Fourth Sunday of Advent/Christmass Eve

Collect

God our redeemer, who prepared the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son: grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour, so we may be ready to greet him when he comes again as our judge; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Eternal God, as Mary waited for the birth of your Son, so we wait for his coming in glory; bring us through the birth pangs of this present age to see, with her, our great salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.

2 Samuel 7:1–11, 16

Psalm

1  My song shall be always of the loving-kindness of the Lord: •

   with my mouth will I proclaim your faithfulness

      throughout all generations.

2  I will declare that your love is established for ever; •

   you have set your faithfulness as firm as the heavens.

3  For you said: ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one; •

   I have sworn an oath to David my servant:

4  ‘ “Your seed will I establish for ever •

   and build up your throne for all generations.” ’

19  You spoke once in a vision and said to your faithful people: •

   ‘I have set a youth above the mighty;

      I have raised a young man over the people.

20  ‘I have found David my servant; •

   with my holy oil have I anointed him.

21  ‘My hand shall hold him fast •

   and my arm shall strengthen him.

22  ‘No enemy shall deceive him, •

   nor any wicked person afflict him.

23  ‘I will strike down his foes before his face •

   and beat down those that hate him.

24  ‘My truth also and my steadfast love shall be with him, •

   and in my name shall his head be exalted.

25  ‘I will set his dominion upon the sea •

   and his right hand upon the rivers.

26  ‘He shall call to me, “You are my Father, •

   my God, and the rock of my salvation;”

Psalm 89

Epistle

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen.

Romans 16:25–27

Gospel

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

Luke 1:26–38 

Sermon at Morning Prayer, Fourth Sunday of Advent/Christmass Eve 

This Sunday’s advent candle is special, it is pink – to remind us of the Mother of God, theotokos, as our orthodox brethren call the Blessed Virgin Mary. So I want to ask: How do we in the modern, scientific West remember the human parents of Jesus Christ?

The Eastern name for Mary is quite different from the West’s Blessed Virgin, isn’t it? I think theotokos in itself goes well beyond the West’s epithet in marking Mary as a unique point in time and space, part of the central point in the history of salvation. There are theologians who find the whole history of the world and its culmination in Jesus Christ’s existence. Up to that point, everything anticipates him; after that life everything looks back to Jesus as the saving event. All the prophets pointed to the coming saviour of the world. All the saints who have followed on from the cross take Jesus as the model of life and imitate Christ in their lives of flesh and spirit.

Without Mary, we could not understand that Jesus was born amongst us historical human beings. Without Mary we could not comprehend that God is with us in that baby of salvation. Mary is the point to which mothers all look. They understand their own motherhood in the light of Mary’s, for their children are the sum of their hopes. Every child expresses the hope of the world, a mother’s hope. Each child could be the next miracle worker, a new world leader, a doctor who could cure the common cold, a model citizen, a person to whom people would turn in times of trouble. Why that child may even become a priest who through sacraments, teaching and prayer will bring holiness to everyone’s lives! These are just some of the infinite possibilities of the new-born child we see in its mother’s arms.

In the midst of all these possibilities of life which the new-born baby represents – which the new-born baby symbolises – let us consider the historical reality of Mary’s boy-child. The period of the birth of Jesus was one of great turmoil. Foreigners invading, violence, wars, famines, plagues – it was a time of terror, not unlike the fear we experience today. Jesus’ era was one in which the faithful hoped for a king to rule with a mighty hand, a king whose hand is graced by a ring which would rule them all. The mothers of this time hoped for their children, that one of them might be that ruler in the name of God. Every mother at that time had great expectations for the future, and for their children. They often gave them symbolic names, none less significant than the name ‘Jesus’.

Mary was one of those women whose expectations will be met in her child tonight. Doesn’t the angel tell her everything?

‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’

These words, however, are not comforting – they foreshadow the trials and tribulations to come. Being called “great” and “Son of the Most High” are blasphemous when they issue from mortal mouths. Imagine Mary’s terror when she took that on board! Imagine how she must have shaken when she thought about how this tiny scion of David was to take over the reign of the house of Jacob. We all know the bloody history of the succession of kings, don’t we? The many historical dramas have illustrated that in great detail, haven’t they? Why even our own limited study of history should do this for us! Did Mary really want to give her son up to that game of thrones?

Mary must have been absolutely terrified at the prospect of this life of political leadership being prophesied for her expected child. Wouldn’t we all pale at the prospect of such a fate for our own children? We have watched the stories of the powerful and their demons, how kings and queens have battled to do the good in spite of their frailty and fear – and how so many have failed. If we know this, we who live in relatively peaceful times, imagine how Mary must have felt as she heard this news with the iron-shod tramping of foreign invaders all around her.

