Dear Fathers, Friends in Christ,
"And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light" (Romans 13:11-12).
Today is Advent Sunday, the beginning of the season of Advent and the starting point of the new ecclesiastical year. What makes today different from the secular New Year’s Day is that there is little of the typical "out with the old, in with the new" that attends that holiday.
If anything, our Christian Advent is a promise of "more of the same." We plan to read the same lessons and to say the same prayers in this new year that we did in the year past, and for almost two thousand years before that. Even our "New Year’s resolutions," found in this morning’s excerpt from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, are the "same old" resolutions that Christians have made every year since that glorious year so long ago when our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven.
We are not in a rut, however. By the standards of the "secular world" (which means literally, "the world of this age"), we lack imagination and our religious observances are boring because we have no plans to change what we believe and what we hope for from year to year. But "the world of this age" functions on the basis of an unexamined fantasy—namely, that the material world and the human race have an infinite supply of years ahead of them. And if this world were "the world without end," the eternal reality from which all subordinate realities proceed, they would be right.
Advent, however, tells us otherwise. The name itself is a play on words, since the Latin "Adventus" means simply "a coming," but the Church uses it to refer to two comings of the same Divine Person: our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. On Advent Sunday we look back to the climax of history, as far as the purposes of God are concerned, to the conception and birth of the Son of God, made man by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary. When Jesus Christ shed his Blood on the Cross and offered his life before his Father’s throne, all sins were redeemed—completely bought and paid for. The victory of God in Christ over the world, the flesh, and the devil was accomplished once and for all, and all anybody had to do, then, now, or a thousand years from now (if God gives the world that much time), to share in that victory, was to confess his sins and to submit to the merciful rule of the Lord God in Jesus Christ his Son.
That was the First Coming of Jesus Christ. The fate of this world was fixed under God’s judgment, and the terms of the salvation of mankind were made as clear as they could possibly be. All the history that has followed that First Coming, however grand or terrible to us, is from the perspective of God much like the final chapter of a novel or the final five minutes of a movie that wrap up the loose ends after the main event has occurred.
The Second Coming of Jesus Christ, then, when he comes in glory to judge the world, is the time when he declares in the Name of his Father what happened to all of the other "characters" in the human story. The Second Coming represents no change in plans on the part of God, no surprise ending, no "new thing" at all, except that Jesus Christ will announce "The End" of human struggles and the beginning of eternal blessedness for the resurrected and redeemed, who in God’s grace and mercy will do even better than living "happily ever after." This is the true "world without end"—the eternal reality of a changeless God whose mercy never fails and whose rule cannot be overturned.
The tragedy of our times is that so many people have been duped into trusting this world’s fantasy of never-ending years, at the cost of their losing the real hope of Jesus Christ’s Second Coming to finish what he began at his First Advent. It is a pure waste of time and life to govern ourselves by dreams and vapours while ignoring the one consistent reality that can save us now and forever.
Perhaps the best remedy for this error is to try to recover in our minds the mind of the first Christians, full of the Holy Ghost and the most realistic people who have ever lived. Let us begin with something Our Lord said about himself: "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (John 8:12).
We have to understand that the first Christians took this saying as more than a nice bit of poetry. They understood the difference between life with Jesus and life without Jesus as the difference between day and night, and they lived in a world without electric lights in which the night was dark indeed and a time of hidden crime and terror. Thus, St. Paul could write, as we heard earlier, "…now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we [first] believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light."
The coming of Jesus Christ is as the coming of the sun to bring a new day. He is the sunrise of the day of the Lord, in whose light all the decent things of human life have their proper place and opportunity. For this reason, St. Paul continued, "Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying" (Romans 13:13). Some things belong in the darkness because they belong to the darkness: carousing, illicit affairs and wrong actions of all kinds, sitting around griping about others, or lying in our beds sleepless because of our envy of what other people have or because of our plotting against them. Christians, on the other hand, should live right now as if the light were completely come again on the final day.
The first Christians saw the history of the whole world from the fall of man until the coming of Christ as one long night of death, danger, and temptation. But it was still a night of promise, since God had promised his Son. We know these things as facts, since they are stated in one of the first prayers of the New Testament, the prophecy that the Holy Ghost gave to Zacharias at the birth of his son John the Baptist. We still say this prayer as the Canticle Benedictus in the Morning Office:
And thou, child, shall be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people for the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us; to give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death (BCP 14).
That old word "day-spring" means "the dawn," and the first coming of Jesus Christ was the dawn of salvation upon the world. The Second Coming, likewise, is no sunset, but the second dawn that puts an end to the night of waiting for the details to be sorted out and brings with it nothing but light forever. Those who love that light and wish to live in it will join in Christ’s light forever. Those who love the secret and deadly things of the darkness will have their own place, too, with the devil and his angels in that darkest of places, hell.
The Coming of Christ was as real to the first Christians as the sunrise, and they looked for the day of the Lord on the final day as the best day of their lives, as the dawn of the eternal day of their life with God. Those Christians were so sure of this they even began the custom of aligning churches so that we face the East, where the altar and pulpit are, as the place where the sun will rise.
We need to be as sure of the same sunrise of the Light of Christ, the Light of the world. That time will come as God wills, but in the meantime, God’s Church reminds us every year of the reality and trustworthiness of the promise of light in Advent. The Light has come. The Light will come again. And when that light comes, we must belong to it or endure an eternal darkness. We begin, then, with our new Church year, the lessons, prayers, and discipline that will prepare us for light eternal.
Father Ed Bakker