For those who are not quite ready to move beyond the miracle of Emmanuel …
The First Sunday of Advent has arrived. In congregations all across the universal Church, chosen families will light the first candle in a liturgical wreath. In homes all across the globe, countless families will decorate a fir tree and open the first tiny door of the numerical calendar.
On this day, followers of Christ begin looking forward to his sacred birth – to that holy night when a helpless newborn babe was lain in a manger, God in flesh, wrapped in lowly swaddling clothes.
The season that begins today resonates in all the deepest corners of our soul wherein lie our heartfelt desires for hope, for joy, for peace, for goodwill, and for love.
‘Tis the season. Today it begins. Our spiritual longings quicken and engage. Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set they people free.
But long ago, the First Sunday of Advent was not so much about awaiting the newborn babe but rather awaiting the returning victorious Christ. The Epistle reading was Romans 13:11-14, which in today’s language reads:
This is all the more urgent, for you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here. So remove your dark deeds like dirty clothes, and put on the shining armor of right living.Because we belong to the day, we must live decent lives for all to see. Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires.
The gospel reading was Matthew 21:1-11, verses we usually reserve for Palm Sunday:
As Jesus and the disciples approached Jerusalem, they came to the town of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two of them on ahead. “Go into the village over there,” he said. “As soon as you enter it, you will see a donkey tied there, with its colt beside it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you are doing, just say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will immediately let you take them.”
This took place to fulfill the prophecy that said,
“Tell the people of Jerusalem,
‘Look, your King is coming to you.
He is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.’”
The two disciples did as Jesus commanded. They brought the donkey and the colt to him and threw their garments over the colt, and he sat on it.
Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road ahead of him, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Jesus was in the center of the procession, and the people all around him were shouting,
“Praise God for the Son of David!
Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Praise God in highest heaven!”
The entire city of Jerusalem was in an uproar as he entered. “Who is this?” they asked.
And the crowds replied, “It’s Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
The focus of Advent has shifted measurably over the centuries. As best I can remember, I’ve never heard about the second coming of Christ in conjunction with the First Sunday of Advent. How would that even work? In this holy season of tree and feast, candle and creche, glory and gifts (indeed, let us be sure to remember gifts, amen), how would we make sense of Christ’s triumphal return and his final judgment?
And yet, Christ’s first coming (an event that even non-followers and non-believers are often quite ready to celebrate) is intrinsically and necessarily tied to his second coming (an event that even followers and believers are often quite hesitant to consider).
The gentle newborn babe – accessorized with swaddling cloths and radiant stars – fills our hearts. The triumphant Rider on a White Horse – accessorized with blazing eyes and armies of heaven – unsettles our sensibilities.
And yet they are the same. The gentle newborn babe is the returning and reigning Lord.
We celebrate the First Sunday of Advent most truly and sincerely when we are willing both to sing with carolers, “Come, thou long expected Jesus,” and to declare with John of Patmos, “Come Lord Jesus!”
Anonymous, c. 1538, The pystles and gospels, of every Sonday, and holy daye in the yere (fol. ii recto) [Transcription below.]
The Pystels and Gospels in Englysshe
Here begyn=neth the Pystles & Gospels / of eue=ry Sonday & holy day in the yere.
The Pystell on the fyrst Sonday in Aduent.
The xiii Chapiter to the Romayns.
Brethren we knowe that it is tyme nowe that we awake out of slepe / for nowe is our saluaciō nerer thē we be=leued. The nyght is passed and the daye is come nye / let us therefore cast awaye the dedes of darkens / & let us put on the armour of lyght. Let us walke honestly as it were ī the daye of lyght / nat ī eatyng & drynking / neyther ī chāmbryng & wantōnes / neyther ī stryfe & en=uyeng / but put ye on our lorde Jesus Christ.
The Gospell on the fyrste Sondaye in aduent.
The xxi chapiter of mathewe.
Whē Jesus drewe nye unto Je=rusalē / & came to Betphage unto the mounte Oliuete / thē sēt Jesus two of his disciples / sayeng to thē. Go into the castell that lyeth ouer agaynst you and anone ye shal fynde an Asse boundē / & her Colte with her / lose thē & brynge thē un=to me / & yf any mā say ought unto you / saye ye that your lorde hathe nede of thē: & strayght way he wyll let them go. All this was done to fulfyl that whiche was spokē by the ƥphet / sayeng Tel ye the doughter of Syon beholde they kynge cōmeth unto the meke: & sytting upon an Asse & a Colte / the fole of an Asse used to the yoke. The disciples wente & did as Jes (end of fol. ii recto)
[For those unused to early English orthography, give it a try. It starts to make sense as you work through it.]
Gently and beautifully, she tips her brow
Down t’wards the babe while at her breast he sleeps.
She moves beyond the joy to wonder how
Love strikes so deeply ’tis pain, and she weeps.
Her eyes drink in the beauty of his hands,
His feet, his face – so small, perfect, her own.
In her heart, she cannot conceive the sands
Of years changing babe to man, birth to grown.
The heavn’s dance as angels shout the birth
Of pure love. The stars and seas cry joy.
And even the God smiles and sings for earth.
All time and space celebrates her small boy.
Eternity is pressed in this one night
As she lies bathed in Emmanuel’s light.
Dance with the angels!
Shout with the stars!
Messiah has come,
and with Him
Long ago and far away, on a deeply dark night and after a weary day of travel, a young woman labored long to deliver her son into the world.
He rushed forth from her womb, leaving behind its warmth and safety to enter a world of both pain and love, joy and sorrow, birth and death – just like other newborn babes.
Someone scooped him up, wiped him clean, bundled him tightly, and lay him at his mother’s breast – just like other newborn babes.
Someone named him, held him, gazed at him lovingly, and brought him home to safety and warmth – just like other newborn babes.
Someone counted his fingers, counted his toes, stroked his delicate skin, fingered his silken hair, marveled at his quivering eyelashes, and traced his perfect face – just like other newborn babes.
Someone basked in the glow of new life, marveled at this bundle of humanity, and rejoiced in his miraculous breathing, wiggling, yawning, crying, sleeping, and eating – just like other newborn babes.
But this was not just another newborn babe.
This was Mary’s child. The carpenter’s boy. The son of God.
This was God himself, come to earth as a helpless babe, rushing forth from Mary’s womb – the Creator of everything, reduced to this wiggling, yawning, crying, sleeping, eating infant.
Jesus certainly was not just another newborn babe.
But because he willingly became a newborn babe, and then willingly went to the cross for all of humanity, we are offered life that only He can give – the kind of life where Jesus now washes us clean, names us, holds us, numbers the hairs on our head, and basks lovingly in the miracle of our new life – just like other born anew babes.
Breathe deeply and rejoice both in the miracle of newborn life and life born anew because there is nothing “just” about either one – for the first is undeservedly miraculous and the second is miraculously undeserved.