The real terror is that our hopes for, and the realities of, life do not correspond in any way. How can I hope for my child to be great at all when the political forces around me conspire to keep me under their heels? How can my innocent child become the heir to the throne of such a power? Why would I place my child on that seat bathed in, and stained by, blood? Parents have no wish for their child to take on that future, do they? — The infant has infinite possibilities. They open all around the child and remain myriad until I, as that child, come to ask what my “ownmost possibility” is. What is my destiny? How do I know that is the only thing that I should be? This is the heart of the existential dilemma. How am I authentically what I choose to be? The infant can be anything, but choices made begin to limit the child, and even more so as the child becomes an adult and finally the limitations of old age.

However, knowing the limitations of my life gives me freedom to be who I am at every moment. I seize upon who I am at that very instant. I ultimately choose my destiny. Theologically, this is the heart of human free will, the ultimate choice for belief or despair.

When we do not choose to be what we are, fate, others, or perhaps the anonymous “they” are given power over us. As Mary heard those words from the angel, she chose her own destiny, to be the “Mother of God” – Mary chose to be the Blessed Virgin.

[When] Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,’ and the angel departed from her,

she chose her infinite future before God with an angel as her witness. The best of mothers make up their minds for the sake of their children, don’t they? Our mothers don’t choose our fate, rather they place us in a field of infinite possibility and keep it clear for us until we hem ourselves in to our ownmost possibility, whatever that may be.

Our mothers have chosen their fate to be for their children. Like Mary, theotokos and ever-Blessed Virgin – the pure woman, is how we consider our mothers, isn’t it? Mother has bared her heart to take that sword which pierces it so painfully as we grow to be what we can be. The hopes and fears of a mother’s expecting of her child are what Advent is all about. We await the coming, glorious Messiah. That is our ownmost possibility as christians today and tomorrow – to welcome our messianic saviour.

Eternal God, as Mary waited for the birth of your Son, so we wait for his coming in glory; bring us through the birth pangs of this present age to see, with her, our great salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen

Advent Sunday

Collect

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility; that on the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Almighty God, as your kingdom dawns, turn us from the darkness of sin to the light of holiness, that we may be ready to meet you in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Readings 

Old Testament 

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

   so that the mountains would quake at your presence –

as when fire kindles brushwood

   and the fire causes water to boil –

to make your name known to your adversaries,

   so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,

   you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

From ages past no one has heard,

   no ear has perceived,

no eye has seen any God besides you,

   who works for those who wait for him.

You meet those who gladly do right,

   those who remember you in your ways.

But you were angry, and we sinned;

   because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We have all become like one who is unclean,

   and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.

We all fade like a leaf,

   and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

There is no one who calls on your name,

   or attempts to take hold of you;

for you have hidden your face from us,

   and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;

   we are the clay, and you are our potter;

   we are all the work of your hand.

Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,

   and do not remember iniquity for ever.

   Now consider, we are all your people.

Isaiah 64:1–9

Psalm

1  Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, •

   you that led Joseph like a flock;

2  Shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim, •

   before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.

3  Stir up your mighty strength •

   and come to our salvation.

4  Turn us again, O God; •

   show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

5  O Lord God of hosts, •

   how long will you be angry at your people’s prayer?

6  You feed them with the bread of tears; •

   you give them abundance of tears to drink.

7  You have made us the derision of our neighbours, •

   and our enemies laugh us to scorn.

8  Turn us again, O God of hosts; •

   show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

18  Let your hand be upon the man at your right hand, •

   the son of man you made so strong for yourself.

19  And so will we not go back from you; •

   give us life, and we shall call upon your name.

20  Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts; •

   show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Psalm 80

Epistle

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

1 Corinthians 1:3–9

Gospel

‘But in those days, after that suffering,

 the sun will be darkened,

   and the moon will not give its light,

 and the stars will be falling from heaven,

   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

Mark 13:24–37

Sermon on Advent Sunday

Advent has been the time we traditionally consider the four last things – death, heaven, hell and judgement. In fact our collect for today elicits these thoughts, if we were to consider the prayer carefully.

