Thirteen months ago, one of our parishioners, John Hensley died after a little more than a year of living with a brain tumor. John was a quiet man who frequented the 9am service–he loved being in church and was always so thankful for coming to Holy Communion. I am sure many of you met him or his wife Pat who started bringing him once he received his diagnosis. The clergy here at All Saints and Fr. Myles served John while he was in the hospital in Roanoke and while his health slowly degenerated at his home. John was ready to go to his True Home and even told us so. When John entered hospice care and the final stages of life, I ministered Last Rites to him and he died later the same day, November 10.
A couple of weeks ago, when we celebrated a Requiem Mass on the anniversary of his death, I was struck by the readings and Propers which declared a strong hope in the resurrection of the dead and our assurance of entering into that light which purifies us and changes “our body, that it may be fashioned like unto Christ’s glorious body.” [Phl 3:21 KJV]
The proper Gradual: “Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord; and let light perpetual shine upon them. The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance; he will not be afraid of any evil tidings.” Hearing these propers within the Requiem brought to me a new found sense of assurance both for John, but also to our own lives. I saw afresh that the new heaven and the new earth is the life to which we are heading, a life of perpetual light, illumined by the True Light which is the life of man.
This is the type of hope that we ponder during this new season of Advent. The days recently are shorter and shorter and as we enter into the heart of winter, the shortest day of the year, we in the Church are looking for the entrance of that light into the dark world.
Today marks a new year in the church calendar, and you will notice, after a long Trinity season, a different emphasis is present. Advent, which means Coming, is the season in our liturgical calendar which celebrates the coming of our Lord. The season first helps us prepare, by prayer and meditation, to more devoutly welcome the day of Christ’s nativity. This marks the coming of our Lord in the flesh to suffer for us. The season also looks forward to the second coming of our Lord, when he will come to judge the quick and the dead. This is why the season of Advent has always been a season of solemn supplication. We are preparing our souls for the coming of our Lord and asking the Lord to help us die to ourselves so that we might live in him.
Since Advent is the Christian season of anticipating the end times, it has been tradition within the church to preach on the Four Last Things during the four weeks of Advent, Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven. This is counter-cultural to say the least, but if this seems surprising, think of the process of starting any journey or venture. It is of extreme importance to know the end or goal before you begin. How can you attentively walk through life, if you have no idea of your end? How can you set out on a journey without a goal?
Your life is a journey, or better, a pilgrimage towards a specific destination–heaven–and we will all face death on our path towards our end unless Our Lord does come sooner. And even if that happens, we all will face judgment and spend the rest of eternity pridefully turning our backs against the great gifts of God or enjoying the pure beauty of the Trinity. The Four Last Things are meant to be a sobering meditation, for our path is not wide and easy but straight and narrow.
Contemplating our own death focuses our attention upon our end. Revelation of death often unveils a darkness from which we habitually shrink–a seeming void in which our hope vanishes. Death is not just the end of life, but the works of evil that press against the urgent and organic spring of life. It is the devastation of cancer or the meaningless acts of violence we perpetuate against each other. But death is not just physical. In fact, more horrific is the spiritual death we face when we turn against our own consciences and reject the fullness of life for some mediocre and ephemeral passion. It is the insidious lack of meaning and deprivation of true goodness. We are told by Holy Scripture that all things work together for good to those who love God, but when faced with meaningless death, how can this be so? Death is the voice that speaks as if God is absent. What is the worth of this life? Or the question Fr. Glenn posed last week: what are these amongst so many?
Death is a long, dark night, but as Christians we face these questions head on because we know that “it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand; let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.” [Romans 13]
We can face our own physical death because we have already entered into the deep, mystical death of our humanity through our baptism. And it is our baptism which is the beginning of our Resurrection.
Today we are so privileged to witness the baptism of Rebecca at the start of our new year as the liturgy helps us understand how to face our own physical death. If you listened carefully, you would have noticed three promises of baptism repeated throughout the liturgy.
