Today is Thanksgiving Sunday, and I want to thank God I don't have to give a Thanksgiving sermon. I know, I know, gratitude is one of the highest states of mind we can enjoy, and drawing attention to it on a special day is not a trivial pursuit; however, with the coming of Christmas I think I am going to have other fish to fry, or turkeys to bake, sermonwise.
Advent and Thanksgiving always come about the same time, and, this year, I am more interested in observing the religious holiday than the national holiday. Nevertheless, in looking back at the year gone by, nothing could solemnize the day more than to fill our hearts with prayers of thanksgiving for the incalculable gifts of grace that have been showered on us over the past year. Holiday--that means, "Holy Day", and I would like to solemnize the day with meditation and communion.
As you know, since the beginnings of Christianity in the Catholic church, a different spiritual significance has been assigned to each Sunday of the year. If my calculations are correct, today is the LAST day of the church calendar, a good day to say good-bye to things--a good day to prepare for the newness of life that comes whenever spirit revisits the flesh. As we finish out this year, we can look back (maybe even on Thanksgiving) with gratitude; we can see the things that were good and we can see the things that were not so good. In preparing for preparing, we ought to take a good long look at the things that were not so good, and try to sweep them out before the visitation of the Lord graces our humble dwelling place.
"In Anglican churches the Sunday before Advent is sometimes nicknamed Stir-up Sunday after the opening lines of the Book of Common Prayer collect for that day. In the Roman Catholic Church since 1969, and in most Anglican churches since at least 2000, the final Sunday of the liturgical year before Advent has been celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King. This feast is now also widely observed in many Protestant churches, sometimes as the Reign of Christ."
So, according to the church calendar, we should feast today in preparation for the fast that begins next week. Next Sunday is the first of the four Sundays of Advent, the period of sacrifice and preparation for the coming of the Christ. We need to impose some kind of rigorous discipline on ourselves to help us concentrate on this idea: out with the old, in with the new. For, whatever else may be said of it, it cannot be denied that Christmastide is a time of renewal, and a certain amount of garbage must be taken out before the new can take its place in our lives.
It's just not possible to be a human being and not, (over time), fill up a hefty-sized garbage can of leftover junk--waste matter--that was not part of the program but got stuck to us anyway. Think about the accumulated trash that clutters your life; ask yourself if you really need any of it, or if you are just hypnotized by it dancing glitter; try to free yourself from its thrall, and come before the lord naked and open. Advent is the time of preparation, (purification, say), for the coming incarnation of spirit into the material plane; it is a time of a mental bracing of our egos against the devastating breath of God that wipes away the old and ushers in the new; the rod and staff of the Shepherd. So, even though the official first Sunday of Advent isn't until next week, I want to get the preliminary background on Advent out of the way today, so that next week we can focus on the spiritual resonance of the so-called first day of the church year.
Today's sermon's inspiration was an offhand remark made in Wikipedia concerning Theosophy and angels:
"It is believed by Theosophists that nature spirits, elementals (gnomes, undines, sylphs, and salamanders), and fairies can be also be observed when the third eye is activated. It is maintained by Theosophists that these less evolutionarily developed beings have never been previously incarnated as humans; they are regarded as being on a separate line of spiritual evolution called the “deva evolution”; eventually, as their souls advance as they reincarnate, it is believed they will incarnate as devas."
So, according to Steiner, if you develop your third eye, you can see fairies, a kind of low-class angel. I was thinking how this fairyland is so much more visible to youngsters than it is to grown-ups; after all, what kid doesn't understand and believe in the tooth fairy, or Santa Claus? Perhaps the use of the third eye is more native to innocence than to the jaded worldly perspective. Maybe it is just this, as I heard a Waldorf teacher once declare:
"All human nerve cells, in order to properly transmit chemico-electrical signals to the muscles, and so forth, are protected by a kind of insulation material called myelin sheathing. The growth of myelin sheathing around the nerves in the brains of young people being is not competed at birth; in fact it is not completely finished until, say, the age of eight or nine."
This leaves the tender brains of children, in their formative years, exposed--unprotected from the subtle electromagnetic influences that radiate all around us, all the time, but which are invisible to our grown-up perceptual apparati. As we get older all our physical equipment becomes more and more stiff and inflexible, and we have to find other ways to move from one consciousness state to another, in particular, to pre-conscious states. Indeed, the spontaneous sensitivity of children to magical realities comes from their ability to freely cross over boundaries of different mind states. As my son Emlyn once said, when he was two: "I fly with the angels at night in my bed."
