Now it is high time to awake out of sleep!
Happy New Year to you all! Today we begin the new Christian year with Advent, a season full of hope and expectation.
Advent is a time (1) to look back on Christ’s first coming into the world as we prepare for Christmas (2) to look to the completion of his work when he will come again in glory at the end of time, and (3) it is about Christ’s present coming to our souls to prepare us for that glory.
St Paul sets the tone this morning (Romans 13:8-14) for the season by reminding us what the whole of the Christian life is about – Owe no one anything, except to love one another.
At first, an obvious statement, and something that most people around the world, whether Christian or non-Christian, would gather around in agreement. But what is it to love? For those who follow Jesus it has a very particular content.
During this season, we begin each service with the Ten Commandments, an opening up of the two great Commandments, that we normally hear, that we love God and love our neighbours as ourselves.
And St Paul quotes this morning the latter commandments of the Law which open out what it is to love our neighbour as ourselves – The Commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet”, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbour, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
It’s all about Love.
But each one of these 4 commandments opens out in turn to have content – what is it to murder, is it wrong to kill someone out of self defence? Are there righteous wars we can participate in? Is euthanasia OK? Lots of questions open up before us with each of these commandments as we seek to apply them in the modern world.
And Jesus says that not only outward actions matter but also the thoughts of our hearts, our innermost motivations must also be taken into account to see if we are fulfilling this law of love. Jewish and Christian moral theologians through the ages have sought to understand how the Law of love directs us.
Some things St Paul mentions are obvious to us – orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality, sensuality, quarrelling and jealousy. Some are not so obvious, but we can trust the Spirit of God to reveal what is and what is not love through our reading of the whole of the Word of God (and being open to what has been said through its interpretation in the Tradition), through a close attending to our consciences (though this can never be the sole guide as sin impairs our conscience), and through conversations with other Christians if we are unsure.
Last Friday I was at the Boijman van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam to see the exhibit: Uncovering Everyday life from Bosch to Brugel. There is a stunning Haywain triptych by Bosch (normally in Madrid), something that was never on display in a church – at first very beautiful, but then as one looks at it more, something very disturbing. (click on the image for a higher resolution)
On the left panel, is the creation and fall and expulsion of man from the garden – in the right panel, those being dragged to hell – and in the central, something one doesn’t expect. In the centre panel, above, is Christ in the clouds overseeing all, in the centre a man and woman on a huge haystack on a wagon, the man with a mandolin, the woman with music before her, presumably singing – it is a romance. And there is an angel on one side of them (the only figure looking to Christ in the whole painting) and a devil on the other side. And we wonder who will win out? There are countless people coming towards the haystack, kings, rulers and everyone else, below are all the ways of love perverted–the deadly sins on display, and on the other side people pulling the hay cart, the whole procession moving towards hell. It seems very few if any will get it right – it is a strong warning! In this life we make our decisions.
But I wonder if it is highlighting that getting it right starts with those closest to us, the couple in the centre – that we have an ideal view of love, as we should, and it starts there – if we can’t love our closest neighbour, what point is there in all the rest that we do in our lives?
We can worry about the state of the whole world – and we cannot help but worry about it with all that we hear in the news – but if we cannot love our spouse or our closest friends, how can we expect to love those who are beyond these? in our families, in our work, in the wider society? And even closer than our closest neighbour, what about loving our own soul as God loves us?
We all know that there is work to do, or rather that much grace needed, in our heart and in these most intimate relations.
And so we continue here in the Church, Sunday by Sunday, for one more year, seeking forgiveness, seeking grace, that our hearts may be enlarged, that our minds may see more clearly the truth, and that our lives might conform more closely to Love’s…high…call.
In the Epistle, St Paul speaks of a kind of urgency in this: The night is far gone, the day is at hand – We don’t know when our Lord will suddenly return – So then let us cast off the works of darkness – now! – and put on the armor of light – now! …Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Are we heeding this call? How can we heed it better?
The answer, of course, is in the Gospel.
The Gospel (St Matthew 21:1-13) describes the arrival of Jesus into the heart of the holy city Jerusalem. He is proclaimed as The Prophet that people had longed for. He comes riding humbly on a donkey, like King David did 1000 years before, fulfilling the prophesies that the Messiah is also to be King. And he goes immediately, not to the place from where Pontius Pilate rules, but to the heart of the city, to the Temple, to restore proper worship. In this very short passage, like last Sunday’s readings, Jesus being shown as our Prophet, Priest and King.
And Jesus’ first coming fulfills the prophesy of Micah (4:1-7) that “out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” It is Christians who, ever since that moment, have brought and are bringing the Law, and the news of the Word made flesh, to the ends of the world. (there are a few places left!)
But as we start this new year, we return to where the attention must first be paid, that is, to our own hearts.
Jesus went straightway to the heart of the city to cast out all those who sold and bought in the Temple. Likewise, the restoring of right worship in our hearts, begins with the cleansing of our hearts through the arrival of Jesus Christ.
And Jesus’ purpose in coming to us, if we allow Him to indwell us by His Spirit, is to restore ongoing and right prayer. Now, we receive grace from above, and we often turn it to some other purpose – we become robbers. But right prayer, not just in the formal sense of saying the right words in a liturgy or elsewhere, but right prayer in our hearts, in the sense of the right directing of all our hearts desires – that is what it is to truly love our neighbour, that is to love like God, that is to show our love for Him, that is right prayer.
In our worship at 11am we use incense today. For some it may be unfamiliar, even strange. But I think we also understand something of its significance intuitively, something of the imagery, even without ever having been told.
But I will say a few words about it. Incense was very much a part of Temple worship in Jerusalem. Our Lord was given incense as a gift from the wise men, to symbolize His priesthood. And is has been very much a part of Christian worship through the ages in some traditions.
When incense burns it goes up and it gives a pleasant odour – it is described in John’s vision in Revelation as the righteous prayers of the saints ascending (see Rev 5:8; 8:4). In our worship, the incense is blessed in the name of Christ, and then directed to the cleansing of the visible altar in this church first. Then at the offertory, it is directed towards the elements of bread and wine that have been put on the altar before they are consecrated and also towards every person in this church, as a kind of sign that we must prepare for the arrival of Christ Himself in the altar that is our heart by cleansing.
We see outwardly this action, and it is useless if we simply trust in the sign itself and not what it signifies. The incense is a sign of our prayers of repentance and faith going up beforehand in preparation for Christ to come. And after our preparation, we come forward with longing and eager expectation that Jesus will enter our hearts as we receive by faith His Body and Blood given for us.
The images themselves teach. The cleansing of this temple outwardly, a sign of the cleansing of the temple that is our soul inwardly through repentance and faith. The movement into the sanctuary to receive Christ outwardly, accompanied by a movement within our hearts to the place where Jesus speaks to us inwardly – and He will speak: words of judgement, yes, as he did when he arrived in the Temple in Jerusalem, but not of condemnation, and also, words of comfort, of assurance, words of love.
How better for us to celebrate the New Year? how else to put off the works of the flesh and to put on the Lord Jesus Christ than in the Holy Communion? How else do we come to that state of soul where we owe no one anything, except to love one another, and so fulfill the Law of Love? how else but through our union with the Lord Jesus Christ.