Saturday, November 19, 2011
Sunday before Advent
The Collect has resulted in this day being known as “Stir Up Sunday.” And, of course, it means that next week we will enter into Advent. Some things will be different for these weeks that lead up into Christmas. It is a penitential season. Despite everything you will see in the stores- I would say in the shopping malls, remember please what this season is not. No matter what songs they will pipe through the air, it will not be Christmas time in the city- not yet. We are entering a Penitential season. Both of our most joyous feasts of the Church, Christmas and Easter, are preceded by the penitential seasons of Advent and of Lent. Some things in the Church will be different. The color will be violet (which looks a lot like purple, I am told). There will be no flowers on the altar. We will not have the Gloria during the Mass.
In my days in Arizona I called a couple whose absence from church every Sunday, for a long time, had been the most noticeable thing about them. I was told that they would try to get back, but that, of course, I would understand why, with Christmas coming, they would be awfully busy, too busy for church until it is over. Now, I know that a priest should not use this word very carelessly or often in the pulpit; but that is, frankly, the most (and here it is) stupid thing anyone has ever said to me; the worst part being that I would "understand." Right. We, the clergy, are supposed to expect everyone to stay away from church all through Advent, because they are busy with the Christian duty of shopping and preparing parties. I trust we all know that Christmas is a feast day of the Church, the Christ Mass, no less than every Sunday in importance, and even more of an obligation than golf or shopping. And, I hope we all know why we should be in church during the very serious and reflective penitential season that leads up to it.
In the weeks ahead, we need to consider why the Church year ends its Sunday Gospel readings with this story from the Gospel of Saint John. Two main reasons come to my mind. First of all, we have prayed for God to “stir up…the wills of [His] faithful people”…to continue to bring forth the fruit of good works. And, in the Gospel we see that a little boy placed into the hands of Jesus Christ a rather small thing. He gave Him his lunch, five barley loaves and two small fish. Not only were the fish small, but the loaves were probably no bigger than those little round pita breads you see in the grocery stores. It was not much, but the Lord Jesus was able, with this bit of food, to feed thousands of people.
As you most likely know, very soon all the members of this congregation will be asked for a renewal of your pledge to this church. In case you think money is not a spiritual subject, let me point out that the question of what you do with your money, as well as what you do with your time, is very spiritual. Do you give to God that little bit that He has given to you? The important thing is to place what you have in the hands of Christ by faith, and let Him multiply it and feed many.
Remember, we do not belong to that rich, though shrinking, institution called the Episcopal Church, and we do not have its millions of dollars of endowment money. Thanks be to God that we can remain faithful without leaving our Anglican way, that is, without leaving the teaching and practice that the Episcopal Church used to believe in. We have chosen to remain faithful to the Tradition of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, preserving, specifically, the Anglican way of being Christian.
I mention this because you need to know that we are healthy, but we are not that big rich organization that has the endowments. We have a more valuable treasure than all those endowments put together, and we must pass it on to future generations. I want this church to grow. I want it to be filled with families, with children and young people who can learn our faith and take it into the future. The very fact that this church exists speaks volumes about faith, hope and charity. Faith that God is alive and active, and can use what we put in His hands. It is about hope, because we look ahead to a future in which we hand on the faith to generations yet to come. And, it is about charity, because we are here to meet the needs of people who are not yet here.
As we ask you to place, yet again, your loaves and fish in Christ’s hands, that is to renew your pledge, remember that those hands have been wounded. “Those dear tokens of His Passion, still His dazzling body bears: Cause of endless exultation by His ransomed worshipers.” We need to be here so that the people of this community can come into this place and meet the Christ Who died for each one of them; to come and to find here the Risen Christ. He is here in the breaking of bread. Ultimately, that is the greater message of this Gospel passage. The bread and fish handed over to the Lord Jesus, He then multiplied because He was teaching, by this miracle, that He Himself is “the True Bread that comes down from heaven, which, if man eat thereof, he shall live forever.” He taught that His flesh is food indeed and His blood is drink indeed, and that by Him we are nourished with eternal life.
I have spoken to you in a very straightforward way, because I do not want the pressures of this coming season to distract you from the true purpose of it all. How ironic that the coming of Christmas could keep some people out of Church, as if the main event is not to rejoice in the revelation of the Word made Flesh. The Incarnation, celebrated months ago on the Feast of the Annunciation, was almost hidden away, and unnoticed, until "the babe, the world's redeemer, first revealed His sacred face," that Feast of the Nativity that we prepare for.
Shopping malls, and secular parties, are not the preparation. How fitting that Bethlehem means "house of bread," in this case the Bread of Life. The preparation for that feast is to be here, using the penitential season to examine yourself, as St.Paul teaches. It is time to reflect on every change and adjustment each of us may need to make, and therefore, to be receiving each Sunday the Living Bread that comes down from heaven, which, if a man eat, he may live forever.
He commanded that the fragments left over from this miracle be gathered up and that nothing be lost. In this world, by His creation first, and then even more so by His coming in the flesh, as fully God and fully Man, we see that material things can take on the quality of holiness. This bread was too holy to be treated with disdain and left to spoil. And, it was only a mere symbol of this bread and wine, which will become in the Blessed Sacrament of His body and blood. If you wonder why we go to so much trouble not to profane the sacrament, to preserve it set apart in the tabernacle, remember this story. It was a miracle that only served to shadow this miracle that will happen here today; it was used by Christ to teach that we must feed on Him, and do so in faith, to have His risen life within us.