Advent 1, Year B
3 December AD 2017
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
✠ ✠ ✠
Happy new year, everybody! This is the first day of the new Church year– year B– so we’re beginning a new cycle of Bible readings today. And this year we’ll be reading mostly from St Mark’s gospel on Sundays, with a fair bit of John here and there, and a little Matthew and Luke. That’s because Mark’s is the shortest of the four gospels, and he didn’t write enough to stretch it out over a whole year. Apparently, he wasn’t thinking 2,000 years ahead about how the modern Church reads the Bible in a three-year cycle. Whenever the first Christian congregations got their hands on a copy of one of the gospels, they read the whole thing during one worship service.
Now, as you may know, Mark was not one of the twelve apostles. Neither was Luke, but Matthew and John were. Mark’s main source of information was the apostle Peter, who witnessed everything Jesus did and said firsthand. Mark was part of the larger group of disciples though. So he did get to see and hear some of Jesus’ activity and teaching for himself. In fact, he wrote himself into his gospel as a sort of cameo appearance, kind of the way Alfred Hitchcock always inserted himself as an extra into his movies, boarding a train or crossing a street, etc. On the night Jesus was arrested, Mark is believed to have been the young man who was wearing only a linen garment who, when the guards tried to grab him, he escaped, and all the guards got was the linen cloth (Mk 14:51-52). Well, that’s your liturgical trivia for the day. Now on to the reason for the season.
The problem of children departing from the way they were brought up– of disappointing their parents by not turning out to be the good citizens that Mom and Dad had hoped for– is a problem that’s as old as life on earth. It first happened with Adam and Eve when their son Cain killed his brother Abel. And it’s been happening in all the best families ever since.
Monica was a worried mother who lived in north Africa in the 4th century. She was stuck in an unhappy marriage to a cruel man named Patricius. And to make matters worse, her mean mother-in-law moved in with them, making Monica’s life that much more miserable. She became an alcoholic. And on top of all that, her son turned out to be less than the decent man she would have liked him to be. To use a couple of more modern terms, he was a skirt-chaser and a party-animal– those were his chief goals in life.
But Monica was raised in a Christian family. And she was finally able, by God’s help, to become sober for life. Then she began to do what she could to turn her family around. She begged and pleaded with her husband, and above all she prayed for him. And eventually he repented, and shortly afterward died a good death reconciled to God and in love and charity with his neighbors. Then Monica focussed her efforts on her son, whose name, by the way, was Augustine. Being newly single and free to do as she pleased, she followed Augustine everywhere he went, pleading with him, preaching to him and praying for him. She kept it up for over twenty years. Augustine was finally converted to Christianity, and eventually became a bishop and one of the greatest theologians of the Western Church. Monica died a happy death within a year of his conversion. Nobody knows what happened to the mother-in-law.
Augustine might not have been the first child of a Christian family who turned his back on his Christian upbringing, but he’s certainly the most famous. He is the perfect example of so many who, on leaving home, have left God behind as well, and gone in the pursuit of happiness and fulfilment through other things, whether money or other material possessions, or drugs or whatever. I was one of those. Wise parents can see the mistakes their children are making, the errors of their ways, and will at the very least pray for them, hoping that they’ll come around eventually. They may even try to re-evangelize them, like Monica did.
Augustine learned firsthand what that kind of search is like, and he also learned where it ends. He looked for his fulfilment in satisfying the desires of the flesh– in taverns and in strangers’ beds, among other places. But in the end he discovered that real fulfilment and satisfaction can only come from one place, from God. In his spiritual autobiography, The Confessions, which is still in print, and available online for under $10, St Augustine writes of his experience of being separated from God, and of his conversion to God. He talks about how true satisfaction, complete spiritual fulfilment, can only be found in relationship with God. We can’t rest easy until we can rest in Christ, because he is our creator and redeemer, our beginning and our end. Hence Augustine’s most famous declaration, which comes in the very first paragraph of The Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” And this is the point of Advent– returning to God, being reconciled and ready at all times to meet the Lord.
But that call to return goes out not just to the world outside the Church. It’s for those of us within the fold as well. The reason for the call to return in the first place is sin. And who here among us is without sin? There is only one sinless Person who ever lived. And he absorbed all the sin of the world into himself and died for it so that the rest of us could have new life in him. And for whoever will accept his gift of new life, repentence and conversion are things we need to do every day of our lives.
That Advent theme is summed up in today’s readings. In praying to God Isaiah says, “You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.” But Isaiah was writing at a time when God’s people had turned their back on him and became “like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth”– a rag that women use from time to time is what it actually says in Hebrew. (TMI, right?) Yet, Isaiah says to God, “you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Remake us, is what he’s asking for, reform us, renew your own image in us.
In establishing the Church, Jesus created the renewed, reformed people of God. And he sent the Holy Spirit into her to supply all she needs to thrive in the life of God. St Paul says that the Church is not lacking in any spiritual gift to sustain her until the day of the Lord, the day of his return. And in the gospel Jesus says that nobody knows when that day will be, so be ready at all times, stay awake. That’s his call on the Church as a whole, and on every person who hears his voice.
Looking at it on the individual level for a minute, there’s a great little prayer that’s been around for quite a while, so I’m sure lots of you have seen it. It says,
Dear Lord, so far today I’ve done alright. I’ve kept my mouth shut, I haven’t gossipped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or over-indulgent. I’m really glad about that. But in a few minutes, Lord, I’m going to get out of bed, and from then on I’m probably going to need a lot more help. Thank you, in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
That’s what we need to pray every day of our life, or something like it. We need to confess our sins with a truly penitent heart, which is to cast off the works of darkness– what we prayed for in today’s collect. And we need to pray for the strength and guidance of the Holy Spirit to help us on our way. That is how we begin to put on the armor of light, and to find our rest in God.
Advent presents us with a real spiritual challenge. From all sides the message is that we are supposed to use this time to get ready for a birthday celebration, which is what Christmas is. But it doesn’t really matter any more whose birthday it is, because the party’s really about us, about giving gifts and receiving gifts. And in many cases it’s about giving people exactly what they’ve asked for– the right size, color, model– and getting exactly what we want. Giving and receiving gifts is all very well and good as long as we remember why we do it. The reason that we give and receive at Christmas is that it reminds us that God gave us, in the birth of his Son, not what we particularly wanted or thought we needed, but what we really do need most of all, a way to return to him. Repentance, conversion, reconciliation, it’s all the same. And that’s what leads us fully into the loving embrace of God.
I want to close with another prayer. This one is widely used by Eastern Orthodox Christians every morning, and it nicely sums up the Advent theme of preparation to meet the Lord:
Most Holy God,
give each of us a pure heart,
and a way of speaking that befits the faith we profess;
grant us uprightness of purpose,
powers of reasoning unhindered by passions,
conduct that becomes those who fear you,
and perfect knowledge of your commandments.
May we enjoy health in body and in spirit.
Grant us a life of peace, genuine faith and living hope,
sincere charity and bountiful generosity,
patience that knows no bounds,
and the light of your truth to proclaim your goodness to us,
that for ever and in all things placing our trust only in you,
we may abound in every good work,
and that in Christ your gifts may increase in every soul.
For to you belong all glory, honour, and majesty,
Father, +Son, and Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+