Sermon preached at Mattins on the Third Sunday before Advent (Sunday 6 November 2016) by the Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor
The Precentor considers the Kingdom Season (the Sundays before Advent), and what it means for us - both liturgically and practically - as we prepare for Advent and for Christmas.
These Sundays before Advent which the Church is currently observing are part of what used to be called ‘the kingdom season’. They have their origin in the fact that the penitential season of Advent used to be much longer than it is now and in fact mirrored in length the other great penitential season – that of Lent.
The Church of England’s original prayer book – the sixteenth century Book of Common Prayer which we still use and which provides the liturgy for this service – ignores the kingdom season and, once the Sundays after Trinity are over and done with, it launches straight into Advent.
But, when liturgical revision in the mid twentieth century provided us with a contemporary liturgy to sit alongside the Book of Common Prayer, some echoes at least of the kingdom season were reintroduced in the form of these Sundays Before Advent.
There were three principal reasons for this:
The Church of England was moving towards the adoption of the international cycle of Bible readings – known as the Lectionary, telling you what was to be read and when to read it – and this Lectionary concluded the Trinity season earlier than the Church of England did and provided seasonal material for this period before Advent.
A more practical reason – if practical is the right word – was that an increasingly commercial Christmas was starting earlier and earlier and was swallowing up Advent as a season of penitence and preparation and the kingdom season provided a kind of ‘Advent before Advent’ in which reflection and remembrance concentrated the mind on the same sort of end of time thinking and praying which Advent otherwise also encourages.
And, thirdly, it was clear to the liturgical reformers that certain key festivals of remembrance which characterise the first half of November were increasingly taking a front seat in the popular imagination and that they needed embracing rather than side stepping. These festivals were the Feast of All Souls – the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed – on 2 November and the anniversary of Armistice Day on 11 November and the nearest Sunday to it when we remember and give thanks for the dead of two world wars and more recent conflicts. And even these two populist festivals were bracketed by All Saints Day on 1 November and the Feast of Christ the King on the Sunday next before Advent Sunday.
The kingdom season – the Sundays before Advent – provided something of a seasonal and better structured platform on which these festivals could not only stand but could stand together and more effectively articulate what the Church is so good at doing, which is remembering.
And, in order to provide a visual delineation to this ‘Advent before Advent’, the Church changes the colour of its altar frontals and vestments from green to red before the purple of Advent and the white of Christmas.
So, if we do find our Advent season of self-examination and preparation swamped by the glitter and tinsel of Christmas shop windows and piped music, it’s now that we should be doing that self-examination and preparation. Remember that, at Advent, we are preparing not only to celebrate the First Coming of Christ at Christmas but also the Second Coming – that time when, at our death, we will stand in the presence of God and account for our life on earth.
And, while I strongly believe that every one of us will make it to that time and that presence, I also strongly believe that we will largely be ill-prepared for it.
Our two very simple and straight forward readings this morning provide a rather neat manual of Christian instruction for the penitent: Isaiah with his vision of a world without arms and its call for us to make peace and not war; and James with his encouragement to us to be good, merciful and righteous.
Both of which take us back to those two great festivals which characterise this season of remembrance: Remembrance Day itself with its young mothers mourning the death of their sons and All Souls with its reminder of mortality and judgement.
So, as the leaves of the trees turn to brown, gold and indeed red – the liturgical colour of this season – and fall to the ground to enrich the soil for new life next Spring, let us prepare for that time when we will stand in the presence of God and let us ensure that our lives have enriched and not denuded this world by the goodness, mercy and righteousness of our words and deeds.
Let us pray:
O Almighty God, who by thy holy apostle
hast taught us to set our affection on things above:
grant us so to labour in this life as ever to be mindful of our citizenship
in those heavenly places whither our Saviour Christ is gone before;
to whom with thee, O Father, and thee, O Holy Ghost,
be all honour and glory, world without end.
And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
be with us all evermore.