… that on the last day, when the Lord shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal …

I wonder if we have ever thought about the four last things as part of our Advent preparation for Christmass. Advent is supposed to be like Lent – a period of preparation for the great feast of the Church during which we celebrate the mystery of Jesus Christ – that is why we use purple for both seasons’ colour. Advent and Lent.are purple times; we are supposed to be making ready for the Christ in our lives, here and now, a very present help in the troubles of our own times. We prepare in Advent for the Incarnation and in Lent we prepare for the Resurrection, the two events which define our salvation.

Advent is our preparation for the very real presence of Christ in the world, at the centre of time and space in the saving act of the Incarnation – as St Athanasius wrote, “God became a man, so that men might become godlike.” The collect prayer today points us to the εσχατον, the last moment in time, which St John’s book of Revelations describes, when the world will be overturned and Christ will walk the earth in the glory he is, while in his earthly ministry he only hinted at that glory. He did so through his ministry of teaching, healing and miracles.

The collect prayer is our collective meditation on the point of our faith, our relation with the divine through the person of our Lord, Jesus Christ. In Advent we concentrate on the incarnation, the coming into the world of God in the form of a human being – the very real historicity of the divine, that God is with us, no longer a remote abstraction with no connection to the lives we really live.

I would say the feast of the incarnation reflects our ownmost possibility, if those words of Athanasius explain Christmass, if those words of Athanasius explain the purpose of incarnation. The incarnation is the reciprocal relation between God and human being, that God has come down for us so that we can go up for God, as that saying in the letter of Hebrews says, and that we sing in carol.

Incarnation is something we don’t really take very seriously in the West. Our culture is the expression of mind over matter without realising that the world around us is one of matter in which we find ourselves.

The philosophers following Plato and Aristotle elevated the spiritual – the mind – over the flesh, and much of the Church’s thought followed that intellectual path. This idealism is the background to much of the New Testament as well as the patristic and medieval periods of the Church.

This trajectory of thought has brought so much of the history of the Church with it. We live in this world of dualism where body and soul, flesh and spirit, are sharply defined and one is despised while the other is lifted high into the sky. That ethereal realm is far from the everyday with which we deal – the nitty-gritty of recalcitrant matter, the grey area of life with others (our lovers and our enemies), the very knotty problems of ethics.

However, we have lost that world-view, haven’t we? We admit that we do live in a world where other people dwell with us. Since we have established our connectedness with all things, we become incarnate. We become grounded in our selves which are both material and spiritual at the same time in the same space.

This is a very different message from that of the Church traditionally. The Church in the West sees the spirit as the goal, the essence of human being. I would rather see the spirit as the completion of the flesh. This is the union of flesh and spirit into a whole, what I have called our “ownmost possibility”.

All of our prayers have a focus, in the case of our Collect for today, our ownmost possibility; this focus is the focus for our Advent preparations. How do I become precisely what only I can become? This ownmost possibility is what we here in this building call “redemption”, “forgiveness”, “salvation”. The whole point of my life is this very summation, my ownmost possibility.

Don’t think that this is my own idea – I am merely repeating what the philosopher has talked about – something I have overheard and, in the classic manner of the schools, have repeated in my own words, if only to use the philosopher’s phrase, “ownmost possibility”.

Wherever that phrase comes from, I can only hope that it helps us understand what Advent preparation is all about. Undoubtedly, I will come back to this theme throughout Advent. I hope that it starts us all on our preparation for the celebration of the Feast of the Incarnation. The most important part of our preparation is prayer, the focus of our very selves on the ground and end of our lives.

Prayer can take many forms. Meditation, intercession, confession, are some types of prayer. Sometimes, like Paul, we pray with incoherent groanings, when the very heart of life cries out unintelligibly but with the utmost of meaning. Sometimes, with the Carthusians, our prayer is silent.

Prayers connect us with our ownmost possibility when it is sincere and true. When we pray with all our heart, don’t we choke up with tears? Don’t our bodies come to the fore when our spirit opens itself to its final form? So I would like to suggest that we can pray our collects week by week in this manner – with our whole selves.

The alternative collect for today is this:

Almighty God, as your kingdom dawns, turn us from the darkness of sin to the light of holiness, that we may be ready to meet you in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Let’s use this collect as a starting point in our Advent preparation. This can be used throughout Advent, not just on this, the first Sunday of Advent.

Collects are prayers which prepare us for the worship ahead – they guide us into the theme of the particular worship we attend to. However, they also point us to a very real future for each and every one of us. We should take our collects into the whole of our lives, because they force us to confront our ownmost possibilities.

Let us pray fervently through Advent using our public Collects and our private prayers to attain the ownmost possibility for each and every one of us, to move ourselves closer to that Kingdom to which we aspire.

Amen