"But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly . . ." (Hebrews 11:16)
This is the last Sunday of the long Trinity season and the last Sunday of the Christian year. Next Sunday will be the First Sunday in Advent and the beginning of the official preparation for the coming of the Messiah, the birth of the infant Jesus at Christmas. And the Church, ever mindful of the fact that the end is for us always a new beginning, has called this Sunday "The Sunday Next Before Advent." Notice please that this Sunday is not called Trinity 25, 26, or 27, but "The Sunday Next Before Advent." As we bring this past year of our spiritual pilgrimage to a close, we eagerly anticipate the Christian New Year. We look forward to beginning the whole process over again, hoping to perform more profoundly and rigorously our Christian duties.
It is perhaps our liturgical calendar, our Christian year, that most strikingly sets us off as a community, identifying us as the Church. Here you are, God's faithful people, Sunday after Sunday com memo- rating the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. For us every seventh day is not just a "holiday" but rather a holy day - a day upon which we recall faithfully and unfailingly what God has done for us in and through his Son. But our worship is not just "commemoration," a faithful recalling of some now very remote events; it is also an "appropriation," the weekly taking into ourselves of the Christian year's events. Every seventh day we seek to familiarize ourselves with God's holy dwelling. We listen to God's holy words, and we are partakers at God's holy banquet. Week after week we taste the bread and wine of God's generosity, and we perceive with the eye of faith an eternal banquet.
And then there is the remarkable Christian year itself: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday and Trinity Season. It is interspersed throughout with saints days and memorials of major events in the life of our Lord: Annunciation, Circumcision, Presentation in the temple, Baptism and Transfiguration. And in all this we are not content merely to recall - as if we had forgotten - distant historical events, but we attempt to align ourselves with those events. We seek to make that life Jesus lived so long ago our life. We seek by God's grace to become one with him, to walk in the steps that he trod, to suffer with him and to rejoice with him. Our pilgrimage - our annual pilgrimage - is to become Christ-like through God's help. It is to become Christians, those who are bound to Christ himself. The Collect for this Sunday -the Sunday Next Before Advent - begins "Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people." Let this liturgical year stir up our mind and our will, so that what has been comes alive in us, and so that we may ever more eagerly anticipate what is to come. Similarly, the Collect for Ascension Day is also not content simply to praise God for the wonder and mystery of the Ascension into heaven of his only begotten Son, but it begs God that "we may also in heart and mind thither ascend." (BCP, p. 201) Indeed, ascension "in heart and mind" is the very "essence of our religion"; as a matter of ' 'habitual practice" we learn to refer "all things to their end in God."
The Christian year then is not a dry and mindless repetition of bygone history and events, but rather is the systematic attempt to become one with him whom we worship. We retrace his steps; we are baptized; we are tempted; we go to Jerusalem; we share that great final meal in which Christ was united with his disciples through the elements of bread and wine; we carry the cross; we taunt and jeer; we deny Christ; we are crucified; and we are resurrected. We ascend with him, we receive his Spirit and so, living by his grace, we endeavour to walk in those good works he commands and acquire the habits of his Kingdom.
The Church's year is a great prayer; it is that prayer "without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17) which St. Paul demands of all the saints. And the beauty of it is that when we stumble and fall, when we are ill or absent, the Church just carries right on, bidding us, enjoining us, entreating us to share in its greatest gift and mystery. This is the possession of God's life, the unity we can have with Christ through the free gift of God's Holy Spirit.
And so in the seemingly endless repetition of the Church's year, by the continual making present and re-enactment of those sacred events, in the constant re-telling of the story of Christ's life and of his deeds - without our being really conscious of it - we cease to be primarily the inhabitants of time and slip over into God's eternity. We see how the end and the beginning are indeed united in Christ (the Alpha and the Omega, Revelation 1.8), and so we do not celebrate the last Sunday in Trinity without understanding that it is also the anticipation of the First Sunday in Advent. All the threads are bound together before us, and in wonder and amazement we see how God is all things, first and last. The Church's New Year and the world's New Year are properly celebrated on quite different days, because, in fact, they celebrate completely different truths. While this New Year we shall celebrate the arrival of 1981 - as if that were really anything to celebrate - next Sunday, as we do in the same way on this Sunday, we celebrate our timeless union with God, a union that begins on this day and will last for ever.
It is through our Baptism that we are initiated into eternity. We died, as we went down into the water, and were reborn as we came out, becoming citizens of another, better country. As a consequence of this rebirth, we are "strangers and pilgrims on the earth," (Hebrews 11.13) having become citizens of the new Jerusalem. As St. Paul says, "Our conversation is in heaven." (Philippians 3.20)
In a remarkable early Christian Epistle entitled The Epistle to Diognetus, the author speaks directly to our theme:
The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, or language, or customs. Christians do not live apart in separate cities of their own, speak any special dialect, nor practice any eccentric way of life. . . . They pass their lives in whatever township - Greek or foreign - each man's lot has determined; and conform to ordinary local usage in their clothing, diet, and other habits. Nevertheless, the organization of their community does exhibit some features that are remarkable, and even surprising. For instance, though they are residents at home in their countries, their behaviour there is more like that of transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens.
One of the things which distinguishes us most assuredly is this: our peculiar Christian calendar. For in it we affirm over and over, Sunday after Sunday, year after year, in unbroken prayer, through birth and death, that somehow our citizenship is not just here in this city, in this country, on this earth, but that here we are "strangers and pilgrims," temporary residents, on the very threshold of a land that will be ours forever. We pray "without ceasing," because "our conversation is in heaven."
Father Ed Bakker,
Anglican Catholic Church/Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne