Sunday, December 16, 2012

What went ye out for to see?

Sermon preached at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis on the Third Sunday in Advent.

Is it a silly question to ask what you have given up for Advent? After all, it’s Lent that we’re supposed to give things up, isn’t it? Or meat on Fridays and that sort of thing. Should we fast for Advent?


The season of Lent is associated with Our Lord going into the wilderness and, during that time, He faces up to His temptations. This is a time of spiritual stocktaking, and Our Lord uses His wrestle with the cares of this world as a pattern for us to follow. He makes it clear that fasting, praying and almsgiving are to be part of our lives:

“when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth… when thou prayest , enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret… when thou fastest , anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast…”

Thus our time in Lent is supposed to be very much an wilderness experience – a stripping away of the spiritual fat that clogs the arteries of our soul. That is something that St John the Baptist certainly endorses. Should Advent be a wilderness experience? Well, what would we go into the wilderness to see?


We wouldn’t go into the wilderness for no reason. Advent is not just another time of year, and we should not enter it without some desire to see something arrive in our lives. Why go into the wilderness just to see the grass blowing in the wind? Our Lord makes it clear that the wilderness experience has a point. We are not to fast, to give alms and to pray for no reason. The landscape alone is not edifying. We cannot find wisdom in the vast expanse of very little. There has to be more than something, than windswept grass. St John the Baptist certainly thinks there was more in the wilderness than the indigenous flora.

What would we go into the wilderness to see?


We should not expect anything grand or spectacular from Advent. All around us, Christmas decorations are going up; the Advertising industry has launched into hyperdrive; Office parties are in full swing. Christmas is getting dressed up in its red, fur-trimmed finery and adorned with garlands of holly and ivy. Did we come into the wilderness to see this garish creature strutting across Christmas to revive our economy, bringing us good cheer at the bottom of a beer glass and in the stretching of our credit limits?

But then again, did we come into Advent because we like the trappings? There is something very magical about Advent array - the purple frontals and hangings, the advent wreath and its candles, the darkening night and the sound of “O Come, O Come Emanuel” echoing in the chapels. These certainly do help us focus our minds on waiting for Our Lord Jesus Christ. However, like everything else, it’s very easy to fall in love with Advent for its own sake, with being expectant for the sake of being expectant. If we’re not careful then Christmas Day becomes a big disappointment, because we have enjoyed too much the build-up to Christmas Day.

All these things have no place in the wilderness. Christmas pudding and Christmas carols and Christmas cheer belong to Christmas Day; Advent hymns and Advent wreaths belong in churches; our hearts and our devotions belong only to Our Lord Jesus. Being in the wilderness reminds us of how all these wonderful Christian things point us to God and to Him alone. We appreciate them more because we do not make Christmas depend on presents; we do not make our festivities depend on roast turkey; we do not make our Advent depend on Rose coloured chasubles on Gaudete Sunday! Our Advent and Christmas depend solely on Our Lord Jesus Christ. St  John the Baptist certainly does not regard long robes and golden crowns as making any difference to his ministry whatsoever.

So what would we go into the wilderness to see?


Just as in Lent, we come into Advent to prepare ourselves for the coming season full of travail and of joy. Ironically, we come into Advent to rejoice, as the commandment “Gaudete” tells us. “Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say, Rejoice! Be careful for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known before God!”

In speaking like this to the Philippians, St Paul is also telling us about our approach to Advent and the build-up to Christmas. We should be careful for nothing. As St Teresa of Avila tells us, “Let nothing disturb thee; Let nothing dismay thee; All thing pass; God never changes. Patience attains All that it strives for. He who has God Finds he lacks nothing: God alone suffices.”

All the more for us to seek the purity and simplicity that being in the wilderness of Advent can provide. A purity of vision and of heart allow us to see the world for what it is and contrast it with the Eternal face of the baby lying in the manger. A purity of listening and of heart allow us to hear clamour of the voices contesting for our attention and contrast them with the Eternal song of the Angels worshipping God. A purity of voice and of heart allow us to turn from empty worldly talk and join in that song and proclaim to the world what Eternal Truth God tells us. St John the Baptist certainly extolls purity, both in his life and in the figurative purity of the water with which he baptises.

Advent helps us to seek purity and, in attaining it, we find ourselves to be prophets of God, speaking His word to a wintry world, shining His light through our hearts which His burning love purifies and refines.


Like the great forerunner, St John the Baptist, we find ourselves waiting for the Christ to come. Many go into wilderness to see him, to hear his prophecy and receive Baptism.

If we, the Church, are to become, at His command, Prophets of God, will they come into the wilderness to see us?

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