The high winds sweeping northern California lessened today, and we woke to crystal clear skies, the bright sun shining this Second Sunday in Advent, a sun warming the cold air of December.
And so we bundled off to church to worship in our warm sanctuary. The Advent wreath stood Gospel-left, near the chancel steps, and two purple candles flamed. We listened to the poetic Collect (the opening prayer), written five hundred years ago by Thomas Cranmer and part of our Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick (living) and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal….
It is a prayer said in every Advent service, and each year, as part of my Advent rule, I try to re-memorize this wonderful summary of Christ’s coming to us.
We are a historical church, going back to Christ’s advent two thousand years ago. Through the centuries we have kept what is true and thrown out what is false, looking to the authority of Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Church year in and year out. Part of that keeping is the keeping of words, for words are how most of us pray, how most of us touch God and hear his voice. Words are how we make sense of our lives. We call that keeping of words, our memory.
Much has been written recently, mourning the scarcity of memory work required in grade schools. I recall memorizing poems, and working to root the words and phrases in my mind. I would repeat and repeat and repeat, until finally the words became part of me, automatic. Perhaps it was this automatic, “rote,” aspect that educators found to be without meaning, but, since I have returned to memorizing prayers and psalms, I find that the words become more meaningful, not less. They become part of me. And they are always there for me to hold onto, to remember, to light up the dark places in my life.
If poets and writers, prophets and preachers, from the past have captured truth with meaningful words, shouldn’t we memorize those expressions of truth? We need to keep them close, engraft them onto our hearts and into our minds.
The children practiced the Christmas pageant today. They are memorizing lines so that they can speak and sing the words, so that they can tell the miraculous story of Christmas to all the congregation. God will work through our children, speaking through them to us. Such a marvelous experience – to bring God’s words to his people.
I love re-memorizing the Collect for Advent each year. We throw out the dark and arm ourselves with the light. We are mortal and call upon the immortal, Jesus Christ who visits us in great humility. We welcome this humble child born in a cave outside Bethlehem, so that when he returns in his glorious majesty, we will rise with him to life immortal. This child wipes away our tears. He saves us from ourselves, banishes the darkness. Learning these words help me to hold these truths close. They light my darkness.
I shall also keep Advent by reading Evening Prayer each night. The Scripture lessons pair Isaiah’s prophecies with Revelation’s apocalypse. The readings steep me in Christmas, the meaning of the Incarnation, the light transforming the darkness, no less than the redemption of man.
My new memory work this year, however, is found in our Morning Prayer office. It is called the Benedictus, recorded by St. Luke. It is Zacharia’s prophesy, spoken after his time of not being able to speak, after the birth of his son, John the Baptist: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel who has visited and redeemed his people, and has raised up a mighty salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spake by the mouths of his holy prophets which have been since the world began…
As I commit these words to memory, I shall pray them, engrafting them, calming the raging winds, warming the chilly air, lighting the dark. As Christmas draws near, I will carry these words in my heart, just as Israel carried their hopes for the promised messiah. The words shall be calling words, first spoken by Zacharias so many hears ago, words now spoken by little me, bringing Christ among us in this Year of Our Lord, Christmas 2011.
We call him and he comes. We hold onto our memory, carried into the present with words.