Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility; that on the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
UNLIKE the other great seasons of the Church’s year, Advent does not come with a gallery of distinctive images. The nativity scenes, Magi, and flight into Egypt of Christmas and Epiphany; the wilderness and instruments of the Passion of Lent and Passiontide; the encounters around the empty tomb at Easter; and the flames of Pentecost — all work to lodge the events commemorated in our imaginations.
Advent asks us to wrestle not just with events in time, but with time itself. This might be through contemplating the Four Last Things — death, judgement, heaven and hell — or through meditating on the forerunners of Jesus: the Patriarchs, the Prophets, John the Baptist, and Mary.
There is a way of displacing and domesticating the confrontation with time in its most solemn and challenging form in the charming and relatively recent tradition of the Advent calendar. The first printed example seems to have been produced by a German publishing house in 1908, and, since then, households have been delighted by the daily surprise of a new picture from Advent Sunday until Christmas Day, when a starlit manger completes the sequence.
It is unlikely that any illustrator would attempt to populate a calendar with depictions of Abraham, Moses, or John the Baptist. It is simply inconceivable that such things as the sudden removal of people in the midst of ordinary activities at the final judgement, as described by Matthew (24.40-41), would be thought edifying as family preparation for Christmas.
All this illustrates the difficulty of living counter-culturally which faces Christians at this time of year. They must plan their celebrations while trying to obey another voice that calls them to a different timetable and a different set of preparations.
One way to reconcile these diverging imperatives is to follow the advice that Paul offers to the Christians in Rome. Having urged them to be obedient to authority, to keep the law and pay their taxes, and to love their neighbours (Romans 13.1-10), he adds a layer of teaching that gives deeper meaning to these earlier instructions. The time of salvation is drawing closer, and the focus is no longer on earthly comforts or disputes, but on Jesus.
To be fit for that challenge, they must be equipped inwardly and outwardly. The “armour of light” (Romans 13.12) stands, of course, for virtuous behaviour, but the idea of taking off one set of clothing and adopting fresh garments is an unavoidable reminder of the new, Christ-like identity conferred in baptism (Craig C. Hill, “Romans” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, Oxford, 2001).
To adopt that identity is to share Christ’s death (Romans 6.3-11), and it resets the clock towards the day when those who have shared in that death will come to share in the resurrection that follows it.
Sunday’s collect, almost verbatim Cranmer’s new composition for Advent Sunday, beautifully balances the great themes that Paul introduces in a prayer to accompany the time of waiting. Darkness will give way to light; Christ’s humility in sharing our lives will be transformed when he comes in majesty; and our mortal life will be caught up in the life immortal.
The question that agonised the Church in its earliest life, and continues to press on the contemporary Church, is “How long?” “About that day and hour no one knows,” Matthew’s Jesus tells his followers. It might be manifested in terrible divisions, separating people closely united in daily activity (Matthew 24.36, 40-41).
All that can be done is to keep awake, and it is no small irony that even this seemingly straightforward injunction should prove too much, very soon after the words are spoken.
“So could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak,” Jesus says to the sleeping disciples keeping him company in Gethsemane (Matthew 26.40-41).
If there is any certainty, it is that the promise of salvation is not something to be selfishly and acquisitively grasped; for God’s vision is greater and more generous than that. The hymnographer G. W. Briggs captures Isaiah’s hope for Jerusalem as the place where all nations will eventually gather in peace, in the second verse of his Advent hymn “Christ is the world’s true light” (cf. Isaiah 2.1-4):
In Christ all races meet,
Their ancient feuds forgetting,
The whole round world complete,
From sunrise to its setting:
When Christ is throned as Lord,
Men shall forsake their fear,
To ploughshare bear the sword,
To pruning-hook the spear.