A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, Year A 12.1.19
We always enter into Advent in a somewhat confused state.
It is the beginning of a new church year, so now is the time for church resolutions!
It is always the beginning of the secular Christmas rush, and we must rise above that to keep our focus, to keep Christ in Christmas (as the saying goes).
We are encouraged to slow down, take quiet, enter into a contemplative practice of preparation that removes us from, or better yet directly responds to, the stress and pressure of this season.
And yet, we begin Advent 1 with the refrain “Sleepers, Wake!”
We are brought out of our slumber.
We are challenged with preparation, but from an active stance of strength and preparation for the final battle between good and evil.
We are tasked with putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, of putting on that armor of light that Christ has provided us to respond to the darkness, to see the dawn after the long night that has been already run, to know that Christ is coming, and soon.
That hour may yet be unexpected, but it is coming.
That hour may yet be unexpected, but it is coming sooner rather than later.
That hour may yet be unexpected, and we, as Christians, as followers of Christ, are already prepared to greet the coming of Christ if we remember to stand vigilant, to take on that armor of light and shine against the forces of darkness at work in the world, to cast out all shadows and bring one truth into the world, that Christ has died for our sins, that Christ has defeated death by his death, that through Christ we are promised an everlasting life through our faith in what Christ has done, in the promise that is God’s grace and mercy working actively in our lives.
It’s no wonder then that it can be really hard to enjoy the specific season of Advent without looking ahead, of remembering what we are doing in this space of four weeks as we prepare for Christmas Day, of holding this time and space apart from the rest of the year as a special time of observance that calls us to really focus in on our relationship with Christ through our relationship with others, of remembering the presence of the light even as the days grow darker and darker right up to our celebration of his birth.
It’s not that it is necessarily hard to hold this space for the season of Advent to breathe and inform and give new life into our faith, but everything else that is built up around and during it, both religious and secular, can keep us from enjoying the season.
We forget what the focus of this season is pointing us towards.
The arrival of the light of the world, even as darkness increases, as it envelopes and consumes us (at least in the Northern Hemisphere).
Light that pushes against the dark, and in the coming of Christ will shine bright enough to be worn as armor against the forces of evil.
So, what do we do?
How do we hold this season, with intentionality, with respect and reverence, with acknowledgment that the secular (and even religious world at times) calls us to focus on everything else besides the light that is coming?
It doesn’t make sense to try anything big.
It doesn’t make sense to treat this as another season of Lent.
Even though Advent begins as a season that is somewhat penitential in nature (Episcopal church nerd moment: the Great Litany on page 148 that we begin our service on the First Sunday of Lent is often recommended for the First Sunday of Advent as well), because of all of the other demands and expectations that come in the month of December, it doesn’t make sense to devote yourself to a specific practice of penitence like we do in Lent.
This isn’t to say you can’t do those things, but it is an acknowledgement that life is more hectic in the next four weeks, that we can slow ourselves and remind ourselves that this season is pointing to a specific event and not the myriad of events that lead up to it. Those extracurriculars are not necessarily evil in and of themselves, but we mustn’t let them remove our focus from what we are trying to accomplish in this season.
To prepare for the light.
To remind ourselves, each day, each week, that the light grows and grows as Christ nears his arrival.
To know, deeply know, that “the night is far gone, the day is near.”
We can enter into this practice of preparation with a simple activity.
One that can be done by yourself, with your partner, with your family, even with friends who have gathered together to share in the festivities of the season.
The advent wreath is one of those “extra” church pieces that sometimes gets derided for a bit of hokiness, for not being “ancient enough” (the modern-day practice likely dates back only about 180 years), for being a bit convoluted and hard to engage without a previous experience and practice.
In fact, we don’t even have an appropriate liturgical way of lighting the advent wreath in our Sunday church setting.
The way we do it with a moment of reflection at the beginning of the service I think is as good as any, but I have seen it done in every way from being pre-lit before the service to a full-on set of prayers and liturgical choreography with heavy parishioner involvement. This speaks to two things: the advent wreath means something to people in the pews, and no one actually knows what to do with it.
If I may offer advice on that front as you leave here today: don’t worry about it.
Now, when I say don’t worry about, I don’t mean don’t do it. You should do it.
You should light the advent wreath. One candle a week, all five on Christmas Day.
But, don’t worry about how you do it.
You can offer a short prayer with yourself or your family.
You can treat it as a space of time set aside from the rest of the day, or use it in place of grace as you begin a meal.
You can light it once a week, or every single day.
Don’t worry about the how, but do hold the practice. Embrace it and hold space that is not focused on anything else in this season outside of the presence of light coming into this world.
When you hold this space, you begin preparing the house for the arrival.
When you hold this space, you begin preparing your heart for the coming of Christ, for the first time and once more.
When you hold this space, you begin to engage in what it means to keep a holy advent, to understand that this season of preparation is about setting aside a time and space for making room, both physically and within our hearts, for the arrival of Christ into this world.
An arrival that will come at an unexpected place.
An arrival that will come at an unexpected hour.
An arrival that will change the world forever and once more.