If we know someone is coming, we wait for them. After a while, waiting becomes longing. Now, as we approach the darkest day of the year, we long for the return of light. Now, as we see that “darkness covers the land and deep gloom enshrouds the peoples” (as Isaiah put it), we long for the return of light.
We’ve been celebrating the return of light for thousands of years. Nearly every culture has ways of celebrating the Winter Solstice, the day when the hours of sunlight, having become less and less, begin to increase again.
“Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night…” [BCP p. 70] For most of human existence the “perils and dangers” of the night have not been metaphorical or poetic or emotional. The night, the darkness, was a time of actual physical danger—danger from predatory animals, danger from unseen enemies, danger from simply not being able to see things. Darkness could mean death, actual loss of life. And, so, light has become the giver of life. In celebrating light, we celebrate life.
The Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35: 1-10
Psalm 146: 4-9
James 5: 7-10
Matthew 11: 2-11
Several years ago one of my favourite newspaper columnists[i] wrote about how she loved going to Church on Christmas Eve, especially if there was a light snowfall that night. She wrote about how she loved to hear the nativity story and sing the Christmas carols familiar from her childhood. She wrote about how she would line up with the other members of the congregation and kneel before the altar, decorated with poinsettias, and receive Communion. She wrote about all this and then ended her column wondering why she bothered because even though she had grown up an Anglican, she had long ago stopped going to Church a long time ago because she didn’t believe a word of what was said in Church on Christmas Eve, or any other day for that matter.
One of my favorite buildings in all the world is the Chartres Cathedral in North France. I had the privilege of living in France for a year near Chartres and I used to love visiting and getting to know the amazing work of art.
I especially loved the stunning west front of the cathedral and those incredible stone carvings of Adam and Eve, the prophets, apostles, saints and martyrs. But at the very center, that favorite scene of all: the Last Judgment. And it was illustrated by that favorite symbol – the weighing scales. Each poor soul would in turn, stand before the terrifying judge of all, as his good works were put into one side of the scales, and his evil deeds into the other. Would he be a sheep or a goat? If his evil deeds outweighed his good, down he would go into the fires of hell. But if on balance he had done enough good works, up he would go to join the heavenly host. And what a host! You’ve never seen such smug, self-satisfied faces as those in heaven! And we may sympathize with the view that if they are the ones going to heaven, I might prefer the other place!
Today marks the beginning of the season of Advent, and thus the beginning of the Church’s year. Advent is a time of waiting, of longing, of anticipation. We are awaiting the coming of Christ. Over the next four Sundays, we will try to put into words what that means for us; we’ll describe what we are longing for and what we can expect to receive from the Christ who comes to us. The series is called, “Longing for Christ,” and the four parts are these:
I will be speaking today on the topic, “Longing for the Peace of Christ.”
Next week, Br. Geoffrey will speak about “Longing for the Judgment of Christ.”
Br. James will follow in week three with “Longing for the Salvation of Christ,”
and Br. Mark will complete the series by speaking on “Longing for the Light of Christ.”
Human beings share a universal hope and longing for peace. It is a desire which seems to be deeply rooted in who we are. There are exceptions, of course: people so deeply damaged by life that their capacity to love and be loved is all but extinguished; wounded people whose lives are marked by hatred and fear, who wish others ill and who strike out at them with violent words and actions. But this is a distortion of what we are meant to be, a sign of our brokenness and of our separation from God. We were made to live in peace with one another and with the whole creation, and this desire is still present in most of us. We hope and long for peace.