“Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.”
Growing up, my family’s church calendar included precisely two dates: Christmas and Easter. Let me be clear: we were distinctly not two-Sundays-a-year Christians. The love of Jesus constituted the beating heart of our family. My day-to-day life was drenched in Scripture. My love for Jesus and for the Bible came from them. But as a nondenominational evangelical, I did not even know such a thing as a church calendar existed. By the time Sean introduced me to the Anglican Church, I was relatively more aware of the church calendar. I knew Advent as a season of joyful anticipation: pre-Christmas, if you will. So you can perhaps understand my confusion and surprise when I started to pay attention to the collects and appointed readings for the season of Advent. They are fierce, even fearsome! And some of my Roman and Anglo-Catholic friends referred to Advent as a penitential season akin to Lent, which left me utterly mystified. So what is Advent, exactly? Is it the same as Lent? Is it Pseudo-Lent? Is it pre-Christmas? That’s a question I have been asking each Advent in recent years. This sermon functions as my provisional attempt to begin to work out some of those questions, guided by our collect, epistle, and gospel.
Let’s begin with the obvious. The word Advent means appearance, emergence, a coming onto the scene of something new. In that sense it is related to the words “revelation” or “apocalypse.” So both by the word’s etymology and the season’s placement in the church calendar, Advent is a time of beginning and anticipation. It is a reminder too of where we are—individually, historically, and cosmologically. We are living, as one commenter puts it, “on the edge of the Age to Come” (Barrett). We live in the “the now and the not yet.” Advent calls us, yes, to repent—but not quite like Lent. Lent looks forward in penitence to Good Friday before seeing Easter beyond it. Advent points us towards the wonder of Christ’s First Advent on Christmas and also towards his yet-to-be-realized Second Advent—that fearful and supremely joyful day when he returns to bring justice, healing, and renewal to his defaced and disfigured creation. Advent calls us to renew our devotion and restore our hope. It calls us to re-conversion and to deeper conversion.
Let’s return to the epistle:
“Love is the fulfilling of the law. And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.”
Note also that in today’s epistle, St. Paul urges the Roman Christians to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (13:14). This is odd, given that he previously told the Galatian Christians that “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (3:27). To the Galatians he described “putting on Christ” as something that happened in the past related to baptism; yet to the Romans, putting on Christ is something still to be done. This is all the more remarkable given that he is chastising the Galatians for near apostasy, whereas he asserts that the faithfulness of the Romans is proclaimed throughout the whole world! Nor should we conclude that St. Paul changed his mind between epistles, because he also tells the Galatians that he is “in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (4:19)—as though it has not happened yet.
This can seem mighty confusing. Does St. Paul think that putting on Christ is something we have done simply by becoming Christians—or is it something we have not done and may not necessarily do, and so he has to exhort us to greater effort?
I think this potential confusion can be put to rest by more thoughtfully approaching the question of conversion. In reading about early Christian developments related to baptismal practice and theology recently, I was struck by the assumption of some contemporary authors that conversion is a discrete, singular event. And if conversion is a one-time event, it must therefore be located specifically in time. So the underlying question of these authors seems to be, “Did early Christians see conversion as happening before, through, or after baptism?” In other words, did early Christian baptism constitute a ritualistic expression of a previously occurring conversion? Or was baptism itself the moment and means of conversion? Or, as one commenter somewhat cynically put it, did the baptismal ritual function as “the means of conveying a profound experience to the candidates in the hope of bringing about their conversion” (Bradshaw, Early Christian Worship, 22)?
The Church’s answer, I would maintain, is yes to all questions. Adults who come to be baptized in the Church clearly do so in response to some kind of prior conversion experience or process. But baptism itself is a sacrament, as Fr. Glenn has been explaining at Agape on Wednesdays. It conveys real grace that transforms us ontologically. Further, the baptismal experience—our own, but also the witnessing of and communally joining together in the baptism of our children, godchildren, and fellow Christians—calls us to “ever deepening conversions,” as Fr. Glenn so aptly describes the Christian life. Every time you cross yourself with holy water when you enter or exit a Church you remind yourself—perhaps unconsciously—of your baptism when, to turn to the baptismal imagery and language of the New Testament, you were enlightened, reborn, forgiven, united with Jesus, sealed as God’s own child, transferred from bondage in sin to Christ, clothed in a new garment, and anointed. And those reminders in turn call you to re-convert yourself, to turn again to Christ, and to root yourself more deeply in Him so that you—as a member of the body of Christ, the Church—can more fully and truly become the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.
Our conversion from the world to Jesus was an event that happened through baptism, but it is also an ongoing process—one that might have preceded baptism, for some of you. That is why St. Paul can speak of putting on Christ as both a future act and a past event. As Christians, we have put on Christ in baptism—a sacrament that effected real change, in our very being! Yet still we must put Christ on.
This, as I said, reflects not only the individual status of each Christian—truly freed from and yet still affected by sin—but also the entire cosmos. Jesus Christ defeated death on the cross and in the tomb, and yet death so visibly still reigns here in this vale of tears. Christ was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary some two thousand years ago. But when we sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” it is to his Second Advent that we look and not his First.
Today’s gospel offers us a foreshadowing, a sign and type of that Second Advent. St. Matthew tells us that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a “colt the foal of an ass”—the humblest of beasts carrying the Highest of Kings. Our Lord then proceeded to the temple, where he cast out those who had turned the house of prayer into a den of thieves. Christ’s destiny on that Palm Sunday was to die on a cross.
The apocalyptic vision of St. John tells us of the heavenly reality behind and the final consummation of this humble image of our Lord on a donkey:
“And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns… And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God… And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” -Revelation 19:11-16
At his First Advent, Jesus cleansed the temple. At his Second, he will cleanse the cosmos.
So what is it that we are called to do here in the season of Advent? We are to awaken and re-awaken ourselves as the day draws nigh, to reinvigorate ourselves in our dedication to love God and each other and thusly to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. This knowledge of Jesus’ Second Advent is, for us, fearsome but not fearful, full of awe but not terror. For we know that we have put on Christ in baptism, even as we also know that we are called to put him on more fully, to “not grow weary of doing good” (Galatians 6:9) but instead to “walk honestly as in the day”…
“…knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.”