The First Sunday in Advent, 2016. A Sermon preached in All Saints’ Chapel, Sewanee, by Mother Julia Gatta
In the northern hemisphere, Advent falls during the darkest weeks of the year. And for us this year, the darkness of Advent is intensified by our post-election situation, a season of deep spiritual and moral darkness. Last week Chaplain Macfie noted the hundreds of reported incidents of racial, ethnic, and gender-based harassment that have exploded around the country in the aftermath of the election. Graduates of the School of Theology have sent us photos of their churches, whose walls or property have been desecrated by spray-painted swastikas and slogans such as “Heil Trump,” “Trump Nation,” “Whites Only,” and “Fag Church.” At least 200 churches have been similarly vandalized. Revolting and horrible as these things are, that is not the worst of it. The worst part of our post-election situation is that we are now on course to make this planet unlivable.
Addressing us in this grave situation are the lessons we hear on this First Sunday of Advent where Jesus speaks to us of his return—or advent—at the end of time. I find their ominous tone and apocalyptic imagery bracing and strangely comforting: the gospel finds us where we are. Faith doesn’t fool around; it’s about reality, including God’s surprising reality, and how we respond to it.
Today’s gospel begins with Jesus situated on the Mount of Olives, the very place where devout Jews expected the Messiah to come. There Jesus tells his disciples that even he does not know when he would return; the timing of his “second Advent” is a secret known only to the Father. In speaking of that momentous coming, Jesus drew upon the apocalyptic imagery of the Old Testament, as did St. Paul in his letters. In this scenario, our Lord’s triumphant return would be accompanied by cosmic catastrophe: the sun darkened, the moon failing to give light, stars falling from heaven. On earth, the birth pangs of the new age would be felt in the terror of earthquakes or the horrendous suffering of war. Most Episcopalians, along with many other mainline Christians, tend to find these passages in Scripture troubling, if not downright embarrassing. We are so repelled by hearing them interpreted with flat-footed literalism that we have rendered ourselves incapable of responding to their riveting poetry. We are so disturbed at seeing these Scriptures twisted into weapons to use against others or by ingenious attempts to put the end of the world on a timetable that we no longer hear their urgent message for ourselves. These passages are disturbing, it is true, but they are nonetheless crucial for a mature faith. And we especially need to hear them now.
Jesus frames his words about the end time in their largest imaginable social and environmental context: the story of the narrow survival of the human race and all other animal species. By alluding to the story of Noah and the Great Flood, Jesus drew from his religious tradition a tale of ecological catastrophe and of an entire people caught unawares. Noah’s contemporaries simply got on with their everyday lives as if things would just continue as they always had: “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.” The days before the flood were just business as usual; but then, like a thief in the night, the flood came and the world they knew was destroyed.
Our situation is different, for unlike the populace in this primordial myth, we have been warned. Since the 1970s scientists have been telling us that the earth can no longer sustain the demands we have placed on her. Like Old Testament prophets they repeatedly urged us to change our ways before it was too late. We didn’t heed their warnings because we didn’t want to believe them, not because the data they brought forward was insufficient to substantiate their case. We wanted business as usual. In the Bible, such an attitude of willed blindness is called “hardness of heart.” “For in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage . . . and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away.”
One of the glories of the Anglican tradition, in my view, is its openness to truth from any and every quarter. St. Augustine once said that no matter where the Christian finds truth, the Christian knows that it is his Lord’s. This has been the characteristic Anglican approach as well, appreciative of both science and the liberal arts as ways of discovering the depth and breadth of God’s truth and wisdom. It makes a university like this, Episcopal in its foundation and character, a congenial place for seeking to integrate science, history, economics, literature, and the arts within a unified theological vision. It is also the mission of education to stretch our imaginations in all sorts of ways; to see that things may be true even if they seem remote and don’t immediately affect us.
