Thought for the week - 27 November
"Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."
Today we begin the Church's new year with this solemn season of Advent. Advent is a solemn season, a serious season, a penitential season. Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter. So we have purple vestments and altar frontal. In some churches there are no flowers in Advent, just as there are none in Lent. The hymns reflect the season, with their serious tone, and that wonderful hymn of praise, "Gloria in excelsis Deo" will not now be sung until the first mass of Christmas on Christmas Eve. This four-week season of Advent is a period of sorrow and repentance.
Advent is a period of sorrow and repentance, because traditionally it is a time when we think on the four last things: of death, judgement, heaven and hell. The note of judgement inevitably rings through, because in Advent we look not just to the first coming of Christ at Christmas, but also to the second coming of Christ in judgement, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed. "We believe that thou shalt come; to be our judge." as the Te Deum puts it. "We therefore pray thee, help thy servants whom thou has redeemed by thy precious blood. Make them to be numbered with thy saints in glory everlasting."
Judge and judgement are ominous words, words that strike a chill in our hearts and minds. The powerful imagery of today's gospel reading serves only to reinforce the terror: Yes, indeed Advent is quite rightly a solemn season of sorrow and repentance as we look to the coming judgement.
This judgement is also graphically portrayed in the next chapter of St. Matthew's gospel. There the judgement is likened to a shepherd separating his sheep from the goats. Those who have cared for those in need will have God's blessing and will enter into the kingdom prepared for them from the beginning of the world. Those who have neglected the care of the poor and needy will enter into eternal punishment. Such is the serious import of the last judgement as portrayed in that parable.
As we think in Advent of the coming judgement, so we have every need of penitence and sorrow for our sins. This is the Advent theme - the theme of judgement. But it is by no means the dominant theme. The dominant theme of Advent is rather one of joy. We rejoice because our deliverance, our salvation is near. "How lovely on the mountains are the feet of the herald who comes to proclaim prosperity and bring good news, the news of deliverance, calling to Zion, 'Your God is King.'" 'Your God is King!' And that king is Christ.
Through our sorrow at our sins, and our recognition of our sinfulness, the message of hope and joy comes breaking through. Though "men faint with terror at the
thought of all that is coming upon the world," there is cause for joy, because the coming of the Son of Man means our salvation has dawned.
We can stand upright and hold our heads on high, because for us the coming judgement holds no terror. "For God has not destined us to the terrors of judgement, but to the full attainment salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that we, awake or asleep, might live in company with him. Therefore hearten one another, fortify one another - as indeed you do, " as St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians.
We can stand with confidence holding our heads on high, because we know who the coming judge is. In Advent we have, as it were, two expectations. In Advent we look to the first coming of the Lord Jesus, born in humble surroundings in the stable in Bethlehem; crucified on the hill of calvary; risen, ascended and glorified. We have,
as it were, been let into the secret of the judgement. We know the identity of the Judge. The One, who is to come, is none other than the Jesus the celebration of whose birth at Christmas we now look forward to. "
But we must prepare ourselves to meet him, for we never know when he will come or when we will be called to meet him. "Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." This season of Advent is a solemn reminder to us that each and every day we must be prepared to meet the One who is to come in judgement. The strangest thing, and yet the most reassuring thing is that we already prepare to meet Jesus by meeting him from day to day, week to week.
The one whose birth we celebrate at Christmas; the one whose second coming we look for, is none other than the one in whose name we were baptized, as we will be reminded in a few moments. The one whose birth we celebrate at Christmas; the one whose second coming we look for, is none other than the one in whose name all our daily prayers are offered, even Jesus Christ our Lord. The one whose birth we celebrate at Christmas; the one whom we prepare to meet, is none other than the one whom we encounter as, day by day, we read our Bible.
The one whose birth we celebrate at Christmas; the one whom we prepare to meet, is none other than the one whom we already meet week by week in this Eucharist.
This is why we shall be able to stand with confidence before the one who comes to judge the world. For through our baptism and our Eucharist, we are already united in him, who died for our sins that we might be given the fulness of life eternal. Amen.