Sunday, 1 December 2013

‘Keep awake therefore, for you do not
know on what day your Lord is coming’

The Jesse Tree in the West Window in Christ Church, Cathedral, Dublin, illustrates an Advent theme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 1 December 2013

The First Sunday of Advent

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

11 a.m.: The Cathedral Eucharist

Isaiah 2: 1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44.

Matthew 24: 36-44


36 Περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης καὶ ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν, οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι τῶν οὐρανῶν οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός, εἰ μὴ ὁ πατὴρ μόνος. 37 ὥσπερ γὰρ αἱ ἡμέραι τοῦ Νῶε, οὕτως ἔσται ἡ παρουσία τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. 38 ὡς γὰρ ἦσαν ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις [ἐκείναις] ταῖς πρὸ τοῦ κατακλυσμοῦ τρώγοντες καὶ πίνοντες, γαμοῦντες καὶ γαμίζοντες, ἄχρι ἧς ἡμέρας εἰσῆλθεν Νῶε εἰς τὴν κιβωτόν, 39 καὶ οὐκ ἔγνωσαν ἕως ἦλθεν ὁ κατακλυσμὸς καὶ ἦρεν ἅπαντας, οὕτως ἔσται [καὶ] ἡ παρουσία τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. 40 τότε δύο ἔσονται ἐν τῷ ἀγρῷ, εἷς παραλαμβάνεται καὶ εἷς ἀφίεται: 41 δύο ἀλήθουσαι ἐν τῷ μύλῳ, μία παραλαμβάνεται καὶ μία ἀφίεται. 42 γρηγορεῖτε οὖν, ὅτι οὐκ οἴδατε ποίᾳ ἡμέρᾳ ὁ κύριος ὑμῶν ἔρχεται. 43 ἐκεῖνο δὲ γινώσκετε ὅτι εἰ ᾔδει ὁ οἰκοδεσπότης ποίᾳ φυλακῇ ὁ κλέπτης ἔρχεται, ἐγρηγόρησεν ἂν καὶ οὐκ ἂν εἴασεν διορυχθῆναι τὴν οἰκίαν αὐτοῦ. 44 διὰ τοῦτο καὶ ὑμεῖς γίνεσθε ἕτοιμοι, ὅτι ἧ οὐ δοκεῖτε ὥρᾳ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἔρχεται.

Jesus spoke to his disciples:

36 ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Santas and choristers preparing for Advent ... Saint Nicholas robed in green and other figures in the shop in the crypt in Christ Church Cathedral last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

It is very difficult to prepare for Christmas when Santa has already arrived in every shopping centre, when the Christmas lights are already strung across the Main Street in every village and town, and when many of our parish choirs are already singing Christmas Carols and organising carol services.

Indeed, it is hard to distinguish between Advent and Lent when you find Cadbury’s crème eggs are already on sale in corner shops and supermarkets everywhere, and Hot Cross buns have a best before date not before Good Friday, but before Christmas Eve.

But even in the Church we often manage to confuse Advent and Lent, probably because they are both seasons of preparation, when we change the liturgical colour from Green to Purple or Violet.

The word Advent, from the Latin word adventus, means “coming,” first applied to the coming or arrival of a king or emperor.

In his poem, ‘The god abandons Antony’ (Απολείπειν ο θεός Aντώνιον), the Greek poet CP Cavafy paints a scene in which the advent or arrival of the Emperor Augustus in Alexandria leads Mark Antony to believe he has been abandoned by the god who once favoured him.

But as Christians, we do not see Advent as a time of threatening doom and being abandoned by God’s favour. Instead, we look forward to the coming of Christ – not just as the cuddly child in the Christmas crib, but at his second coming, bringing with him the justice and peace promised in the Kingdom of God.

That Latin word adventus is simply a translation of the Greek παρουσία (parousía), used for the Second Coming of Christ. This is a word used only by Saint Matthew among the Gospel writers, just as “the close of the age” is another phrase that is peculiar to him alone.

But what does Saint Matthew mean by the παρουσία or coming in verses 37 and 39 of this morning’s Gospel reading?

Παρουσία means the presence, or the coming, the arrival, the advent, the future visible return from heaven of Christ, to raise the dead, to sit at the last judgment, and to set up formally and gloriously the kingdom of God.

The coming of the Son of Man is going to be divisive for all society. Kingdom values are not merely counter-cultural – they are socially divisive, for the values of this world should never be confused with or identified with the values of the Kingdom of God.

But this passage is full of promise. The wedding feast (verse 38) is a recurring image of the heavenly banquet and the coming kingdom. The image of the two women, for me, is not one of doom but reminds me of Ruth and Naomi in the field, looking forward to the Messianic hope (see verse 41). The parting of pairs (verses 40 and 41), whether in a field or on the threshing floor, reminds me, in the apocalyptic language of Saint John on Patmos, that from the mouth of God comes a “sharp, two-edged sword” (Revelation 1: 16; 19: 15).

The division cuts through visible and apparent distinctions.

We can stay with the values of this world, or we can be taken into the values of the Kingdom of God.