Now we are facing some very disturbing truths. According to the World Meteorological Organization, 2016 is very likely to become the hottest year on record, surpassing 2015, the previous record-holder. In fact, of the hottest 17 years on record, 16 of them have occurred in this century. In September, you may have read that atmospheric concentration of CO2 permanently passed the 400 parts per million threshold—a number way ahead of where we thought we’d be some years back, when scientists were telling us that we could only avoid catastrophic climate change beneath the 350 ppm threshold. And that’s only what’s happening now. Because of a feed-back loop, climate change will continue to accelerate, even if we drastically curtail our emissions today. So the need for conversion of heart, for accepting limitation, for scaling back our greed and worship of convenience, and yes, for using our imaginations, has never been more urgent. God gave us this beautiful planet to tend and cherish. When we love and respect Mother Earth she, in turn, feeds and cares for us and all other creatures. Can you imagine a greater act of ingratitude towards our Creator or a greater crime against our children and grandchildren and the six billion people who share this earth with us than to wreak havoc with the natural cycles that have been in place for the last 12,000 years?
“You know what time it is,” writes St. Paul, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” Rest is good when needed, but there is a spiritual sloth that is sheer escapism or despair. It is time to wake up, our lessons are telling us, in order to live fully alert to our situation—our personal situation and the world’s. Part of our awakening, Paul advises, consists in setting aside those habits that drug or dull our minds or dissipate our energies. In these dark days of Advent, many of us feel truly in the dark. We can acknowledge being bewildered, scarcely knowing what to do, without shame, for the journey of faith often navigates periods of intense darkness. Advent, like all the other liturgical seasons, simply underscores a dimension of the mystery of faith that is true year round. The watchword of Advent has always been vigilance: “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
We are waiting for the Lord to come, for his Advent. Is there any doubt that we need a savior? And as we wait, what might be some signs of his coming? Today’s gospel speaks the apocalyptic language of cosmic catastrophe, but we do well to remember that the word “apocalypse,” contrary to popular notions, simply means “unveiling.” It refers to something becoming manifest that was previously hidden. That is why the final book of the Bible is sometimes called the “Apocalypse of St. John” and at other times the “Revelation of St. John.” In other words, apocalypse is about truth at last revealed. Having been polluted for so long by an avalanche of lies, even an “inconvenient truth” is welcome and cleansing. So when Christ comes, even now, he comes as truth. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he said.
Notice, too, how Christ comes to us in this Eucharist. He comes among us from the far side of death. He brings with him his own resurrected life. He irradiates our present with the future we share with him, filling us even now in these dark days with his life, and joy, and hope. He speaks to us through words of Scripture, and his holy presence fills humble things of earth: bread and wine, the products of soil combined with human labor and skill. And he transfigures them, transforms them. Bread and wine are brought to the table; we receive them back as Jesus our Lord. Even in the darkness, we have this light.
The day after the election, Dean Alexander charged all of us at the seminary to burrow into St. Paul’s 12th chapter of Romans. I pass on that sound advice to you. Some of Paul’s words have been lifelines for me. For instance, “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Or my personal favorite: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
It was more years ago than I care readily to admit, but I can still remember vividly the morning of my ordination to the diaconate. Thirty of us had been in silent retreat over the weekend, and now, released from silence, we were chattering noisily if nervously over breakfast. The archdeacon in charge of us, who appeared to be enjoying his moment of glory, got to his feet and cleared his throat.
“There are,” he said, “just a few last things.”
The bishop looked up.
“I think you’ll find there are four,” he said, and went back to his cornflakes. He was, I suspected, beginning to get just a little fed up with the archdeacon.
The interesting thing was that even in those palmy, far-off days when we like to think the church preached the faith and everything was simply divine, not every one got the joke. Even then it was a long time since the church had been expected to spend Advent talking about the classic four last things — death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
Of course we ought to have got the joke. We had spent most of the weekend in a chapel with Our Lord’s word from the Revelation to John carved above the altar in plain sight: Etiam venio cito ⎯“Surely I come quickly” (22:20). Shouldn’t that have put us in mind of death, judgment, heaven and hell?
Or perhaps the truth was we didn’t really believe it?