First, the remission of sins (purification of water, jewish rite), second the entrance into Body of Christ (not by nature/new creation), and third that the baptized is made a **living** member unto eternal life (holiness through virtues). The sin which leads only to death has been purified, washed away, as the individual joins Christ’s own death, descent into hell, but also in His conquest of death, and his resurrection. One of the last prayers in the liturgy summarized this beautifully:
“WE yield thee hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it hath pleased thee to regenerate this thy Servant with thy Holy Spirit, to receive her for thine own child, and to incorporate her into thy holy Church. And humbly we beseech thee to grant, that she, being dead unto sin, may live unto righteousness, and being buried with Christ in his death, may also be partaker of his resurrection; so that finally, with the residue of thy holy Church, she may be an inheritor of thine everlasting kingdom; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Do you see how much just happened in Rebecca’s life?! It’s fantastic as she has now been cleansed from her sin, brought into the very life of Christ so that she may live out a sanctified life and join her Master in His eternal kingdom. It was this very joyful hope that struck me so much at John Hensley’s requiem who now, because of his baptism and continual dedication to His Lord, is now living in perfect light.
What more perfect day is there to renew your own baptismal vows? For now that you have entered into this new life and begun the pilgrimage of resurrection, you must “cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.”
Now that you have been grafted into the Body of Christ, you must live out that new hope day by day. Each of you knows full well what darkness you must cast off. So why not let this be the season in which you slowly but surely convert more of your life to Him that loves you so much he took on flesh like your flesh.
Let me give you a metaphor of what this sort of preparation looks like. It is a metaphor of two temple visits. Jesus first visits the temple when he is brought by his parents as a baby for the rites of purification. And when he comes to the temple, Simeon is there waiting for him. Simeon has spent his whole life in expectation of the coming Christ. And now that his Messiah has come, Simeon is ready to die in peace. He says: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). Simeon knows the face of Jesus—and in that face he found peace.
The second temple visit to examine comes from the Gospel. As Jesus enters Jerusalem, riding on the donkey, the people proclaim that Jesus is the Prophet of Nazareth. It is a triumphant entry, but the people do not know Jesus’ true purpose. In fact, they all see him as their political savior, and they must have been incredibly surprised what Jesus did next. He enters the temple and rids it of all money-changers and salesmen. Unlike Simeon, the people are not prepared for the true person of Jesus. When Jesus enters the temple this time, he has to cast out thieves—prayer, which is communion with God, has ceased. The likes of Simeon are gone, and now the temple has been defiled.
If we read these two visits as parables of our own lives, [which, given Paul’s insight that our bodies are a Temple of the Lord…this can be a very helpful reading] then we are faced with two different responses to the advent of our death. We can be like Simeon, who prepares his life through prayer so that when Jesus comes to him, he recognizes who Jesus is and may die peacefully. Or, we can be fooled by the promises of the world like the masses of the people who can name Jesus, but do not recognize his true mission. Then, our temple is filled with thieves and liars, and we are no longer in communion with God. Jesus Christ is coming, awake your souls and prepare.
Some of you might think this is too hard or too tough to achieve. But please remember that our Lord’s yoke is easy, his burden is light. Why not give yourself over to the only one in which you will find true rest. You see, God has full charge/demand over us, but service to him is not burdensome. It is in His service that we find fulfillment of all our desires…true freedom! Hodges: “He is our King. His claims over us are unlimited and unconditional. He claims every aspect of our being and activity, in every place and at every moment, from the hour of our birth to the utmost reaches of eternity. And in all this He seems not to be making demands on us, but to be satisfying our deepest desires; for He has fashioned us so that only in this complete and unconditional surrender to Him can our own happiness be found.” (Mascall, Grace and Glory, 48) Therefore, prepare your life in the knowledge of your coming death and in that preparation you will find true hope, true peace, true happiness. In fact, you will God Himself, ready to welcome you to His kingdom. Let me end with our opening hymn:
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee