The heavens opened early Thursday morning, and rain poured upon our California soil, slaking the thirst of the earth but soon bursting gutters and filling low places with floodwaters. In drought-plagued California, we didn’t dare complain, but were thankful.
We live in the foothills of Mount Diablo, and while our house is on bedrock, our northern hillside falls steeply into a ravine. Friday morning we noticed part of the fence was missing, and it had taken some of the landscaping with it as it slid to the bottom of the hill. I thought, as I have thought many times, how suddenly nature makes short work of man’s efforts to tame her, shattering our pride.
The earth is drying out now, and this morning we headed for church, bundled up for temps are in the low fifties (cold for us). The skies had changed from threatening to sudden beauty, with white clouds scuttling against brilliant blue patches, the low sun clarifying the air as though trying to fit more light into shorter days.
And in this winter-scape we prepare for the light of the Incarnation, to me always a stunning event, one repeated in a different way on humble altars in glorious Eucharists. It is Advent, and we prepare for Christmas, the coming of the Christ Child, God becoming one of us, with us, Emanuele. We celebrate the love, sacrificial and humble, of a God who loves his creation so much that he would do such a thing, that he would be born in a manger-cave, among animals, to a poor, devout Jewish couple who believed in his angel messengers and obeyed them.
And so, stepping into the warm nave of our parish church, the symbols of the space textured this story of miraculous birth. The Virgin Mary and her holy Child stood to the left, Gospel side, a bank of votives flaming at her feet. Three of the four Advent candles in their bed of greens had been lit (two purples and one rose). The American flag stood proudly, a testimony to our freedom of worship. Against the red brick apsidal wall, the white marble altar was draped in purple, and six tall tapers burned on either side of the purple-tented tabernacle. A crèche set in greenery, to the far right, Epistle side, told the humble story of glory, this huge contradiction, one of many fascinating ones in our faith, of glorious humility. Somehow true glory can only be found, we are told, in true humility. Somehow true joy can only be found in true sacrifice. Somehow the Creator must become part of his creation to save it from itself.
I love Advent III, called Rose Sunday, Gaudete Sunday. We light the rose candle along with the first two purple candles. Today is Gaudete Sunday because of the opening prayer, the Introit: Gaudete in Domino semper, or Rejoice in the Lord always… Rose Sunday is a break in the penitential purple of Advent, and this is the only Advent Sunday we have flowers on the altar. We emphasize the joy of anticipating Christmas rather than the penitence of preparing for Christmas.
In the daily readings of the Morning and Evening Prayer offices, the mood is definitely one of penitence and preparation. Most of the readings have been Old Testament prophecies, warnings, and judgments in Isaiah and the Psalms. We read the early chapters of the Gospel of Mark, of the beginnings of Christ’s ministry, but not the Christmas story, not yet. But most fascinating are the chapters in Revelation, or The Apocalypse, the great vision given to St. John on the Island of Patmos, detailing the end-times, the last days, the Second Coming of Christ.
We have been immersed in these daily prayers, not reflecting the coming of Christ to Bethlehem but reflecting the Second Coming of Christ in Judgment. We are “woken up” with these future realities, these warnings and visions, given a “heads up.” Are we ready for Christ to come? How will we fare when judged? Have we loved enough? Have we cleaned out our hearts to receive him? For he will not enter a cluttered heart fettered with sins, the detritus of selfishness and pride, envy and greed. There will be no room for him in such a heart. We need to make room for him.
So Advent, often called “Little Lent,” reminds us of the four great events, the adventures, to come to us: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell. How will we – our lives – be measured?
This morning I entered the nave of our warm parish church and knelt in a pew, giving thanks for the clergy, the people of the parish, and the freedom to worship. I asked God to clean out my little heart, to remove all the obstacles to his advent in my soul. My gaze fell on the purple-draped tabernacle and knew that this weekly ritual, this rite, would set me right with God. I knew that the habit of confession would serve me well in the time span of my life, would ensure that I have the time of my life, ride the waves of glory in this great adventure. I knew that, encouraged by the words of the liturgy – confession, absolution, the great action of the Mass, Holy Communion – I would unite once again with Christ, in bread and wine placed on my tongue. I knew that each Eucharist prepared my heart and soul, mind and body, for the great Feast of the Lamb that would await me in Heaven. And I wanted to be ready. I wanted as many Eucharistic feasts as I could manage before then, readying my heart and soul. I want to sing with the angels and the saints.
I also love Advent III because we usually practice (after Mass) for the Christmas Pageant. Young and old gather together to portray our story of redemption, beginning with the Fall of Adam and Eve and ending with the Nativity of Our Lord, the beginning of our salvation, the antidote to the Fall. Lessons are read and carols sung. We rehearsed today; next Sunday we don costumes and prayers and wings (I get to be an angel, and yes, even with wings…) We have a five-year old Mary and an eleven-year old Joseph.
The days are wintry and short. We prepare to celebrate Christmas, the year of our Lord, Anno Domini, A.D. Some of this sense, this pairing of season with humble glory, has been captured by the poet Christina Rossetti:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1895), “In the Bleak Midwinter”
Yes, Advent is a time to give him our hearts: clean, ready, and open.