The fog rolled in last night and cocooned our house, soaking the patio with its blanket of water. We draw closer to Christmas, today this third Advent Sunday, almost the shortest day of the year and the longest night, the winter solstice.
I have read that historians calculate that Christ was born in the summertime, since the shepherds were watching their flocks by night and even in the Near East it gets cold in the winter. Had it been winter, the shepherds would have herded their sheep inside, it is reasoned. But Emperor Constantine in the fourth century chose to sanctify the existing celebration of the solstice with this new celebration of Christmas, and the worship of the Son-God soon replaced the the worship of the Sun-God.
And it is fitting, it seems, to be given this shining star of hope in the midst of the darkest season of the year. In December light is limited both by hours of daylight and by weather – fog, rain, snow, leaden overcast skies. I speak of course of northern California and other northern climates. Where winter is really winter, the light of Christmas is nearly blinding. (I suppose this would not apply to Australia.)
Advent – these four weeks in which we await the advent, the coming, of Christ, his mysterious and miraculous incarnation – is a quiet soul-searching time or perhaps should be. It is a time of reflection, of trying to see through the dense fog of the culture blanketing our souls just as fog drenches the outside of my house. Our eyesight is often dim. We do not always see clearly.
In these four weeks we are given serious topics to consider, to try to see: death, judgment, heaven, hell. The Scriptures assigned are full of dire warnings. Israel is warned to seek righteousness or be conquered, slaughtered, sold into slavery, with many gory details in the text. We are startled by St. John’s visions of the Apocalypse, the future coming of Christ when he will judge the living and the dead. In sum, we have vivid accounts of past judgments and future judgments. Are these words simply fear-mongering?
Some would say so. Yet running through these lessons are also the lessons of good news, the news that Christ is coming, Christ came, Christ is here among us, Christ will come again. For we learn that Christ judges, and we must not forget this lesson. But he is also merciful, and we must embrace this as our greatest hope. Believe, he says, again and again, and be saved. It’s that simple. Believe in heaven, in redemption through him. So today we lit a pink candle in our Advent wreathe, breaking the cycle of penitential purple. We do this because today is Rose Sunday, the day we contemplate heaven. Today is also called Gaudete Sunday, Latin for “Rejoice,” a day in which we sing Paul’s rejoicing and encouraging words to the Philippians (4):
Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.
We need this reminder that the Lord is at hand. We need this reminder to pray. The past six months in America we have seen a great violence in our schools and communities. We have seen young men so captivated by evil they have obeyed its voice. Somehow these young men didn’t hear the voice of our God of love, a voice ringing through the years, days, hours, minutes, singing his love song to us. Somehow there was a void in their hearts, minds, and souls, a void that should have been filled with goodness and mercy, but was left empty and open to evil. Somehow these young men became consumed with anger, an anger encouraged by our culture, and they were given the weapons to express that anger. They did not believe in judgment, heaven, and hell. They believed in death, that death solved the problem of their pain and anger.
Without judgment, can there be justice? Without judgment, can there be mercy? In the end God will sort us out; in the present God will help us sort it out through the incarnation of his Son. But how? As Paul says, through prayer, through regular supplication to God. Our prayers, as our preacher said so beautifully this morning, are in time but also in eternity, never lost in God’s great landscape of love. And, he said, our prayers are the salve of righteousness that will bind and heal the wounds of our culture. Our prayers, he explained, continue the Incarnation in Bethlehem into our present moment.
In the morning we plant our feet on the floor and we say “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”. In the evening we lay our head on the pillow and say the same prayer of praise, thanksgiving, confession, petition, intercession, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” This is the prayer Our Lord taught us to pray and so we pray it again and again, and again and again we bring his healing love to our world to burn away the fog and light up the dark with his life. Simple prayer. Simple love. Simple ways to heaven.
Our preacher asked us in the pews, “If Jesus walked in through the door right now, and said, ‘Come, it is time to go…’, would we be ready?” Have we made amends with our neighbors, forgiven them and asked them for forgiveness? Are there things and people and deeds in our life still surrounded by fog that we don’t want to see? Drenched by fog?
Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell. The four last things. Are we ready for the Baby in the manger to come to us? He is coming soon – in Bethlehem in great humility, but later too, in glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come.