Sunday, 1 December 2013

Finding angels on Christmas trees,
bookshelves, and the Christmas story

Angels above a Christmas scene in a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Long before Advent arrived, many of us had probably started our Christmas shopping, checking out the tree, and planning the carol singing. Angels are going to appear everywhere: on the wrapping paper and the cards, topping the trees, hovering above the cribs, and featuring in the words of traditional carols:

Hark! the herald angels sing,
glory to the new-born King …
[Hymn 160]

O come, all you faithful…
come and behold him,
born, the King of angels …
[172]

while mortals sleep the angels keep
their watch of wandering love
[‘O little town of Bethlehem,’ [174]

On Christmas night, all Christians sing,
to hear the news the angels bring …
[176]

Silent night, holy night …
Heavenly hosts sing allelulia
[182]

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
… the angel of the Lord came down
[188]

The Incarnation by Eleftheria Syrianoglou ... a ‘table icon’ on olive wood in an exhibition in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

And the angels appear in many other popular carols and hymns, including: In the bleak mid-winter [162], Ding dong! Merrily on high [155], God rest you, merry gentlemen [158], Infant holy, infant lowly [163], It came upon the midnight clear [164], and so on.

Saint Luke begins his nativity narration with the story of an Angel of the Lord appearing to Zechariah in the Temple to tell him of the future birth of Saint John the Baptist (Luke 1: 8-20). Soon afterwards, the Angel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary at the annunciation in Nazareth (Luke 1: 26-38). An angel of the Lord advises Joseph not to be afraid to marry the pregnant Mary (Matthew 1: 20).

When Christ is born in Bethlehem, an angel brings the good news at night to shepherds on the hillside, and is then joined by more angels, a “multitude of the heavenly host,” singing:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those
whom he favours
[Luke 2: 8-18]

An angel of the Lord tells Joseph to take Mary and the Christ Child to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath (Matthew 2: 13), and later tells him to return with his family (Matthew 2: 19-20).

The Visitation of Abraham ... a fresco on a wall in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Angels also feature in the Resurrection story. An angel of the Lord descends from heaven and rolls back the stone on Easter morning. He tells the women at the tomb not to be afraid but to go and tell the disciples that Christ is risen (Matthew 28: 1-7; Mark 16: 1-7). Saint Luke’s Gospel tells us there were two angels at the empty grave that Easter morning (Luke 24: 1-7). After the Ascension, two “men in white” – usually presumed to be angels – tell the lingering disciples to return to Jerusalem (Acts 1: 10-11).

So, angels play central roles in the Christmas story, and provide a narrative link between Christmas and Easter, between the incarnation and the resurrection and ascension.

Finding Biblical angels

Books about angels usually sit alongside ‘New Age’ books rather than serious theology in bookshops (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Although angels appear throughout the Bible, many people either regard any talk of angels as superstitious nonsense, not rooted in earthly experience, or they remove angels from the Christian narrative and make them part of ‘New Age’ nonsense.

You only have to look at shelves labelled “Spirituality” in book shops to realise that angels are seldom written about by sensible and respected theologians, and most books about angels might as well be placed on shelves alongside books about ‘Celtic Spirituality,’ crystal stones and Feng Shui.

So, as we plan our carol services and prepare to place that angel on top of the Christmas tree, how are we to recover the story of angels that makes sense for Christians yet keeps our feet firmly planted on the ground?

The Congregation of All Angels, by a nun from the Monastery of Agia Irini, in an exhibition in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The angels who appear throughout the New Testament must have been fearsome in appearance, for they constantly have to advise people: “Fear not” or be not afraid” – from the Virgin Mary and Joseph to the shepherds on the hillside and the women at the tomb.

Yet we have reduced angels from being strong and awe-inspiring beings to chubby-faced putti from Italian baroque churches. We even talk about pretty children being “cherubs” and “little angels” – hardly the type of beings to make us tremble with fear.

Bede, in his History of the English Church, tells that when Pope Gregory the Great saw a group of fair-skinned, fair-haired English children on sale in the slave market in Rome and was told they were Angles, he declared: Non Angli, sed Angeli, “Not Angles, but Angels ... “for they have angelic faces, and it is right that they should become joint-heirs with the angels in heaven.” The encounter led Pope Gregory to send Saint Augustine of Canterbury on his mission to England.

