The pre-Advent season arrives

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Having heard that the liturgical powers-that-be were considering the wisdom of extending Advent back into the weeks following All Saints Day, and being very much in favor of this move, I was a bit disappointed to hear that the pre-Advent Sundays are to be  called “Kingdom Season.” Does this sound a bit trite and pop-cultural to anyone besides me? It doesn’t have the right ring to it. Even “the season of the Kingdom” would be better; but that still doesn’t get at the unique trajectory of those nine weeks.

Many lovers of Advent have long been advocating the extension of the season, but with a rather more gutsy and apocalyptic tonality. After All Saints, the lectionary (on most Sundays in most of the three cycles, though not quite all) takes a turn toward judgment and the Last Things. The chief personage of Advent is the apocalyptic prophet par excellence, John the Baptist. Advent, properly understood, is the season of the Second Coming. That will mean the definitive arrival of the Kingdom in its plenitude and permanence, but it will also mean the conclusive and final rejection of all evil. We can’t speak of the Kingdom without being conscious of the forces that war against God and all his purposes. That’s what the Synoptic Apocalypse is about (Matt. 24, Mark 13, Luke 21), and it is always read on the next-to-last Sunday before Advent (leaving many preachers feeling queasy about what to say, as I can testify from my travels). The very last Sunday before Advent is Christ the King Sunday, which proclaims the sovereignty of God over all the demonic Powers that strive both among us and in us to conquer his Kingdom. For those who will grasp the opportunity, it’s the best season of the year for preaching. There is something extremely bracing about looking evil and death straight in the eye and announcing the certainty of God’s judgment upon all that is at work to destroy his creation.

If anyone doubts that Advent is and has always been the season of the second, not the first, coming of Christ, she might take a look at the Episcopal hymnal. There are 23 hymns in the Advent section, and all but two are focused unequivocally on the Second Coming, not the birth of the baby in Bethlehem. “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” originally in Latin, dates from the 9th century. Probably the greatest of all is Wesley’s “Lo, he comes with clouds descending,” which is typically sung on Advent I. The Episcopal hymnal really is a treasure beyond compare and is a major reason why I could never leave the Episcopal church.
(Rumor has it that there is to be a newer hymnal, however, which bodes ill.)

In the Middle Ages (and we do love the Middle Ages, do we not? or is it our romantic idea of the Middle Ages that we love…?), Advent was the season of the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell, on the four Sundays, in that order.  Once, during Advent at Grace Church in New York, we preached on the Four Last Things, in that order. It was very exciting. It was like confronting Satan in his own domain with the more powerful Word of God (“the Prince of Darkness grim,/ we tremble not for him;/ his rage we can endure,/ for lo! his doom is sure:? one little Word shall fell him”–Martin Luther, Ein’ Feste Burg).

Advent always seems to begin in the dark…the darkness of a world determined to make a mess of everything, no good deed going unpunished, another Cold War (or will it be a Hot and therefore terminal war?) seeming to loom, the Middle East in tatters, China with its new religion of consumption rising and rising, the American government at a low point…the cry that goes up during the pre-Advent and Advent seasons is Revelation 22:20, Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus. “We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge,” as the Te Deum puts it; properly understood, this is the best news ever heard. To know that the world will be judged by the One who is the fountain of all justice and mercy is to be delivered from the grip of the worst that can happen and into the embrace of “Love Divine, all loves excelling.” That is the true freedom that gives courage for the long haul.

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