Sermon: Advent II(c)

PATRICK ALLEN on December 11, 2012

William_holman_hunt-the_shadow_of_death Hunt, "The Shadow of Death"





II Advent (c)
Lk 3.1-6
9 December 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen

(Scroll down for audio)

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Holman Hunt, the late 19th- early 20th-century English, and devoutly Anglo-Catholic, artist created a painting of our Lord which is remarkably striking, even if, I confess, it’s not a painting I particularly care to look at.  It’s called “The Shadow of Death,” and in the painting, Jesus is portrayed as a young man, not yet embarked upon his public ministry, hard at work in his carpenter’s shop.  He is rising from a plank he has been ripping down with a saw, and stretching his arms to relieve his aching muscles.  But the light shines on him in such a way that the shadow of his torso and outstretched arms is cast upon a wooden spar holding tools along the back wall of the shop.  The impression given is that while Jesus the young carpenter is stretching – a young man full of vigor and life – on the wall behind him, in shadow, is an image of his crucifixion, which we viewers of the painting know is coming: “the shadow of death.”

St. Luke accomplishes much the same effect, but in prose in this morning’s Gospel lesson as he introduces the prophetic ministry of St. John the Baptist: 

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiber'i-us Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Iturae'a and Trachoni'tis, and Lysa'ni-as tetrarch of Abile'ne, 2 in the high-priesthood of Annas and Ca'iaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechari'ah in the wilderness.

With this introduction, to be sure, Luke is very deliberately placing John in the great line of Hebrew prophets, using the just the same language and style as the Hebrew scriptures.  But there is more going on than that – as anyone familiar with the story of Jesus will recognize.  These names – Caesar, Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas – are precisely those that, later in the story, are associated with the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s a murderers row.  The shadow of death, the shadow of the Jesus’ Cross, hangs over John’s story, over his mission and message, too, just as it hangs over us this Advent morning as we anticipate the Nativity of our Lord – and it reveals to us his mission and message as well.  As Pope St. Leo the Great said in a Christmas sermon more than 1,500 years ago, “Jesus Christ was born to die on a cross!”  The shadow hangs even over the manger.

Well, that doesn’t sound like the sort of warm, cheery sermon we expect “on Christmas day in the morning,” but it may be that we should attend to that reality, to see the shadow of that saving death, at least on this second Sunday in Advent when each year we confront the preaching of St. John the Baptist: and he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

“Preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  John wants us to prepare a way for the Lord and make his paths straight, so that we will be able to receive and welcome him when he comes.  And we want that, too, don’t we? – to receive and welcome and rejoice in the Love that “came down on Christmas”, to receive and welcome and rejoice in that love not just on Christmas Day but every day – every day until that great day when, as we have prayed in this morning’s collect, “we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer,” that far horizon of history when “he shall come again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead,” about which Fr. Sanderson preached to us last Sunday.

That preparation, that making straight, and finally that greeting with joy is accomplished – well, in many ways – but it begins here, and it must begin here:  with the preaching of John the Baptist – which is to say, with repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  It requires an honest examination of our lives – “the devices and desires of our own hearts,” “those things done and left undone” – to examine them in the light of God’s law and love (which are not separable!) and then to turn away from our sin and turn to, and run to, the Father’s saving embrace.

Now, maybe you’re like me …  No!?  Well, maybe you’re like me in this respect – when I hear John and this call and his talk about repentance and sin, and so close to Christmas – well, I’d rather grab a cup of cheer and hang some holly and mistletoe and think about a Christmas “just like the ones I used to know.”

But Advent, as Fr. Sanderson noted last week, won’t quite let us get away with that.  Which may be why our culture has kept – and feverishly kept – Christmas, or at least a commercially-driven, sentimental parody of Christ’s Mass, but fled from Advent.  Because the way to the Lord, the straight path to the Babe in the manger, to the real Christmas, runs right through the reality of our own hearts.  And to avoid that reality is to avoid Christ.  In fact it’s the surest way to avoid him, to miss him, to lose him, and so to lose everything. 

And why?   Remember those names St. Luke records for us at the beginning of this account, those names which the Church confronts us with on our way to Christmas:  Caesar, Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas – those cynics who conspired to kill him. 

St. Luke is at pains to show us shadow of the cross hanging over this whole story.  This child was born to die – but to die precisely of love, to save us from our sins, offering up to the Father the perfect love and obedience of his own life, “having,” as St. Paul said, “canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”  St. Paul said that in his epistle to the Colossians, and at the end of that epistle we learn that Luke was with him as he wrote.

Repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  I’ve had occasion to refer to C.S Lewis’ words to the effect that it’s easy to love everyone in general, but no one in particular.  This morning, and every Sunday morning, we will say a “General Confession.”  And I know that for myself, it’s easy to “repent” of all my sin in general, but none of my sins in particular.  So may I suggest that an important way to prepare the way for the Lord is to seek out an “understanding and discreet priest” – and it has been my great comfort to discover that at least half of our parish priest’s here fit the bill! – and to make a full and very particular confession, so that, having laid our burdens down, we may with joy greet the Lord’s coming.

Repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  This is not a morbid grubbing about in the dark recesses of our souls, but simply the accepting and confessing of reality, and then a joyful turning to the one who loves us, more eager to forgive than we to confess, who will save us from our sins and from our sinfulness – the light of whose love shines so brightly that it will eliminate even the dark suffocating shadow of death from over our lives.

So let us look into our hearts and not be afraid of what we will find there.  God already knows, anyway.  And he loves us, and in Christ is coming to us, to give himself for us.  Let us turn to him and, loving one another, loving the least of his brethren, prepare the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight.

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