I was thinking that the magic of Christmas involves a self-willed descent into a primitive mind state in which beings who live on the borders of our reality are more apparent, more glowing with astral resonance, and more connected to the subtle terrains of super-mundane existence. Perhaps this is a good thing, as it connects us to higher worlds; but perhaps all the sugar-plum fairies and Santa's elves are just some phenomenological trash we need to get rid of. This brings us to Advent:
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
"Advent (from the Latin word adventus meaning "coming") is a season observed in many Western Christian churches, a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas. It is the beginning of the Western liturgical year and commences on Advent Sunday, called Levavi. The Eastern churches' equivalent of Advent is called the Nativity Fast, but it differs both in length and observances and does not begin the church year, which starts instead on September 1.
The progression of the season may be marked with an Advent calendar, a practice introduced by German Lutherans. At least in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Methodist calendars, Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before December 25, the Sunday from November 27 to December 3 inclusive.
Latin adventus is the translation of the Greek word parousia, commonly used in reference to the Second Coming of Christ. For Christians, the season of Advent serves as a reminder both of the original waiting that was done by the Hebrews for the birth of their Messiah as well as the waiting of Christians for Christ's return.
The theme of readings and teachings during Advent is often to prepare for the Second Coming while commemorating the First Coming of Christ at Christmas. With the view of directing the thoughts of Christians to the first coming of Jesus Christ as savior and to his second coming as judge, special readings are prescribed for each of the four Sundays in Advent.
From the 4th century the season was kept as a period of fasting as strict as that of Lent (commencing in some localities on 11 November; this being the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, the fast became known as "St. Martin's Lent", "St. Martin's Fast" or the "forty days of St. Martin"). The feast day was in many countries a time of frolic and heavy eating, since the 40-day fast began the next day. In the Anglican and Lutheran churches this fasting rule was later relaxed, with the Roman Catholic Church doing likewise later, but still keeping Advent as a season of penitence. In addition to fasting, dancing and similar festivities were forbidden in these traditions. The third Sunday in Advent was a Rose Sunday, when the color of the vestments was changed and a relaxation of the fast was permitted. The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches still hold the tradition of fasting for 40 days before the Nativity Feast.
In many countries Advent was long marked by diverse popular observances, some of which still survive. In England, especially in the northern counties, there was a custom (now extinct) for poor women to carry around the "Advent images", two dolls dressed to represent Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. A halfpenny coin was expected from every one to whom these were exhibited and bad luck was thought to menace the household not visited by the doll-bearers before Christmas Eve at the latest.
In Normandy, farmers employed children under twelve to run through the fields and orchards armed with torches, setting fire to bundles of straw, and thus it is believed driving out such vermin as are likely to damage the crops. In Italy, among other Advent celebrations, is the entry into Rome in the last days of Advent of the Calabrian pifferari, or bagpipe players, who play before the shrines of Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Italian tradition being that the shepherds played these pipes when they came to the manger at Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus.
In recent times the commonest observance of Advent outside church circles has been the keeping of an advent calendar or advent candle, with one door being opened in the calendar, or one section of the candle being burned, on each day in December leading up to Christmas Eve."
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis spoke of the rhythmic succession of Holy days of feast and fast, under the general subject of Man's need for variety in unity; he said that the return to an immemorial theme was an archetypal aspect of Human spiritual anatomy, and helped put him in touch with the divine. Indeed, the symbologies, associated with feast days, evoke a particularized mind state that is able to find the universal in the individual.
As to the quality of Advent as time for spiritual "cleaning house, and preparation" the following quote from A Grief Observed, concerning the rhythm of death and rebirth is of interest:
"My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are "offended" by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not. But the same thing happens in our private prayers."
I confess, as much as I enjoy the healing, restorative energy of Christmas, I usually do feel pretty shattered for awhile somewhere in there. Revisiting the past and kissing it good-bye will do that to you. And making yourself receptive (in preparation) can make you fragile; your ego's guard is down, and you feel fragile, and weak, and incapable. But it is this very fragility that allows spirit to gain a foothold, inviting it to imbue the non-resisting flesh with heavenly light.
By the way, this passage (from C.S. Lewis' Letters to an American Lady, Dec. 29, 1958) is fun:
"Just a hurried line...to tell a story which puts the contrast between our feast of the Nativity and all this ghastly "Xmas" racket at its lowest. My brother heard a woman on a bus say, as the bus passed a church with a Crib outside it, "Oh Lor'! They bring religion into everything. Look - they're dragging it even into Christmas now!""
