Advent Message – The Revd. Canon Leonard Doolan, Athens. November 2020
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25, 1-13).
November 29th is Advent Sunday. We begin a new church year. The liturgical cycle has come round full circle. A new season begins, a short punchy and powerful season. A new year begins also in the CofE three year cycle of liturgical readings. From this Advent we will be on Year 2 readings.
Advent is a season set aside in time, to mark time – to mark time before the birth of the timeless one. It has many seasonal riches. Advent calendars are among the favourite accompaniment for this season – and now available in a full range of chocolate products behind every door! There are advent candles that burn down for each day of Advent, so long as you remember to blow it out each time! In our churches we would normally have Advent candle stands, with our 4 purple candles and a central white candle. If you are very exotic the candle for the 3rd Sunday in Advent will be pink – not for Our Lady, as some think, but for what is called ‘Gaudete Sunday’ or ‘Rejoice Sunday’ when the normal fasting and austerities of Advent were relaxed.
Another favourite feature for me are the days of Advent that lead directly into Christmas, the ‘Great O’ days. It begins with ‘O Sophia’, so not surprisingly it is called Holy Wisdom day. Each of these days addresses Christ by one of the many titles given him by scripture or the church. They are probably best preserved in the popular mind by the great Advent hymn,
O come, O come, Emmanuel!
Redeem thy captive Israel,
That into exile drear is gone
Far from the face of God’s dear Son.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Advent is a season that is fashioned in such a way that every day of it leads further into an anticipation that we will once again rejoice in the coming of the Messiah, the Saviour. Each day a step closer; each day and opportunity to make ourselves better prepared.
I began with that parable from St. Matthew’s gospel in which we have ten bridesmaids, five of whom are wise, and five of whom a foolish. In this image the bridesmaids are awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom. Of course, the bridegroom is Christ; by analogy and tradition the bride is Christ’s church; and in the parable the wise and foolish bridesmaids sort of represent how attuned each of us is to the wedding music. Have we prepared ourselves for the nuptial blessing? Shall we all be ready to share the food of the wedding breakfast?
There is no doubt that this year our preparation will be like no other year. It has been a testing year, and there is no real sign that things will change quickly, even though there may be some vision on the horizon. For countless numbers of people the virus of 2020 has claimed lives, caused illness, created grief and tragedy within family and social interactions. So much of the outcome of this pandemic has caused isolation, human distancing, partial face to face encounters because of masking, restrictions on travel to see family, friends, or for work. There is economic and social hardship; there is mental and emotional sickness; Covid-19 is an enemy of the human soul.
As it stands, we don’t know what our celebration of Christmas will look like. It is difficult to plan. It is a challenge to know what the Governments of our countries will impose in their attempts to protect citizens. To some their attempts are considered an over-reaction, futile, an infringement of liberty, a cover for many new laws and practices to slip through under the radar. For many, we understand their attempts to protect the common good.
With such a background the parable of the Bridesmaids has as powerful a challenge as ever. How will we make ready for the celebration of the birth of the Saviour. Setting aside many normal traditions, how will each of us create a place within us to hear the message, ‘’Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2, 10).
This year we need the spiritual message of Advent more keenly than ever before. Those things that have traditionally helped us are still there – the Advent calendar, the candles – you can use any sort at home – the reading of scripture. Now you can join the Zoom or Facebook options for worship. We might even be allowed to go into our churches. From December 1st until December 23rd there will be a short service of Night Prayer (also known as Compline) at 21.00 every night on Zoom, and as we get nearer to that great day of rejoicing we will be reminded of the Great O days, Emmanuel, Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, Desire of nations.
I would like to remind us of that wedding image. In John Chapter 2 Jesus attends a wedding at Cana in Galilee. The wine runs out – the wine flasks have run dry – the vats are empty. This may be how we feel at present. However the waters of our baptism flow from Christ, our only source of life-giving, and those waters are transformed into the wine of the kingdom, endless, gushing, bountiful and full of rich blessing.
Advent is such a season of blessing, and despite everything that overwhelms us, a faithful observance of this holy season can and will bring blessings in ways that we may not expect or anticipate – but be ready to be simply surprised.
I will end with a passage from the Book of Revelation. “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes, take the water of life as a gift.’ (Revelation 22, 16-17).