A sermon preached by David Barton at St Mary’s on 27th November 2022
Advent. And the Christmas lights are up in town, Christmas goods in the shops, and we begin our services by lighting the Advent Ring – all of it a kind of count down to the warmth and joy of Christmas. But Advent is also about something else, as we know, and the hymns have references to darkness, and a world wrapped in fear. As if we look forward with hope, but also with some uncertainty. That Gospel reading from Matthew is full of warnings. Jesus points to a great and terrible day of judgement – surprising, terrifying. Two people will be in a field – one taken, that is in Judgement – the other left – in mercy. And before long we will recite the creed and say: He will come to judge the living and the dead.
There was a time when that was the most dominating idea of the Christian Church. Churches were decorated with vivid pictures of the last judgement – often over the chancel arch, just so you wouldn’t miss it. ?arrangement here. ?beakheads. But go to South Leigh, a little village just this side of Witney and you will see a fine example. On one side of the chancel arch devils with forked tails and tridents are stuffing the damned into the fires of hell. On the other those who find mercy are welcomed into the courtyards of heaven. God the judge of all sits on the throne above the arch. It was inescapably there, Christmas and Easter, regardless. In medieval thinking the whole story of redemption, and the whole of human life, was working towards that end judgement.
But today’s collect marks a change in all of that. It was written by Archbishop Cranmer, for his first English Prayer book of 1549, and it manages to combine the joy of Christmas with a kind of forward look to the end: …now in the time of this mortal life, when your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility, so that on the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal. Beginnings and ends are put together, in my beginning is my end, in my end, my beginning.
Cranmer is interesting, because he stands at exactly the point when the Middle Ages gives way to the new reasoning and thinking that was sweeping through Europe. He would have had a sense that the old certainty about the End would no longer hold. People were not imagining things in that way any longer. He had been a catholic priest, and he had a strong sense of the importance of the regular liturgical cycle of the church. So the calendar remains, beginning with Advent. But he was also a reformation theologian and he could see that there was now a very different way of thinking and believing: Luther had said “Here I stand,” and he had challenged the whole structure of the mediaeval church on his own, personal convictions. Faith was becoming “my faith”, my relationship with God, in the way we affirm faith now, but which was and is utterly different to the old, collective mediaeval way of thinking.
And Cranmer reshapes Advent by reading that passage of Matthew’s Gospel and others like it in the light of Paul’s epistle to the Romans. You can hear echos of our second reading in the words of the collect. Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. Paul believed all things would most certainly be summed up in God, but for him the great event had already happened, in the birth of Jesus. For Paul, it was as if a new day had dawned in Christ, and those who came to see it and know it, found themselves living in the light of a new life, a new relationship with God. The image now is of darkness and light, daylight and nighttime. We know the difference between day and night, so we also know the difference between right and wrong. It matters that we make the choice well. Something of that lies behind Cranmer’s collect.
So if that’s the way ends and beginnings come together, then Advent is still reminding us to take a closer look at our human values. Yes, Christmas is a season of Joy at the birth of Christ. But if God chooses to be in the child of a young mother, forced by Government edict to travel at the most vulnerable time in her life and that of her soon to be born baby, and be born in a stable, then that’s saying something very powerful – inescapable – about the sacredness of human life, wherever it is. What does it say to us about the refugees landing on our shores and our attitude to them? Among them women with their babies just like Mary. And, nearer to home, what does it say to us about our encounters with each other, the reverence and respect due to every single person we have dealings with? We cannot compromise with what is sacred. It is a choice between darkness and light. The birth of Christ is able to disturb the mind more than we often allow it room to do.
But we are not helpless here. We are to put on the armour of light, as Paul and Cranmer urge. Its easy to list the things we really shouldn’t do – Paul at this moment seems to take on the role of a stern Jewish Rabbi, wagging his finger from the pulpit: no quarrelling or jealousy. No drunkenness. Its a point, of course. But to “put on the armour of light” is more deeply internal than that. Its about who we are, before what we do or don’t do. There is a newness in all of us because of Christ. Our font reminds us that we are a New Creation. To be that is to be aware that the compassion and the energy and the joy of Christ are gifted to us, slowly growing in us and finding expression in the things we do, the things we say. Advent asks: are we making room for that kind of inner growth?
And one final thing. Both the birth of Christ and God’s final judgement are outside our agency. Both of them are about God’s movement to us. One of the problems about the new individualism of faith that came with the reformation is that we can easily reach a point where we ourselves become the centre of our world. We pick and choose what we believe and what we don’t.
But the world doesn’t centre round us. It centres round God, who is, as it were, “out there”, utterly beyond our knowing and understanding. Advent and Christmas are about that total shift of perspective: life is not ours to create. It’s God’s gift to us. Faith is not ours to create: it’s God’s gift to us, and we must live accordingly.