Actually, to be fair to us, we could have been forgiven if we’d wondered whether whoever put it there really believed it either. If they’d believed it, wouldn’t they have scratched it hastily onto the stone, or daubed it quickly with a bit of paint, or scribbled it onto newsprint? As it was, the letters were two feet high and several inches deep, carved in solid marble. Whatever the words might say, those letters were made to last. Whoever carved them clearly did not think that the Latin word cito meant “quickly” or even “soon.”
Or did they?
“Blessed is he who comes,” we say day by day at the Eucharist. And so we have been saying, give or take a decade or so, for two millennia. Of whom do we speak? Of the Christ, certainly, if we speak with those who spoke in the gospel. It is Christ who confronts us at the altar.
But then, where does Christ not confront us? From whom do I turn away, and I do not turn away from Christ? Benedictus qui venis! wrote Dante in the Purgatorio, “Blessed art thou that comest!”⎯and then spoke of the coming of Beatrice, through whom and in whom he saw the divine glory. That is what we must all say of whomever and whatever shows us the glory: “Blessed art thou that comest!”
Does a day go by in which, if I am honest, I must not admit that my judge has come to me, face to face, with mercy and justice? There is, to be sure, grief and meaninglessness in the world—and most of it put there by human ingenuity or cruelty. Let us never underestimate the horror we can cause—to our neighbours, to humankind, to the planet, if we are cruel enough or greedy enough or simply do not have enough imagination to understand what we are doing. “For I reckon,” St. Paul wrote, “that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us” —but he did not say that the sufferings themselves were not real. African Americans survived slavery and lynching and Israel survived the holocaust: but that does not mean that those things were not horrific. Our Lord rose from the dead, but that does not mean that the crucifixion—his crucifixion and all crucifixion—was not horrific. Grace triumphs over evil, but that does not mean that evil is not evil. One reason why many of us (me included) find it hard to come to terms with Shakespeare’s King Lear, and why we need to, is that it presents to us without compromise a social order in which all human decency has been abandoned, and refuses to offer any possibility of reconciliation or hope in such a social order. What we choose is what we get. As Archbishop Rowan Williams has recently reminded us, “at some point, even the most confident faith (whether in humanity or in God) has to be honest about what is utterly unresolved in human experience, what cannot be made sense of (if making sense means showing why it’s a good thing really).”
But even when we have said all that, our faith and hope remain. Grace does triumph over evil, and destruction and death do not and cannot have the last word. Amid the horrors of racism and slavery there were those African-Americans who held fast to their hope in Jesus Christ. Amid the horrors of the holocaust there were those who died with the Shema upon their lips. Amid the horror of the crucifixion there was Our Lord’s prayer for those who crucified him. All of which is to say to say that when we have admitted that the evils that confront us in life—the evils that we create for each other—are real, we must also confess there is something else that confronts us if we will see it—even now, even in the midst of grief: there is the divine glory. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as Gerard Manly Hopkins said, and today as in the beginning,
the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Or again, as Francis Thompson has it,
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!—
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places;—
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
’Tis ye, ’tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
What, then, are we to do?
Our Lord tells us in our gospel passage that we must “watch”—or, as our rather feeble NRSV translation has it, “keep awake.” “Watch” (Greek, grēgorein; and in Jerome’s Latin, vigilare) is one of the most striking words of exhortation in our early texts: and was clearly taken by the first Christians with immense seriousness, as is manifest not least in those particularly Christian personal names that came to prominence in the early church, Gregory and Vigilantius. And what did they mean by “watch”? Not, of course, the foolishness of those Left Behind books, which exhort us to try to work out when the final coming of Christ will be—an activity that is, incidentally, explicitly forbidden to us by this morning’s text, as well as by other New Testament passages. No, “watching” for Christians is to consist of a concern for the rights and wellbeing of our fellow servants—which we surely now see must include humankind and the beasts and the good planet itself of which we have been made stewards (and it is required of stewards that they be found faithful). “Watching” means trying to be ready for the Master of the house whenever he comes, not presuming to ask when it will be.