Sir Jacob Epstein’s statue of the Archangel Michael on the wall of Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is a clever pun that was used playfully by the church historian Henry Chadwick when he was editing his book Not Angels but Anglicans (2000). However, it helps to confirm the images of angels as fresh-faced and child-like, rather than the fearful and terrifying beings like the Archangel Michael in Jacob Epstein’s sculpture on Coventry Cathedral.

Father Ian Graham of Holy Trinity Church, Oxford, asked recently: “Who is the opposite of the Devil? A large number of Christians answer God. No. The answer is the Archangel Michael, and that should put him in perspective.”

The Lichfield Angel ... a carved limestone panel, from ca 800 AD, may have formed the corner of the shrine of Saint Chad, who died in 672 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

But there is a difficulty in talking about angels in today’s culture, for any talk of angels often ranks with “being away with the fairies.” That cultural difficulty is compounded by the Biblical accounts where angels appear in martial, hierarchical and monarchical contexts. The word angel means messenger or envoy, both inside and outside Scripture. If we translated angel as messenger or envoy, would it bring a new immediacy ad meaning to Biblical passages?

Genesis 1 does not mention the creation of angels. Professor Sebastian Brock of Oxford points out that many Syriac writings in the Patristic era say the angels were created on the first day, along with heaven and earth. But the first appearance of angels is in Genesis 3, when two cherubim or winged beasts – rather than putti – are placed to block Adam and Eve returning to Eden.

‘Praise him all ye angels of his’ ... a window in Saint Lachtain’s Church, Freshford, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Bible tells us the names of some of the archangels, including Gabriel, Michael and Raphael. The Biblical passages that speak of angels range from Abraham’s visitors at Mamre and the angels in the books of Daniel and Ezekiel, to the heralds of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and the angels in Acts, including those in the stories of Philip and Cornelius.

‘Angels Heavenly and Fallen’

An angel carved on a prayer desk in the chapel in Sidney Sussex College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Earlier this year, I took part in a summer school in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (IOCS), with the title “Angels, Heavenly and Fallen.”

Professor Marcus Plested introduced the thinking about Angels and Demons – not in the writings of Dan Brown but in the writings of some of Early Church writers, including Macarius, Evagrius Ponticus and Dionysius the Areopagite.

Putti at the base of a monument at the west end of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Dionysius says we should be more interested in what they do than what they look like, and more interested in how they lead us to God, for angel is a title that indicates a messenger, who announces God’s message and good news and who points to God.

In his Celestial Hierarchy, he orders the ranks of the angels into three groups of three, with nine titles, all of which are scriptural:

1, Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones – the angels closest to God;

2, Dominions, Powers and Authority;

3, Principalities, Archangels and Angels – the angels closest to us.

‘I go to prepare a place for you’ ... an angel in a window in Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

At the summer school, Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia warned us not to expect angels to appear as they are shown on icons: “Do not expect to see a winged figure in Byzantine court dress. An angel might well appear in a mackintosh and a trilby hat.”

The icon writer Aidan Hart spoke about the development of angels in Eastern and Western iconography. The earliest image from ca 180 shows the Annunciation in a catacomb in Rome, with the angel clothed in a toga like a Roman citizen, and until the late fourth century, angels look like humans, without wings.

An angel in stained glass in a church in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

From about the fourth century, angels are seen as winged mythological figures, appropriating depictions of Nike, the goddess of victory, for angels fight battles against demons. Wings also became a way of showing that angels are created beings, with limited abilities as they move between the heavenly realm and the human world.

From the fifth century, angels look like Byzantine courtiers, who acted as counsellors, were masters of ceremonies, controlled access to the throne, and were intermediaries, diplomats and messengers –roles similar to those of angels. But because many courtiers were eunuchs, angels came to be depicted without beards.

By the sixth century, angels were wearing garbs first confined to the emperor but then also worn by their delegates and closest bodyguards. The Archangel Michael and other angels are depicted in Byzantine military garb with swords, with staffs representing authority, and with peacock wings as a symbol of everlasting life.

From the eleventh century, the Archangel Gabriel is shown not in a military uniform but in a courtly toga-style robe, while the Archangel Michael has a staff for authority and an orb for wisdom.

The seraphim are six-winged creatures above the throne (see Isaiah 6), two wings covering their faces, two covering their feet, and two for flying as they cry out: “Holy, Holy, Holy ...” They are often depicted supporting the dome in a church or above the doors of the icon screen, for they guard the gates of Paradise.