But we cannot have both. Take it or leave it – destruction or the kingdom?

This season is a reminder of the original waiting for the coming of the Messiah. But more especially it is a reminder of our waiting for Christ at his Second Coming. This is the season when the Church marks a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ and his kingdom.

In this season we are called to focus on Christ’s coming in judgment and to reign. The characteristic emphasis in Advent, therefore, is expectation rather than penitence.

The Purple of Advent is not a penitential colour ... it is a rich, royal imperial colour, originally derived from a very rare source. Πορφύρα (porphyra), the rare purple dye from Tyre, could command its weight in silver and was manufactured in classical antiquity from mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail.

As a seller of purple, Lydia who welcomes Saint Paul to Philippi (see Acts 16: 11-15) was a wealthy woman of independent means. As Judith Herrin points out in her beautiful book on the powerful women of Byzantium, Women in Purple, a child born to a reigning emperor was πορφυρογέννητος (porphyrogénitos), “born in the purple.”

So, the purple of Advent signifies we are preparing for the coming of Christ as the King of Kings, the ruler of all, in all his royal, imperial, majesty, splendour and glory.

Today’s office Christmas parties, liquid lunches, the early chocolate and department store Santas, hastily-planned carol services – even bringing forward the last posting day to most countries outside Ireland to the week before Advent – all conspire to make it difficult to sustain this sense of being alert and watchful.

Yet, can you not remember with glee and warmth the child-like waiting and watching you experienced during the build-up for Christmas?

In the cold and dark of winter, can you remember that warm glow you felt as you anticipated such a wonderful festival?

The first purple candle on the Advent Wreath in Christ Church Cathedral recalls the Patriarchs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Advent traditions help us, as children and as adults, to build up that anticipation. This morning we lit the first of the candles on our Advent Wreath, and we shall light a new candle each week. There are three purple candles and one pink candle in a ring, with a white or gold candle in the centre.

The purple candles reflect the liturgical colour of Advent, while pink marks the Third Sunday of Advent. Common Worship in the Church of England suggest these five themes:

Advent 1: The Patriarchs (Purple);
Advent 2: The Prophets (Purple);
Advent 3 John the Baptist (Pink);
Advent 4: The Virgin Mary (Purple);
Christmas Day: The Christ (White or Gold).

Each of these Sundays in Advent reminds us of those who prepared for the coming of Christ, while the accumulation of light expresses our growing anticipation of the coming of Christ, the light of the world.

But there are other traditions too, such as this evening’s Advent Procession Service here in the cathedral at 5 p.m., that remind us that when Christ comes again, as we pray in this morning’s collect, he shall come again in his glorious majesty.

Behind you, in the West Window of the Cathedral, we see the Jesse Tree, another traditional Advent image. The Jess Tree depicts the Ancestors of Christ in a tree that rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, the descendent of Ruth and Naomi and the father of King David. The tree is also inspired by that passage from Isaiah, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” (Isaiah 11: 1), which is a part of next Sunday’s Old Testament reading (8 December 2013, Advent 2: Isaiah 11: 1-10).

Chocolate Santas on sale in a supermarket in Bettystown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Finally, it is worth reminding ourselves that Saint Nicholas is commemorated not on 25 December but later this week, next Friday [6 December]. Saint Nicholas is an Advent saint. And he was such a favourite saint in mediaeval Ireland that many ports had large churches named after him, including Dublin, Dundalk, Galway and Cork.

He is an important figure, but not because of the roly-poly figure hijacked by Coca-Cola and advertising in these weeks of Advent. His willingness to travel, even when his own life was at risk, makes him a role model for the church in mission. As Bishop of Myra he was a key defender of Trinitarian dogma at the Council of Nicaea (325).

The stories of his bringing the victims of murder back to life is a reminder that Christmas is without meaning unless it is related to and connected with Good Friday and Easter Day, that God does not withdraw his favour or abandon us, that the significance of the Incarnation is to be found in our Redemption, in the Resurrection, and in Christ’s coming again, ushering in the Kingdom of God.

As a bishop who was the protector of vulnerable children and teenagers to the point of risking his own place in society, he is an important challenge to some of the ways the whole church has handled some recent difficulties.

As the free-giver of gifts, without expecting anything in return, he is a reminder that God’s love is given freely and unconditionally at the Incarnation in his Son, Christ Jesus ... and what better message could we hear at the beginning of this Season of Advent.

Let me leave us with three questions to ponder in the coming week:

1, Are we ready for the coming of Christ?

2, Can we use this season of Advent as a time of preparation for Christ’s coming not just as a cuddly child in a crib but as the triumphant king?

3, Do the ways we live our lives reflect the values of an over-commercialised shopping season, or reflect the values of the kingdom of the coming Christ, who puts all wrongs to right, who puts to an end all miseries and sufferings?

An so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Candles in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, for the Advent Procession last year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Collect:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our deliverer,
Awaken our hearts
to prepare the way for the advent of your Son,
that, with minds purified by the grace of his coming,
we may serve you faithfully all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This sermon was preached in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin on the First Sunday of Advent, 1 December 2013.

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