Advents Past, Present, and Future

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

One of the symptoms of Covid-19 — for some, at least — is loss of the senses of taste and smell.  One of the symptoms of being caught up in this age of plague — for most everyone, including myself — is loss of the sense of time.  I wake in the morning with no awareness of which day of the week it is, much less which day of the month.  I have to look at my watch or at a calendar to orient myself in time.  I’m not certain why this “symptom” is so widespread.  Perhaps it is the near universal disruption of normal routines.  Perhaps it is that every newscast, every newspaper has had essentially the same news day after day for nine months, like a pregnancy that never develops and never ends.  What we need is a “birth,” an occasion to mark time, to let us know when, in the scheme of things, we are.

Frankly, that’s one reason I’m so glad to see Advent come, that and the simple fact that our purple paraments and vestments are so lovely, much more attractive than the green ones which have adorned the first months of worship in time of pandemic.  Yes, it’s time for a change of color and story and spirit.  It is time, and past time, to re-orient ourselves in the liturgical seasons, to reclaim a sense of time.  Goodbye ordinary time — or whatever your parish calls it — and hello Advent.

But, honestly speaking, Advent is a confusing season for such temporal re-orientation.  Perhaps confusing isn’t quite the right word; it’s more complex than confusing, because Advent orients us in three different times simultaneously.  It calls us to stand in the Present and look to the Past — the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth — while also looking to the Future when Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Righteous, will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Past, present, and future collide in Advent.  Or, perhaps we can say that past, present, and future are held in tension in Advent.  And we are called to live in that tension.

The collect of the day, the Collect for the First Sunday in Advent and the week following, captures this tension of Advents past, present, and future perfectly:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your 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 living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

You see it, right, the trinity of times?

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life:  PRESENT MOMENT

…in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility:  PAST (INCARNATION)

…that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead:  FUTURE (JUDGMENT)

Advent calls us to live in this moment with an eye toward both the past and the future:  with grateful hearts for the past incarnation of our Lord, and with watchful spirits for his future return as judge.  Advent calls us, in this moment, because of both past and future, to “cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.”  Advent calls us to live in the reality of the incarnation as we move toward the promised appearance of the Judge, so that, in that day, we may rise to the life immortal.

And this brings us to the question famously posed by Francis Schaefer:  How then should we live — in Advent, certainly, but also in every season?

Sirach 21:1–2 (RSVCE): 1 Have you sinned, my son? Do so no more, 
but pray about your former sins.
2 Flee from sin as from a snake;
for if you approach sin, it will bite you.
It’s teeth are lion’s teeth,
and destroys the souls of men.

So answers Jesus, the Son of Sirach, in our first reading.  His wisdom is a call to penance.  To live in Advent is to embrace penance, hence the special emphasis in some parishes on this sacrament in this season.  Penance includes examen, an introspection that searches the deep and often hidden places of our hearts for traces of sin.  This is not self-introspection only; rather, it is the searching light of God’s Spirit:

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;*

try me and examine my thoughts.

24 Look well if there be any way of wickedness in me,*

and lead me in the way everlasting (Ps 139: 23-24, BCP 2019).

Who dares issue such an invitation, knowing full well that:

the heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil (St. Macarius).

It is only in light of the incarnation that we dare issue such an invitation; for, in the incarnation Jesus assumed our humanity — for love of us — and knows full well our human weakness:

Hebrews 4:14–16 (ESV): 14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. 

It is only with confidence in the incarnation that we may issue the invitation:  Search me, O God, and know my heart.

But penance is about more than just introspection; it includes repentance and confession, as well.  Pray about your former sins, Sirach instructs us.  And what would such prayer be if not repentance and confession?  Confess your sins to God — and perhaps to a faithful priest — with “humble and obedient hearts that we may obtain forgiveness by his infinite goodness and mercy” (BCP 2019, pp. 11-12), knowing this:

1 John 1:8–9 (ESV): 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 

And this, too, depends on the incarnation, on the death of Jesus in the flesh:

1 Peter 3:18 (ESV): 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.

Jesus died for us in the flesh.  And what does incarnation mean but in the flesh?  Our forgiveness depends fully on the incarnation of Jesus.

Introspection, repentance, confession:  there is more yet.  Penance — true penance — requires amendment of life, a commitment to change, God being our helper.  Again from Sirach:

Sirach 21:1–2 (RSVCE): 1 Have you sinned, my son? Do so no more

but pray about your former sins. 

Flee from sin as from a snake

for if you approach sin, it will bite you. 

Its teeth are lion’s teeth, 

and destroy the souls of men (emphasis added). 

This heartens back to God’s admonition to Cain, even as Cain plotted the murder of his brother:

Genesis 4:5–7 (ESV):  6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” 

Sin is a power that seeks to conquer and destroy the children of God.  Do not continue in it.  Flee from it.  Rule over it, by the grace and power of God.

And again, the incarnation is instrumental.  The simple fact is this:  without the incarnation, I am a slave to sin; I am dead in sin; I am wholly unable to help myself.  It is only the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ — the incarnation writ large and full — that frees me from the power of sin, offers me new life, and empowers me to resist sin.

And so it is that Sirach offers us a good Advent word:

Sirach 21:1–2 (RSVCE): 1 Have you sinned, my son? Do so no more, 
but pray about your former sins.
2 Flee from sin as from a snake;
for if you approach sin, it will bite you.
It’s teeth are lion’s teeth,
and destroys the souls of men.

I am glad for the re-orientation in time that Advent gives us, even if it is a bit complex. From beginning to end, Advent depends upon the incarnation as it looks forward to the judgment:  past, present, and future, all held in tension.  May yours be a holy and blessed Advent.  Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN.
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