Yet still we must not duck the final truth. As we declare in our creeds, the Master will come, and our watching will not last forever. What we remember especially on this first Sunday in Advent, or at any rate what we ought to remember, is that even the presence of Immanuel, God with us now, important thought it is, is not the end or the final promise. There is something more. That at least the Left Behind books got right, however much they may have got practically everything else wrong. In the end, whether we “watch” or not, whether we care or not, the marble will crumble — even those wonderful marble letters made to last for centuries will come to dust. The pretensions of nations, empires, planets, galaxies, and the universe itself (if it has any pretensions) will vanish.
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve . . .
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
No one has said these things better than Shakespeare and Kipling in their different ways, though for those who want dominical authority our Lord said it too, and for those who want evidence the physicists will spell out more of the details.
And what then?
Then we shall fall into the hands of the living God, which is, as the writer to the Hebrews said, “a fearful thing,” but which is also, as a famous British biblical scholar used to say, a good deal less fearful than the alternative.
Then God will judge us.
Some call this the Great Assize, or Judgment, and such language reverts directly to the name by which we call this entire season, “Advent,” and the Latin and Greek words that lie behind it (adventus, parousia—words meaning “presence,” “arrival,” “visitation”). These terms were a part of the rhetoric of imperial Rome. They were used of an emperor’s official visitation to a city or province, when he would (among other things) do justice.
So what will God’s doing justice be like?
Of course the biblical language about this, and all language about it, is metaphorical. What other language could we use of that which we do not yet know? But on the basis of Christ’s first coming, I think we may safely say at least two things about his final coming to us.
God in Christ will judge us by the standard of divine love, and by that standard we shall stand condemned.
God in Christ will judge us by the standard of divine love, and through that love we shall be saved.
And what shall we have to offer in return?
We shall, please God, have our tears, which are the signs of contrition, and our prayers and our desire to be prayed for, which are the signs that we acknowledge our dependence upon God.
Through tears and prayers God can work in us, until at last we will be able to say with blessed Mary, “Behold the Lord’s handmaid, let it be to me according to your Word.”
When we can say that and mean it joyfully, as she did, then we shall be ready to raise our eyes to the throne, and to enter the joy of the Kingdom.
When we can say that, and mean it joyfully, then we shall be ready to respond to our Lord’s promise: “Surely I come quickly.”
“Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”
The Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, which we celebrate today, has a somewhat different history and a different character from yesterday’s high festival. If the observance of an All Saints’ Day came about because of a deep Christian instinct to honor, first of all, the martyrs, and then later those exemplary Christians who were “the lights of the world in their generation,” the saints with a capital “S,” All Souls’ Day came into being because of another sort of Christian instinct: the urge to pray for the dead. Both feast days are grounded in the doctrine and the experience we have of the “communion of saints.” Our bonds to one another are not severed by death but are still, in fact, quite lively. And because we are still tied to one another in the living Christ, we believe that we can still help each other through prayer. In Christ, the veil separating this life from the next is quite permeable. And so it happened that by the late tenth century, a commemoration of all the faithful departed began to be observed first in monastic houses and then throughout the Western Church. It was set on November 2 as something of an extension of All Saints. But the spirit of this day is more somber. On All Souls’ Day, as it is popularly known, we recall the countless numbers of not especially heroic, but rather ordinary Christians who have lived before us, most of whose names are forgotten to all but God. Today we inevitably hold before God those dead who are especially dear to us, family members and friends. Some of these blessed souls were deeply faithful; others, like ourselves, were deeply flawed. Because God’s transforming grace reaches everywhere, including the realm of the dead, the life of the faithful departed is not one of static repose but a continual journey into the infinite depths of God, who purifies, reforms, heals, and irradiates us with his love. Our prayers for the dead articulate such a dynamic sense of grace. We began this liturgy by praying, “Grant to the faithful departed the unsearchable benefits of the passion of your Son.” In the burial office, we ask that they will increase in “knowledge and love” of God and “go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service” in God’s “heavenly kingdom.” There is movement, and our prayers lovingly connect us to all the faithful departed as they go forward ever more deeply into God’s light and life.