Advent and Christmas 2017
Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding;
“Christ is nigh,” it seems to say;
“Cast away the works of darkness,
O ye children of the day.”
This opening stanza of Hymn 9 of the 1940 Hymnal is from Edward Caswall’s translation of a Latin hymn of the sixth century. There are many voices in today’s Western society which vie for the Christian’s attention. There are many calls, many pressures, in the busy life of the average working American. There are so many, in fact, that Christians often find it hard to hear the voice of God calling to them. Even in earlier ages, it would be necessary to say, “Hark!” or “Listen!” It is as if a parent were taking a child for a walk in the countryside, or in a nature reserve, and should hear the call of a particular bird, say a red-tailed hawk, and should exclaim, “Listen! Did you hear that sound? It was a red-tailed hawk!”
But this is no ordinary bird-call, but the call of God to hear and pay attention to the messengers of the Lord Jesus Christ warning us that Christ is near, and that we must throw away the works of darkness, since we are children of the day. Yet the warning is also a joyful announcement to God’s people, it is a thrilling voice! It pierces the air like a hawk’s call, ringing with authority. The message is that Christ will soon come again. He is near, and because of this, Christians, who are “children of the day” because Christ has forgiven their sins and raised them to new life in him, must throw away, or discard all the works of darkness. This reminds me of a passage in the book of the prophet Isaiah:
In that day a man shall cast his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which they made each one for himself to worship, to the moles and the bats; To go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the tops of the ragged rocks, for fear of the LORD, and for the glory of his majesty, when he ariseth to shake terribly the earth.
(Isaiah 2:20-21, KJV)
In the presence of the coming King, all these idols, and all these works of darkness, will be like hateful things, trash to be thrown out and forgotten. Instead, we must be overjoyed at meeting with our King, our Lord and Savior! For the voice that warns is also the voice that thrills our heart, for we know that what he tells us to do is for our good. In keeping with this, St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans urges Christians to “cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light” (Romans 13:12, KJV), since the night is almost over and the day is near. If we complain that thousands of years have passed and Christ has not yet come again, we miss the point, which is not the length of time that has passed, but the urgency of using the time that remains to us to live in joyful expectation of Christ’s second coming and in doing those deeds of righteousness and acts of mercy and loving-kindness we long to be found engaged in doing at the moment of Christ’s coming. How will Christ find us when He comes again? It is right that this question should occupy our minds and that we should reflect deeply on it. Some believers think they can stubbornly persist in their sins until Christ comes again, because at His coming they will be transformed instantly to a state of perfection, or instantaneously sanctified. While we should not doubt the truth of the joyful reality of sanctification, this doctrine is intended to bring joy and peace to all who cooperate with the Holy Spirit in seeking the presence of God in their lives and drawing closer to Him in spirit.
Even now, then, no matter how far off we imagine Christ’s second coming to be, we must not be found wanting in the virtues God commands us to practice in our lives, but embrace them all the more, and clothe ourselves with them, just as we have clothed ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ by having been baptized into union with Him in Holy Baptism, and as we promised, at Confirmation, to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It is this purpose that St. Paul had in mind in blessing the Thessalonian Christians in this way:
And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it.
(1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, KJV)
Blamelessness in God’s sight is the prize that Christians trust and hope in the Lord that he will give them, when He comes again, but we must turn our hearts to hear the voice of God’s messengers calling to us in His word, speaking to us in those around us, and relayed by fellow-Christians. Our ears must be tuned to hear the Lord, to catch the sound of His voice, to understand the meaning of His message, and to obey His call to righteousness in our lives. The Lord Jesus Christ himself said, “Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it” (Luke 11:28), and declared that those who hear and do the word of God are his mother and his brethren (Luke 8:21). Those that not only hear, but also obey the word of God, stand close to the Lord Jesus, and are walking with him in their daily lives. It is this intimate relationship and communion with the Lord Jesus Christ that must characterize the Christian life.
It is here that the close connection between Advent and Christmas becomes apparent. Christmas as the celebration of our Lord and Savior’s birth is itself a mighty event, but because of the cultural and religious distance of the present world from the reality and saving power of the Lord Jesus Christ’s birth and life on this earth, the Second Advent of Christ to harvest the faithful and to judge the world must necessarily precede Christmastide. The infant Jesus is no longer an infant, but the King of kings and Lord of lords, who will come again to judge the living and the dead. Unlike the commercial world, we do not think of the celebration of Christ’s birth as a means of great material profit year by year, for preceding Christmas is Advent, which trumpets the truth that everyone must prepare to meet their God, their coming King, and in the face of this great event, material things such as the profits of wealth melt away.
Though the beautiful nativity narratives of the Gospels according to St. Matthew and St. Luke feature prominently in Christmas services, pageants and plays, the prologue of the Gospel according to St. John describes the enormous significance of Christ’s birth in terms of the eternal Word of God who became flesh in this world, in order to bring into the world the true light of life. It escapes our comprehension that God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). We cannot comprehend even how God became man, except from what Holy Scripture tells us, that the Blessed Virgin Mary conceived Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:35). The birth of Jesus has transformed the lives of many and still does, and will continue to do so in the future, since He has brought to mankind the means of salvation in himself. By turning away from his sin and believing in the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, anyone can be born again and receive forgiveness from God and the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-8; Acts 2:38). It does not depend on whether we can pay a high rent, or whether we have a nice car, or whether we are young or old, or on any possible condition for success in this material life on earth. It depends on the grace of God from the beginning, and the obedience of our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Having progressed from hearing the word of God to obeying it more and more, in the hope that by “daily increasing in the Holy Spirit more and more,” we may “come unto God’s everlasting kingdom” (Bishop’s prayer for candidate at Confirmation, p. 297, Book of Common Prayer, 1928), we must share the Gospel as effectively as we can this Christmas and always, since many might not hear such a Gospel except this Christmas.