It must be admitted that there is an enormous amount of junk that Christmas brings in with it--so much it is hard to see, like the lady on the bus, the forest for the trees. The good news is that: however much of the stuff that symbolizes Christmas, hanging from every streetlight on every corner, attempts to trivialize the eternal into invisibility, there is still discernible, at heart, the spiritual truth, the WORD, that brought it all into being. Martin Luther will have something to say about this further down, but we begin our section of Luther quotes with this from the CLASSIC FAITH FOR MODERN TIMES website; this is from the Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent; Matthew 21:1-9 preached by Martin Luther in 1521.
"If you believe in Christ and in his advent, it is the highest praise and thanks to God to be holy. If you recognize, love, and magnify his grace and work in you, and cast aside and condemn self and the works of self, then are you a Christian. We say: "I believe in the holy Christian church, the communion of saints." Do you desire to be a part of the holy Christian church and communion of saints, you must also be holy as she is, yet not of yourself but through Christ alone in whom all are holy."
The words "magnify his grace and work in you" sounds a lot like developing the third eye; the act of will that "magnifies" grace must involve a consciousness state that rubs against the borders of fairyland. When the angel came to tell Mary she was to bear a Holy Son, "her soul did magnify the lord". Perhaps the good news magnified itself in her soul? Maybe it was a team effort? In any case, there is in Advent time a feeling that we can somehow "pump up the volume" of spiritual transmissions, and more easily make contact with higher magical planes.
This is from a Luther Sermon on the Nativity that he preached in 1530:
"The inn was full. No one would release a room to this pregnant woman. She had to go to a cow stall and there bring forth the Maker of all creatures because nobody would give way. Shame on you, wretched Bethlehem! The inn ought to have been burned with brimstone, for even though Mary had been a beggar maid or unwed, anybody at such a time would have been glad to give her a hand. There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: "If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen! How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!" Yes you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why don't you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself."
Again from the Luther Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent:
"14. Thirdly be says:"Behold." With this word he rouses us at once from sleep and unbelief as though he had something great, strange, or remarkable to offer, something we have long wished for and now would receive with joy. Such waking up is necessary for the reason that everything that concerns faith is against reason and nature; for example, how can nature and reason comprehend that such an one should be king of Jerusalem who enters in such poverty and humility as to ride upon a borrowed ass? How does such an advent become a great king? But faith is of the nature that it does not judge nor reason by what it sees or feels but by what it hears. It depends upon the Word alone and not on vision or sight. For this reason Christ was received as a king only by the followers of the word of the prophet, by the believers in Christ, by those who judged and received his kingdom not by sight but by the spirit-these are the true daughters of Zion. For it is not possible for those not to be offended in Christ who walk by sight and feeling and do not adhere firmly to the Word."
"With this word he rouses us at once from sleep and unbelief." Advent rouses from sleep energies that lie latent within us all year, waiting for the right combination of archetypal and higher spiritual symbologies to motivate them into action--action on our hearts. As mentioned above, the truth of the Word is at the bottom of all the glitter and gleam of Christmas images. The kids may be able to see Santa's elves, and the ruby slippers may transport us to Oz, but the WORD is the razorlike ray of light that exposes all the dross in its true nature and leaves visible the TRUTH behind the phenomena.
The following article, Advent, the Human Season, by Eugene Cullen Kennedy develops the theme of Advent symbology; in particular, it mentions the role of candles in symbolically representing the themes of the season:
"Advent is a season made for imperfect people, all of us, in other words, trying to maintain our balance as we scramble up the final slope of the shadow seamed mountain of the year. Advent's climb leads us to a view of the far reaches of the heavenly but in a profoundly human way. We pass through its weeks as we stroll by a succession of Christmas windows, surprised by images of ourselves superimposed on the displays, behold, as the angel of Christmas might say, this is what you really look like in everyday life.
Perhaps that is why the knowing liturgy allows us to view ourselves by candlelight so that we can gradually revise our self-images softened by its glow and be born again to a more homely, more human, and more livable understanding of ourselves.
These candles placed regularly along our climb toward the top of the year also embody the truth about the calling that transcends our occupations and professions. By their very nature, as we by ours, the candles let their substance be consumed by giving light, no matter how brief or flickering. These illuminations weave the weeks of Advent together by their symbolization of the Mystery of the Light of the World toward whose celebration they lead.
These tapers, like the Christmas windows from which our avatars stare back at us, also illuminate how, as psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan expressed it, "we are much more simply human than anything else." We are called to give off the great human signal of the season to all the searching and the lonely in the growing winter darkness, come over here, there's plenty of room, we all belong to the same family.
Advent is from the Latin that means "to come to," catching the period's significance as an ongoing journey, the being "in via," or "on the way," as our spiritual lives were described by ancient Christian writers.
