Sermon for Advent I

A sermon preached by the Rev’d Daniel Lloyd at Holy Rood, Oxford:

And what I say to you I say to all: Watch (Mk 13:37)

‘Year after year, as it passes, brings us the same warnings again and again, and none perhaps more impressive than those with which it comes to us at this season. The very frost and cold, rain and gloom, which now befall us, forebode the last dreary days of the world, and in religious hearts raise the thought of them. The year is worn out: spring, summer, autumn, each in turn, have brought their gifts and done their utmost; but they are over, and the end is come. All is past and gone, all has failed, all has sated; we are tired of the past; we would not have the seasons longer; and the austere weather which succeeds, though ungrateful to the body, is in tone with our feelings, and acceptable’.(1)

Cardinal Newman’s words in a sermon of 1838, and the evocatively-constructed gloom goes on for several pages. It is, he says, curiously appropriate that at this dreary time of year the Church brings our minds, through the liturgy, to thoughts of the future, thoughts of, as he puts it, ‘going out to meet the Bridegroom’ (Mt 25:1), who, if not seen ‘in his beauty’ (Is 33:17), will appear in consuming fire. […]

We know that we say every Sunday in the Creed ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end’. And we know, too, in a more or less vague sense, that at some point there will come ‘the time for the dead to be judged, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great’ (Apoc. 11:18). We are all aware that this is going to happen one day, but it is hard for us to comprehend. It’s hard to understand, in a world where things wear down slowly, that one day, what we know will be no more. It is hard to grasp what this means in terms of time – hard to grasp what role time actually plays in all this. We do not, I think, quite share the Prophet’s sentiment: ‘O that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence’ (Is. 64:1).

I want to suggest, in this season, that our understanding of Advent is enhanced by our understanding of the Mass; and also, that the reverse is true. That the texts and actions of the Mass, and the texts and actions of Advent help us to prepare, to wait, to receive, in the right way. We need to keep in mind that the sort of waiting which we are constantly proclaiming and performing in Advent and in the Mass is not merely passive. We cannot of ourselves hasten the Lord’s coming, though we can, like Isaiah, pray for it to be soon: ‘O come quickly, come, Lord, come!’ He will come sacramentally at Mass as he has promised; he will come in glory, ‘in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning’(Mk 13:35), as he has promised.

In this season, we have Our Lady’s example to hold before us. Advent is, above all, the season of expectation and preparation. It is the season of all humanity’s expectation as it was the season of Mary’s expectation. As she waited; as she prepared herself, as she hoped and prayed for the coming of her Son and Saviour, so too we, by pondering the word of God in our hearts as she did, can follow that model of expectation which she places before us. That model is there for us to follow in and for the Mass, too, by prayer, confession, spiritual reading, meditation.

But our expectation has a different character from that of Mary’s. We know that Our Lord has come already, and that the wonderful mysteries of our salvation which Mary was to experience for the first time, in joy, and in the blade of the terrible, heart-piercing sword of sorrow, and in joy again: these events have already been. And, as such, our expectation in Advent is not a kind of parody of the expectant mother. Advent is not the time, year after year, to decorate the bedroom ready for the new arrival, to buy bibs and bootees for a baby who is always about to be born once more. Our Lord was born once, lived on earth as true God and true Man once, suffered once, died once for the sins of the whole world, rose from the dead once, and is now in glory at his Father’s right hand.

The kind of expectation which we have in Advent recognizes that we live in a world where time and eternity meet, a world in which Our Lord can be really present among us under the outward sign of a little, brittle disc of bread and a chalice of wine. When we celebrate the memorial of His Passion, which we dare to call ‘blessed’, we are taken up into that most wonderful thing, that the body and the blood of Jesus Christ should be offered up to God as a sacrifice. And in the very words by which this is accomplished, we are again brought into that meeting of time and eternity on which we meditate in Advent.

The new English translation of the Roman Canon, the First Eucharistic Prayer, which we have used for some time but which is to be adopted throughout the English-speaking world today and tomorrow, restores something which had dropped out of the previous English translation, but which never left the Latin. At its beginning, well before Our Lord’s words on the day before He was to suffer, the priest asks God the Father that He ‘accept and bless these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices’. To call what is at that point just bread and just wine ‘holy and unblemished sacrifices’ seems, then, bizarre at least. But before the consecration, bread and wine have a symbolic role – they are there, and we speak of them, as what they are going to be, and as what is going to be offered to God. We can only be puzzled or confused by that idea if we reject the whole concept of Advent, as a period of expectation; a period of preparing for what has been, is, and will be; as a period of proclamation of the Lord’s having come, until he comes again.

In Advent, we try, with the help of God’s grace, to turn our hearts towards God, towards the coming of Christ. Before the Magnificat at Vespers on 21st December, we sing the antiphon ‘O oriens’:

O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

And this idea of turning to the Morning Star, to the Orient, turning to face east in common prayer, united in offering our supplications to God, is what informs our celebration of the Mass. As the Holy Father wrote, ‘The altar is the place where heaven is opened up. It does not close off the church, but opens it up – and leads it into the eternal liturgy’(2). It is for the eternal liturgy, the heavenly banquet, the everlasting wedding-feast, that our expectation and preparation in Advent and in the Mass, and in our whole lives as members of the body of Christ fit us. So that ‘in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal’(3).

And what I say to you I say to all: Watch

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(1) Bl. John HEnry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. V, Worship, a Preparation for Christ’s Coming

(2) Joseph Ratzinger (HH Poper Benedixt XVI) Tr. John Saward, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000) p. 71

(3) BCP Collect for Advent

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