Summary: Sermon for Advent 4
We are here at the last feast day in our march to the celebration of Christ’s nativity. We stand on the precipice of an event that literally reordered the entire creation, the coming of the Christ. It is easy, particularly in this western world of plenty, to see the coming of Christmas as just another routine part of celebrating how great life is as a Canadian. Christmas becomes an opportunity to fill ourselves up with ever more “good” things, stuffing an already overflowing bag with even more. It is also easy to fall into the routine of the cycle of days…oh yes, it is once again Christmas (or Easter), where is my to-do list?
It is important to recognize the lesson of our church calendar in seasons such as this, as the sequence of the days carries a teaching. Immediately after the Feast of the Nativity, we have the feast day of St Stephen, a martyr for the faith. Shortly thereafter we have the Feast of the Holy Innocents, marking the death of the baby boys in Bethlehem at the hand of Herod. This tension between joy and despair, light and darkness is intentional. Even our Psalm today contains a very un-Christmassy “he will feed them the bread of tears”. The reason for this tension is because this is the story of our lives, and if you’ve lived for more than a few years you have probably learned that after each episode of joy there is one of sadness. The Scriptures reflect the reality of our lives in this broken world. This too is missed if you are not attentive to the cycle of the days.
By contrast, the call of Advent is the call to become empty to the noise of this world, so that we can be prepared for the in-filling that the coming of Christ brings to each of us. As long as our hands are already full, God cannot fill them with the things he has for us (CS Lewis, The Problem with Pain). The invitation in each holy season is to come and encounter the Messiah anew, again. Each holy season a bidding to walk the path of personal renewal and re-conversion. People sometimes speak of their conversion moment, when they became a Christian…but rather than a moment, our lives are a series of re-conversions, with each moment conforming you more to Christ. Faith is not an event, but a process.
An old Christian tradition in the last part of Advent are known as the ‘O Antiphons’, a series of phrases naming the coming Messiah brought out of the words of the Prophet Isaiah. These sayings would be used in response to the reading of The Magnificat. In response to Mary’s canticle of joy all God’s people respond with the promises foretelling the coming of Christ. Since we’ve read the Magnificat today, we will walk through the antiphons as we consider the mystery of this holy season.
O Wisdom, Which camest forth out of the mouth of the Most High, and reachest from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence. (Wisdom 8:1, 9:4, 9, 10; Proverbs 8:22; Hebrews 1:1; John 1:3; Ecclesiasticus 34:3)
(I’ve included a link to the Wikipedia entry for this poem…which is not always helpful. Most of the religious criticism in that article I think entirely incorrect, because of the profound theology reflected in the text. You can hear Eliot read the poem on youtube here.)
I preached this same Sunday last year, and closed with TS Eliot’s poem, Gerontion, which I will use as an opening for this year:
Signs are taken for wonders. “We would see a sign”:
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger […]
The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours.
Think at last. We have not reached conclusion when I
Stiffen in a rented house.
Eliot’s words circle around an analysis of the impact of the coming of Christ, and he brings out the contrary wisdom of God: ‘the Word within a Word, unable to speak a word.’ This is the wisdom that God brings to convert the cosmos, not a mighty angel army or even a voice in a burning bush, but rather this non-threatening and powerless form, a baby. A baby, yes, but a baby that was present at the creation of the cosmos. God seeks to renew the entirety of creation in the person of a baby: ‘the Word’, that is the Logos of God, incarnate within the Word that is Jesus the Christ, yet unable to speak a word, dependent on his parents to care, cloth and feed him.