Saturday, December 02, 2006

Advent One

Rom. 13:8-14 Matt. 21:1-13
For us, today is New Year’s Day. Advent is the first season of the Church year, and the idea of New Year’s resolutions ought to pale in comparison to the God-ward turning that is represented by the first of our two major Penitential seasons. I hope we all understand why we must resist the emphasis on shopping and the secular pressures about holiday preparation that compete for our attention. The world has decided that “Christmas” is the name of a shopping season that runs between Thanksgiving Day and the Feast of Saint Stephen on December 26th. Don’t give in.

The spirit of the world wants to take away your Advent, and then your Christmas too. Christmas is, first and foremost, a feast of the Church, named, as it is, the Christ Mass. It is the feast both of the Incarnation and of the Nativity. The emphasis is on Christ’s coming in the flesh and taking human nature into His uncreated, eternal divine Person: and, only in this understanding is it a celebration of His birth in Bethlehem. One song, frequently adding to the noise pollution in public places and stores, is a song that I absolutely hate. It is called “Do you hear what I hear?” It removes the Divinity of Christ from the picture, and celebrates nothing more than the birth of, as the song so vacuously says, “a child, a child, freezing in the cold.” The song ends with the king saying to the people everywhere, “pray for peace people everywhere.” Is that really what the king said? Was it not, rather, “go and kill every male child under two years old, and bring me word again,” in a mad effort to destroy Christ? The voice that the world wants to hear is the voice of the spirit that was in Herod. That spirit wants to kill Christ, to take away your Christmas, and, before that, your advent.

Advent is very important for what it is. It is not Christmas, not yet. Frankly, I wish we did not even put up our trees before Christmas Eve, like it used to be. But, even so, remember this: Christmas starts on the 25th of December and lasts until January 6th. But, for now, it is Advent; it is a Penitential season. We have before us two passages from the New Testament, rich with the meaning of Advent, to start us off. Advent did not originally prepare the Church for a celebration of the birth of our Lord, but rather for His coming again in glory; it is the season with eschatological meaning, looking to the future. Now, the word eschatological (or eschatology) comes from the word Eschaton. It means the End. And, therefore we emphasize the last things of the resurrection and eternity: Death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. Mostly, we emphasize the coming again of Jesus Christ in glory to judge the quick and the dead.

So, the Epistle reading gives us clear warning to turn from sin, to repent and live in the light. And, the Gospel reading gives us a glimpse of Christ coming as king and meting out judgment. First let us consider the Epistle. On the subject of self-examination and turning from sins, we really have to ask God to show us the truth about ourselves. It is not wise to trust our own opinion of ourselves. Jesus said, “Men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Sadly enough, that is the truth about everybody. We would rather not see the truth about ourselves, or hear what the Holy Ghost brings to our attention. So, we have defense mechanisms. The first is comparison. “I am not as bad as this publican.” Jesus said to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, “the harlots and the publicans (that is, tax collectors) enter into the kingdom of heaven before you, because they repented at the preaching of John [the Baptist].” So much for the comparisons they were making. Yes, there is always someone worse than you. When all else fails, I like to remind myself that I am better than Hitler, because I have not killed a few million people lately. However, it is better for me to read the Sermon on the Mount, and take it to heart, praying that the Holy Spirit will shine His light on my sins, even though that particular light hurts my eyes.

Another method is the group guilt dodge. In fact this is among the most dangerous things we can do. I am convinced that many people whom I have known, avoid repenting of their own real sins by lamenting the guilt of their group. They deplore and repent of the sin of white racism, or something like that- something safe. Adding danger to danger, they seem to feel quite meritorious and self-satisfied, because they have convinced themselves of their own moral superiority by “repenting” of a group sin- especially since they are truly convinced that they are, actually, above such a thing in real life. In certain circles this dodge is quite popular, a real favorite. It is about as genuine a form of penitence as the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. When my brother, Fr. Addison Hart, was in seminary, for a joke he wrote a hymn that goes like this:
I thank Thee Lord, for I hear tell
That some poor slob just went to Hell.
I thank Thee I am not as he,
An hypocrite and a Pharisee.

The worst kind of penitence is when someone feels proud for repenting of the group sin.

Now, it may seem strange that I have said of today’s Gospel that, in it, we see a picture of the future. The story is, after all a true account of events that happened in the past. In fact, when Jesus entered into Jerusalem, he was hailed as a king by the cheering crowds who met Him. And the prayers of the crowd angered the powers of earth. The people cried “Hosanna to the Son of David.” This means two things. They were crying out to Him to be their Savior. “Hosanna” is not a joyful word. It is a cry asking to be saved. It contains a form of the very Name of Jesus, that is, the Name Yeshua- meaning “Savior.” They identified Him as the Messiah, the Son of David. And, as soon as He entered the city and the temple, He meted out His judgment, cleansing it of the dishonest cheats who had perfected a system to defraud the poor, hard working Jewish worshipers. Later, about the Final Judgment on the Last day, Saint Peter would write: “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? (I Pet. 4: 17,18)”

In every way, the story of what the Lord Jesus Christ did that day, is a picture of what He will do when He comes again. He did not yet bring the kingdom in its fullness; but he did bring the kingdom to bear on the House of God. When we pray “Thy Kingdom come,” we ask that He bring His rule to bear upon us: His rule, “his government and peace” which is unending upon the throne of David. To the measure that we mean that prayer, our comfortable world will be shaken up. But, it is better to be shaken now than at His coming again in glory on the Last Day.

In this Gospel passage, we see important elements of His Second Coming, elements that are true to the Person of the Son of God, the everlasting Son of the everlasting Father. He is the only king and savior. He is the judge “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:12).” Judgment will begin at the House of God, until His whole creation is cleansed and purified, made ready for a habitation of His righteousness, a dwelling place of His glory among men. The purpose of a Penitential season is to learn to sharpen and focus our self-examination, the same self-examination that we should do every time we draw near to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. I know that a “feel good” religion is the popular model for success in today’s “spiritual” market; but the only good feeling we should ever trust is that spoken of by the Psalmist: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered (Psalm 32:1).”

To be ready for the last Judgment, we must be willing to let the Holy Ghost shake up our world, we must allow Him to shake up our very selves. Indeed, to prepare for the coming again of Jesus Christ, we must draw near "with hearty repentance and true faith" in order to make a good confession, sincere and resolute of purpose to "walk in newness of life ." Indeed, to prepare for the coming again of Jesus Christ, we need do no more, and no less, than we do when we prepare to receive Communion.

5 comments:

albion said...

Fr Hart,

I am curious by your enumerating the (Four) Last Things as Death, Judgement, Resurrection and Eternity.

They are customarily known them as Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell.

Perhaps you are more optimistic than I?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Actually, I meant to correct that. Hell it ought to be.

Wonders for Oyarsa said...

I always thought the "mighty king" that the shepherd boy speaks to in the song is meant to be one of the magi, the "three kings", followed by them brining "silver and gold". And I don't know that any old child sleeping in the night could be expected to bring the people everywhere "goodness and light".

However, it does seems like a song someone wrote who saw a nativity set knowing nothing of the story, and tried to come up with one...

Anonymous said...

My rector doesn't let me refer to Christmas as the Feast of the Incarnation--he says that's reserved for the Annunciation. :-)

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The Feast of the Annunciation is the proper Feast of the Incarnation. My point, however, is that we do not celebrate the birth of Christ separately from an appreciation of the Incarnation. Christmas, "when the babe, the world's redeemer first revelaed His sacred face" is as much about the Incarnation as it is about the Nativity, for the two cannot be divided.