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Ordinary Time 2017

27 November 2016
Advent - on cherishing

There were some silly arguments over the season of Advent on everyone's favorite social networking site over the past few days.

Whether the Great Litany is appropriate (it is), what colors are appropriate for the Advent Wreath (purple? blue? a pink candle too?), which direction one should light the Advent Wreath (clockwise?), what kinds of gummi candies to include in one's traditional Advent Jello Salad, etc.

Let's not argue about Advent – what it is, what it isn't – let's cherish it.

Let's cherish that the first day of the church's year begins with the prayer:

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the 
works of darkness, and put upon us the armor 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 and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through 
him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, 
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Let's relish those dual actions, the casting away of "the works of darkness", the putting upon ourselves "the armor of light".

Let's let Diana Butler Bass have her blue candles.

Advent should not be a mini-Lent; it is not a time to examine sins, engage in self-denial, and confession. It is not about penance. Rather, Advent is of a different spiritual hue: It is a time of waiting, of expectation, of hope in the darkness. The blue candles symbolize the color of the sky right before dawn, that time when the deepest dark is just infused with hints of light.

But let us not be too quick to deny the penitential aspects of the Lent of St. Martin let's also celebrate with rich, dark purple candles if we want to.

Let's think carefully about acknowledging our sins in this season, and at Christmas too.

By acknowledging our own incompleteness and the inadequacy of our own efforts and even our best intentions, we make ready a place for God within us. If we listen to the hymns we sing in Advent, we know this to be the real task set before us:

Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
Make straight the way for God within;
And let each heart prepare a home
Where such a mighty guest may come.

The great hymn text prefigures and prepares us for the prayer that we sing at Christmas:

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.

It is prideful of us to think, because we heard about John the Baptist for two Sundays in Advent, that we have adequately made ready that home within us. If all it took were two Sundays, wouldn’t everything be just hunky-dory? Only the most daft among us, looking within himself and around at his immediate community and the wider world, could imagine that a couple of Sundays of introspection are all that we need to be cured of our various delusions, our thoughtlessness, and our self-absorption.

"Confession and Grace". Sed Angli. 1 January 2015.

Whatever your perspective on the minutiae of Advent, let's remember to cherish the season. I think it's possible for me to love this time of the Church's year, to recommit myself to prayer and worship, and not feel like I need to convince everyone else to do it the way I prefer.

There's something peculiar about the intensity of opinion that people hold for this season.

Maybe it's the sticky-icky residue of our intensity of sentimental feeling around Christmas itself, and it's wrapped up with all that secular/sacred baggage.

But I sort of suspect not. I suspect that it's a short (only four Sundays' worth) season overflowing with rich imagery, tradition, and meaning.

There's so much to cram in to Advent! Twenty-four hymns in the Hymnal 1982. In many years Advent is only about 24 days long. That's about a hymn a day! And don't forget the O Antiphons, too!

But there's more.

Consider, as I heard in a sermon recently, the two arcs of the liturgical year.

The first follows the life of Christ, from Advent to Easter and Ascension. It goes "beyond" the life of Christ, as it must, with Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday.

The second arc, which grows out of Trinity Sunday (or Pentecost, if you must, but remember that Trinity Sunday is one of the seven principal feast days of the Episcopal Church), is all about the life of the Church.

And the meeting place between the two? Advent.

Read forward, Advent foretells the birth of Christ that we celebrate at Christmas.

But read backward, Advent heralds the second coming of Christ the King for which the Church awaits.

This is the audacity of the Advent Sunday alarm clock for the Church! Wake up! Keep watch!

Finally, the weekly letter from Anglicans Online seems to have put this much better than I have.

Thankfully, the problem contains its own solution. The church communities arguing about the meaning and practice of Advent are trying in a feeble, feeble way to begin to declare the coming of the Lord to Standing Rock and Aleppo, Flint and Lampedusa. We're just not always very good at it.

Advent in whatever colour and whatever register is our annual reorientation to the Crib: to the weak, the cold, the margin, the poor, the exile, the pregnant woman, the perplexed father, the traveling strangers possessed of uncommon wisdom, the angels singing in the dark and silent sky. Advent invites us to remember our own first weakness and reliance on the strength of parents, the welcome of our families when we were infants, the provision in our social circles for a stable arrival of a child. In the awareness of these things, it invites us to extend them in the name of the Christchild to others on his behalf.

It is good for us to argue about what Advent means and how to keep it. It means our hearts are in the best place they can be, if we order them aright: attentive, caring, waiting, watching, thinking, hoping, open, gentle, strong. Whatever the colour we see each week in church, we pray our minds will be true to the invitations of the season and its successors.

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