First Sunday of Advent 2016
Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-15, Matthew 24:36-44
Reluctantly, I’ve come to the conclusion that I was not formed to be deeply spiritual. This whole business of looking to the end of things by forgetting about what you eat and drink and whom you do or don’t marry doesn’t sit well with me. Logically, I’m more at home with those passages of the New Testament in which Jesus eats and drinks with sinners than with those that ask me to pass through the eye of the needle. Indeed, perhaps I’m too fond of Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair with his character of a Dissenting preacher named Zeal-of-the-Land-Busy who urges his congregation to “Be not righteous overmuch.”
My body got seriously in the way of my soul some years back when our late and lamented much loved friend, the scriptural scholar Ed Beers, apprised me of Henri Nouwen’s remarkable prayer which begins
“God, I abandon myself into your hands.
Do with me whatever you will.”
Those lines and the remainder of the prayer made me realize that my petition is always the opposite: to have God do what I want or think needs doing.
Those of you who were praying for a specific result in the recent election that didn’t come about may understand me. You would have approved the cover of the 14 November NEW YORKER magazine showing a gentleman on the subway reading a newspaper with these headlines: “OH, SWEET JESUS PLEASE GOD, NO and ANY THING BUT THAT. But back to Nouwen. Although his prayer begins with two simple sentences, I noted that it ended with a compound sentence which the addition of a pronoun would have made into a compound-complex sentence. My grammatical life, alas, being more to the fore than my spiritual life.
That was so much so that I found myself at one with Robert Browning’s character in his poem “The Grammarian’s Funeral.” This recently deceased scholar “decided not to Live but [to] Know”; therefore he gave his life to Greek grammar and especially to elucidating the use and meaning of the enclitic de, meaning towards.
“Did not he magnify the mind, show clear
Just what it all meant?”
an admiring student asks. The answer being Yes, his disciples carry his body to the highest mountain for burial:
Where meteors shoot, clouds form,
Lightnings are loosened,
Stars come and go!
A sublime honor for someone to whom all the rest of life wasn’t, if I may say so, Greek to him. Although I regret to admit it, the deeper meaning of today’s scriptures for me may go the way that all the rest of life went for the dead grammarian. Someone else may have to attend to it.
Nonetheless, I can at least say that today’s readings quite obviously do juxtapose two sets of images. One is journeying and arriving; the other is light and dark. We are urged to make our way to Jerusalem. This evokes the widespread ancient belief that a city on a mountain is closer to Heaven than any other. Consequently, according to first-century cosmology, Jerusalem is closer than any other place to the City of God—to heaven itself. If the process of journeying there is sometimes in the dark, once one arrives, enlightenment will be the result.
These are appropriate images for the first Sunday of Advent with autumn days not only putting us in the dark earlier but also anticipating the divine light itself emanating from the Christ child on Christmas night: “—the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light, / an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,” in Elizabeth Bishop’s words (“Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” ll. 70-71). So making our way to Jerusalem is an analogy for making our way to the First Christmas when one era of time ends and another begins as God enters history. Moreover, we will soon be reading about the bright angelic light that surrounds the shepherds guiding them to the divine light of Christmas night. And then there are the Wise Men from the East, traveling many a weary night guided by a star to Bethlehem. In some small way the candles on our Advent wreath remind us of both shepherds and Magi, though perhaps a touch more of the latter because it takes a month to get to the last candle.
- S. Eliot used these Wise Men’s arduous journey from the East in his poem “Journey of the Magi.” I’ve mentioned this poem in a homily before and that’s why I’ve also mentioned Browning and Elizabeth Bishop today. I didn’t want anyone to think that I’ve read only one poem in my long career! But also Eliot’s poem leads us to a scholar who has made more of one Latin word than Browning’s lamented grammarian made of one Greek word. That’s because Eliot’s poem did not originate with him. He found its makings in a sermon by the Anglican divine Lancelot Andrewes, who, on Christmas Day 1622 preached “before the King’s Majesty at Whitehall.” Andrewes’ text was Matthew 2:1-2:
Behold there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, where is the King of the Jews that is born? For we have seen His star in the East and we are come to worship Him.
At one point in his sermon Andrewes chose to dwell on the meaning of the Latin word venimus, translated in Matthew’s gospel as we are come. And Andrewes concludes his meditation on this word saying, “All considered there is more in venimus than shews at first sight.” The important thing for him is that the Magi endured and arrived—venimus: “we are come.” And there was considerable hardship in their journey, which Eliot deftly set out:
‘The ways deep and the weather sharp
The very dead of winter.’
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly. . . .
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
But Andrewes anticipated Eliot in his recognition of how hard a journey it can be to come to the Messiah—to make one’s way step-by-step, day by day, and week-by-week to Christmas—with his understated but poignant conclusion:
Venimus is soon said, but a short word, but many a wide and weary step they made before they could come to any Venimus, Lo here ‘we are come’. Come, and at our journey’s end.
May those words be ours at our journey’s end.