Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 23: 1-10, I Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36
“The bells of waiting Advent ring.” So begins John Betjeman's Advent poem. What words, I wonder, are associated with Advent that come to your mind: Coming, Waiting, Longing, Watchfulness, Wake up, Second coming, Parousia, Judgement, our Renewal of vows?
For us, Advent Sunday is the day when we renew our commitment to God, when we renew our vows. It is particularly good that we have Margaret being received as a novice in our Community today, marking the next stage on her journey of commitment. Ruth White’s recent life profession lives in our memories and is a powerful reminder of our own professions and commitment.
All of us here have experienced a good number of Advents and there is in all of us, the very human tendency to feel and to think we have heard all these words many times before. So how can we enter into this season being open, prepared for the possibility of new growth in our inner lives, maybe new ways of looking at the familiar? In order to do this I have been gleaning various ideas, thoughts and signs.
In Father Philip Barnes article on Advent he writes: “To be watchful, is to have at the heart of you a dynamic hope; a framework that literally stretches you and makes you receptive to the God who has come in his Christ; who is come in the now of our faith and who will come in glory at the end of time.”
In the Order of St. Helena’s Newsletter I was struck by some words it started with: “The Front Runner: Advent advice to the wise: prepare yourself for change! The Gospel begins with the bold tone of the otherwise humble Baptist, (and in this issue we are telling our humble stories with a new bold tone)”.
Another snippet was David Jackson’s reading in the ancient Orthodox tradition, about the effect of the Incarnation and how John the Baptist was a forerunner who signalled a change to the heavenly order. “The incarnation was a New Creation which has transforming consequences for the whole created Cosmos, including the angels. Because of the incarnation, there has been an enrichment of the angelic nature through a new union and intimacy with human nature - as a result of this we should not regard them as detached messengers of the will of God for us but “friends on the way” embodying and sharing the messages of love they bring”.
In the Jeremiah reading we have God’s promise to his people Israel. “Behold the days are coming says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I have made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah”. God shows His commitment to us in the Incarnation, the birth of Emmanuel, God with us. Today’s Gospel points us to the Parousia, the Second coming, the time of which no one knows not even the son of Man. “Now when these things begin to to take place, look up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near ......the kingdom of God is near. “But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down in dissipation and drunkenness and the cares of this life....... “Watch at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place and stand before the Son of man”.
The Parousia, the Judgement event tends to be one we all fear, because no matter how hard we try we know we fail. We know at one level, we should be longing for the coming of the Lord, but there is that fearful element. Jesus tells us in the Gospels at various points that we should be awake and watchful for signs of this coming. When the scene of our life and our reading of Scripture are all so familiar, we are likely to be lulled into complacency and to miss the signs that are there.
We need to look out for those signs of God’s love and presence, because the reality is that we live in a post incarnation and resurrection faith. God is to come, but God is also with us, in a hidden way now. We have the presence of the risen Lord with us now. We wait upon the Lord in prayer. He is the God who enables us at times to see glimpses of his glory, who will open our eyes to the fullness of the Coming of the Lord in glory, the Parousia.
Reading through David’s old sermons on this theme, he notes that the word Parousia can just as easily be translated as ‘Presence’. So we await being able to see the fullness of the presence of the Lord in glory. “The God who lives, is continually finding new ways of revealing himself to us. Our part is to be awake, alive and open to God’s presence here and now. We need to be open to those moments of wonder, where there is taking and a lifting out of ourselves, a self giving in love, and an openness in us, to receiving God’s love.”
In this season of Advent one of the main figures is Mary. She who said, yes to God, who was prepared to take a huge risk, whose journey we trace from the Annunciation, through the Visitation to Bethlehem and the Nativity. An Icon of Mary, I have spent some time praying with is the one known as the Icon of the Virgin of the Sign. I tend to think of it as the pregnant Mary, God being present in a hidden way in Mary’s womb.
Interestingly, the new Convent at Crawley Down is dedicated to Our Lady of the Sign - the Sign being Emmanuel God with us. If you look at the icon you see Mary in prayer, united heart to heart with the prayer of her Son, who is blessing us all. The union in the Holy Spirit between Mary and her Son, provides us with a way of entering into the prayer of earth and heaven.
A praying woman, with head covered and arms raised in prayer was one of the early painting in the catacombs. It meant a lot to the Christians who knew its symbolism but looked harmless to those who were persecuting them. The woman praying with hands extended and head covered, stood for the whole believing community, the church, who was considered as Christ’s bride. When the roundel or medallion with the Christ child was added it depicts Christ praying in Mary. As Archbishop Rowan writes in his book on Icons of the Virgin: “The Church becomes a sign by the virtue of the action of Christ, of Christ praying within her.”
He ponders: “What if the life that fuels the Church through prayer is not the routine prayer of the worshipping community, not even the prayer of the religious orders, but moments of exposure and insight or of desperately needed openness to God on the part of very irregular Christians? He goes on to comment that if, that is a possible implication of taking the hiddenness of Christ in the Church as seriously as we can.... what might be the possible implications to those parts of our individual experience that seem least pious or ‘together’? Could it be that they might be the points where we most truly come to live in Christ? “Our instinct” he says “is almost always to expect God to work in us at the points where we sense we are on the right lines, not those areas of our life where we feel at sea, not understanding, not succeeding but it may well be that in our honest helplessness there we come closer to the real well of life than when we sense all is fairly well.”
I found echoes of that in the Maria Boulding prayer we are using at the Advent Meditation: “Thank you, Father, for your faithful love that has called me and borne with me all through this journey. I am constantly astonished that you don’t give up on me, and yet I know you won’t. It isn’t just that you put up with me Lord, as I disappoint you time after time; it’s much more positive than that. You make me understand that in some way the failures are part of your plan. You can contain failures. You use them for our growth, like good manure. You are not going to be baulked in your love.”
In our Epistle reading from Thessalonians, Paul talks of praying earnestly night and day that he may see them face to face and supply what is lacking in their faith. May the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all. That the Lord may establish your hearts in unblamable holiness before God at the coming of the Lord Jesus and all his saints. The Icon of the Virgin of the Sign reminds us of the need for us to pray for our world, one another and ourselves that we may be open to see glimpses of God’s presence in hidden and unexpected places and ways.
Here in this Eucharist and at this time of the renewal of our commitment, the One who is always with us comes to us afresh, wanting to nourish a new response of love within us. We pray that we may be open to receive God’s Spirit to enable us to enter into a new Communion of love and that in this Advent season we may, with God’s grace, deepen our awareness of and receptivity to those moments where our hidden God shows us glimpses of himself.
Sister Anita CSC