The word "Advent" is a plum pudding of meanings, for it signifies a "coming or arrival, especially of something awaited or momentous." We are aware of the biblical mystery of this long awaited coming but there are no feelings more familiar to men and women than those generated by our hellos and our goodbyes, by our longing for union and suffering separation, for our looking forward to comings or arrivals of all kinds, from graduations to weddings, to birthday parties and family reunions.
Perhaps this wonder, that Advent underscores as it recognizes its utter humanity, is most powerfully experienced everyday before our eyes. As Joseph Campbell expressed it, "The latest version of Beauty and the Beast is taking place right now on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street." That is the Christmas-like wonder repeated when lovers find each other in the airport crowd as they first did, against all odds, in the great shouldering crowd of the world itself.
If we travel far enough back in the origin of words we find a distant root of Advent in gwa that means "to come" but that is also linked to "welcome" and "guest." This archeological dig of words helps us grasp the many layers of the Advent Mystery and of how, in its illumination of our natures, it overflows with sacramental manifestations of what it means to be human.
Advent allows us to rediscover not the sour version of a puritanical religion that is hard on humans but is one of living mystery and wonder. We feel this mystery in greater and lesser ways in all the comings and goings of this time of the year. We are all on the way to someplace else or are restlessly waiting for someone to come to us; we are suffused in the small mysteries of these defining human transactions that reveal the heart of our humanity.
It also underscores all that is wondrous even in the more homely aspects of being human. We are always on journeys of one kind or another and the whole mystery of our destiny is repeated every time we leave home for work, take up an unfinished task, or dream about the future. There is nothing more human than our setting up camp only to break it at dawn and set off for another that seems filled with more promise or more challenge for us.
These all fit with Advent's pilgrimage that, as we reflect on it, puts us on a track that intersects with the Divine journey to the very same destination, to the "end," as Chesterton wrote, "of the wandering star," to becoming human that is the fathomless Mystery of Christmas."
Again from Luther's Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent; Matthew 21:1-9, 1521.
"24. Again, it is not by virtue of your power or your merit that the Gospel is preached and your king comes. God must send him out of pure grace. Hence, not greater wrath of God exists than where he does not send the Gospel; there is only sin, error and darkness, there man may do what he will. Again, there is no greater grace, than where he sends his Gospel, for there must be grace and mercy in its train, even if not all, perhaps only a few, receive it. Thus the pope's government is the most terrible wrath of God, so that Peter calls them. the children of execration, for they teach no Gospel, but mere human doctrine of their own works as we, alas, see in all the chapters, monasteries and schools.
25. This is what is meant by "Thy king cometh." You do not seek him, but he seeks you. You do not find him, he finds you. For the preachers come from him, not from you; their sermons come from him, not from you; your faith comes from him, not from you; everything that faith works in you comes from him, not from you; and where he does not come, you remain outside; . . ."
In these two paragraphs Luther affirms the idea of salvation through grace. In the context of Advent, the coming of the Son is the grace for which we pine and wait, chosen, as we are, by the great plan of pre-destination, devised by God before the foundation of the world. This idea has brought me, once again, to a point of disagreement with Matin Luther: as we have discussed in our previous presentations on the subject of free will versus good works, there is a very thin line separating the chosen from the choosers--one may PREPARE to be chosen, and thus may CHOOSE TO BE CHOSEN. This has led me to the only salient point I have to make today. First to review some of the points made in the sermon on "Many Are Called but Few Are Chosen":
In After Many a Summer, Aldous Huxley writes:
"There must also be the recollection which seeks to transform and transcend intelligence. Many are called, but few are chosen--because few even know in what salvation consists. . . . Only a few are chosen because it is only the few who choose to hear and heed the call – they choose to be chosen."
"In CHOOSING we are CHOSEN.
To bear the cross assigned to us is never easy--if it were easy they would call it something else. Suffering is how we choose, or, rather, it is the suffering that validates our choice, because only by suffering is our will tempered, is our test passed. Some sacrifice is necessary; we exchange our suffering for spiritual rewards, we give up what is given us in exchange for what was ours before the world began.
Thus the WILL to choose, and choose over and over again the virtuous path, is the key to being chosen."
We are chosen through grace, but the preparations we make to receive the gifts of grace are good works which work on us from the inside out. As the Grace of God approaches in the raiments of Christmas, we know it will be ours, but we also know that the more worthy we make ourselves, the greater will be the gift--we take what we can get, and we get what we can take. We look forward to the coming of the Christ with longing and anticipation, but also fear and trembling because we think that we may not have done enough to deserve this great coming. Undoubtedly we haven't. Let us pray.
Jesus help us prepare to prepare. Assault our stubborn hearts with rays of love that break us down. Let us try to look at life from the bottom up, and rise with the phoenix and the dove to heavenly heights. Amen.