, as if it’s happening for the first time. I need to “awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand.” I need to love to tell the story, the old familiar story, of Jesus and his love, with the same sensitivity and relieving surprise I felt when I first really started to comprehend the Gospel. And that’s hard because I’ve been a part of Christianity my whole life. It’s easy to treat Christian life as a habit – going to church is like reading a familiar book or going to a favorite restaurant. I like it, it’s familiar. But do I shine? Am I wearing the armor of light? Am I casting off my works of darkness? If I’m being honest, I have to say… At best, not completely. There are some parts of my armor that need to be polished. There are some dark spots in my life. I heard a psychologist recommend that we should sit on the edge of our bed in the morning sometimes and ask, “What is something I could do right now to make my life better?” It might be as simple as cleaning my room or taking more regular walks. And those kinds of life improvements are healthy. But we should do the same thing with our spiritual lives. Sit on the edge of your bed and ask, “How specifically am I not casting off the works of darkness? What works are interfering with my armor’s light, stopping me from shining out before men as I am commanded to do?” Don’t think your way into it – just let your conscience search your heart in prayer, and things will come to mind. You’ll notice those dark patches readily through the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
So the first and most important thing to do when that happens is to not rationalize that darkness away. Often I notice that when I see a dark patch on my heart I think, Well it’s not as dark as the patch on some other guy’s. It’s normal to have darkness like that – even among other Christians. Other people don’t have a problem with me, as far as I know. I’m a nice guy! But we all think we’re nice guys, and Paul isn’t telling us to put on the armor of niceness. He’s telling us to put on the armor of light, and bright light is offensive to eyes that are used to the darkness. That might be a reason why we don’t want our armor to be shined up too much – it hurts our own eyes. So we have to identify what darkness is weakening our vision and, through prayer and practical action, strip that darkness off so that the armor of God can shine all around us uninhibited by our sin. That means the second thing we have to do is want to wear the armor of light – desire not only to be free from the darkness but to be bright for God and for others. Then we need to really change. Maybe it’s something small like making sure to read the Bible every day. Or maybe it means confessing that sin that has been on my heart for so long but I just can’t bear to admit it. Or maybe it means realizing that you have been silent in the face of someone doing something really wrong and you have to tell them but you’ve been afraid to do it. Whatever it is, if you look at it honestly, you’ll see the darkness, and you’ll know, with prayer and sincere reflection on Scripture, if you’re doing anything to bring light back into that situation.
I’ve never particularly cared for cynicism about New Year’s Resolutions. I know, they usually don’t stick. January first you swear you’re going to lose weight, and January second you buy that gym membership. January third maybe you even walk into the gym and get a snack out of the vending machine, and tell yourself this is the calorie boost you need to get you on the treadmill. But the next day you realize there’s a vending machine in your office so you don’t need to go out of your way to the gym to get to it, and anyway, you feel a little ashamed of those healthy, athletic people glowing all around you. You know that glow that I mean? The glow of a healthy body of someone who pushes himself or herself physically, eats right, gets enough sleep. You see that glow in their skin and on their faces. Don’t you just hate those people? Me too. Well, if you feel jealous of someone pursuing physical virtue, which Paul says counts for something, imagine how you feel when you see someone pursuing spiritual virtue. You write them off as too Christian, a little too pious, or judgemental. Sometimes that’s true, but often it’s a spiritual version of my stubbornness about exercise. I don’t want to sweat or wheeze. I want to be comfortable. But real spiritual growth, the kind that makes our armor blaze with fiery white light that really catches the eye of others, will cause us to sweat, or to breathe deep sighs, or to weep. Fighting the darkness isn’t easy business. But what Advent does is it punctures the complacency we have fallen into. So look, if all that happens from January 1st resolutions is that you go running a few times, that’s still a few more times than you would have without those resolutions. And that’s good. So you might be weary of the idea of a spiritual resolution for Advent because you think, well, I’ll just go back to not reading my Bible regularly, or I’ll start using too much profanity again, or I’ll just fall back into that same old sin after resisting it for a couple of days. But if you sin a little less on Monday because of Sunday and go back to sinning on Tuesday, at least that’s one day’s fewer guilt you have to deposit into the prayer of humble access. Your burden will be smaller, by the grace of God, and that will be nice – no, it would be good, or at least better. So be bad at trying to be a better Christian. That’s better than just being bad, isn’t it?
One suggestion I might make for an Advent resolution is to read the daily lectionary for either evening or morning. Just do one. Read the three readings – it’s a Psalm, an Old Testament, and a New Testament reading. And you can add to this the collect for the week, which is the Collect we read at church. It only takes a few minutes, and it gets you a nice range of Scripture. You can go to http://www.commonprayer.org, and they lay out for you the readings and the collects right there on the calendar. You can scroll through the reading on your phone right before you go to sleep. If that’s too complicated, maybe just read the Book of Isaiah. There are 66 chapters in Isaiah and 27 days in Advent counting Christmas Eve. So if you read two or three chapters of Isaiah a day starting today, you’ll have read one of the most vivid prophecies in Scripture speaking to the coming of the Messiah, and on Christmas Day your mind will be filled with the longing that Christ’s birth satisfies.
After all, when parents know that a baby is coming, they start making changes. Suddenly you see a stroller, and a crib, and toys, and other things you know you’ll need for when that baby comes. We green the Church, set up the nativity and Advent Wreath before we put Christ on display, and Advent is a time when we work towards setting our spiritual lives right so we can take joy in the Incarnation with cleaner hearts. We practice walking honestly as in the day, so that when the Light of the World is shining before us our eyes won’t be as hurt by the brightness. Use advent as a time to practice killing the desires of the flesh, not making provision for it as Paul warns against in today’s epistle, so that we can renew our faith in the innocence we receive through Christ, who was as sinless the day he died as he was the day he was born. He became as a little child, and through remembering that and getting ready for it we can become little children again too – in the sense that we take Scripture at its word and we strive to live it out that way. The Lord makes all things new, and Advent turns our minds towards the time when he came to secure that recreative power by means of His Incarnation. We’re going into a new year of that old story, with fresh hope that the Incarnation’s meaning for our lives can reawaken.
I want to end by pointing something out that’s sort of strange about today’s Gospel reading. Why is it that we get the reading for Palm Sunday? That reading is about the end of Christ’s life, but Christmas is about the beginning. Well, imagine if I said the first line of a familiar song, and the song got stuck in your head. The beginning of the song would remind you of the end. Or another example, when I say the Lord be with you, you say… Right. So when we say, God came to live with us, we also say that he came to die for us, and he came to rise from the dead for us, and he went up to heaven to prepare a way for us, and he’s coming back to rescue us. Christmas shines out in the liturgical calendar because it’s the backdrop for the first line of a hymn: because Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ shall come again. He couldn’t have died if he hadn’t lived, and his death couldn’t have meant what it did if his life wasn’t what it was: perfect man, fully God and fully human, born of a virgin and attacked with all the temptations of this fallen world. And because he was victorious, because he brought the same innocence of his Incarnated infant body to the Cross as a righteous man, we can have hope. Because there’s a sense in which we are always in Advent, too. We are waiting, waiting for Christ to call us to meet him in the air. We don’t know when those trumpets will sound, but we’ll know when we hear them that he is going to clothe us in light, clothe us in love, clothe us in victory against sin and death. When he comes again, it will be the truest happy new year, the happy new world, the happy new life fully immersed into the joy He has always wanted us to have. In remembering to wait for the birth of Christ we learn how to desire the rebirth of the world that will result from His coming again. Oh, what a new year in Christ that will be! Amen.