Angels and evangelists on columns at the porch in University Church, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Cherubim often look like seraphim, but they are many-eyed, guard the entrance to Paradise with flaming swords, and guard the Ark of the Covenant and the veil of the Holy of Holies. They are identified by Ezekiel with the “four living creatures” (Ezekiel 1: 1-14), although these four are also identified with the four evangelists: Saint Matthew (man), Saint Mark (lion), Saint Luke (ox) and Saint John (eagle).

The heavenly hosts may also be depicted as stars. But the depiction of angels reminds us that worship on earth is also participation in the worship in heaven.

Christmas makes a difference

A sacramental-looking angel in Saint Matthew’s Church, Great Peter Street, Westminster (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Sister Magdalen expressed her worries about ‘New Age’ and occult interests in angels. Angels and humans are both creatures of God. But, she said, the Incarnation makes a radical difference, for Christ came not as an angel but became human – a child born in flesh into a poor family.

She says angels are in awe that humans can take part in the Body and Blood of their Lord sacramentally. Angels love and serve human beings, and rejoice at our repentance. But humans can live and develop, and learn by love to embrace all humanity so that we sanctify the whole of creation in ourselves.

And that is at the very heart of the Christmas message.

An angel marking a Maxwell family grave in Kilmore, Co Cavan ... their ancestors were once the landlords of Newtownbarry, now Bunclody, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

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 essay was and these photographs were first published in December 2013 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

Putti on the Venetian-era Morosini fountain in the centre of Iraklion, capital of the Greek island of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 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.

Art for Advent (1): Noah’s Ark by Edward Hicks

‘Noah’s Ark’ (1846), Edward Hicks, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Patrick Comerford

Today is the First Sunday of Advent [1 December 2013] and this day officially is the start of a new church year.

In Advent, we focus on the coming of Christ both as the Christ Child in all his weakness at the incarnation on Christmas Day, but also as Christ the King, in all power and glory at his second coming to earth.

At this time of year, we also consider justice issues and we are asked to think about what it is going to be like to dwell in peace.

In previous years, I have looked at poems and saints that remind us of these Advent themes. This year, I intend looking at works of art that help us to focus on Advent and its meaning as we prepare for Christmas.

Today we begin the Year A readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. The readings for the First Sunday of Advent are: Isaiah 2: 1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24:36-44.

In our Gospel reading (Matthew 24: 36-44), Christ talks privately to the Disciples on the Mount of Olives about his Second Coming, telling them:

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

“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, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 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. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

My choice of a work of art this morning reflects the reference to Noah’s Ark in this Gospel reading: I have chosen Noah’s Ark (1846) by Edward Hicks, which is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Edward Hicks (1780-1849) was an American folk painter and a minister in the Society of Friends or Quakers.

Edward Hicks was born on 4 April 1780 in his grandfather’s mansion at Attleboro (now Langhorne), in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to Anglican parents. His father, Isaac Hicks, was a Loyalist who was left without any money after the British defeat in the American War of Independence.

Edward Hick’s mother died when he was 18 months old, and he was raised by his mother’s friend on her farm. When he was 13, Hicks was apprenticed as a coach-maker, and eventually became a coach painter.

He started attending Quaker meetings and in 1803 he joined the Society of Friends.

In 1812 his meeting or local church recorded him as a minister, and by 1813 he was travelling throughout Philadelphia as a Quaker preacher, supporting himself by his work as a painter, and by farming.

In 1820, he painted the first of his many versions of The Peaceable Kingdom, which became his best-known theme.

In 1827, Pennsylvania’s Quakers were divided by a schism, with the more liberal Quakers become known as Hicksites their leader, Elias Hicks, a cousin of Edward Hicks.

Meanwhile, Edward Hicks had a growing reputation as a religious artist. He died on 23 August 1849.

During his lifetime, Hicks painted over sixty versions of Peaceable Kingdom, drawing on themes in Isaiah 11: 6-8 and Isaiah 65:25, with the lion eating straw with the ox. His other well-known works, including Peaceable Kingdom and my choice of painting this morning, Noah’s Ark, are found in many versions too. This version of Noah’s Ark is on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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.

Tomorrow: Art for Advent (2): ‘Christ and the Tsunami’ by Georgia Lelou