Sermon for Advent 3 2020

Preached by the Curate

Many of you may know that Fr. John and I graduated from different Episcopal seminaries. Fr. John studied at General Theological Seminary in New York, and about a decade later, I studied at Virginia Theological Seminary in, well, Virginia. Historically, General and Virginia seminaries were on opposite sides of the “High Church / Low Church” divide. And so one could expect that we had a dissimilar course of study, and that we were taught by completely different faculty. And, for those most part, that is true, but there are a couple notable exceptions! The most interesting professor that both Fr. John and I knew from our time at General and Virginia seminaries seminaries is Dr. James Farwell, a priest and liturgy scholar. I should say up front that Dr. Farwell is a respected liturgical scholar and I was glad to have had the opportunity to study in his classes. But the thing that makes him a bit of an interesting character is that he has quite a few personal opinions about liturgy that he will speak with exactly the same amount of confidence and gusto as when he is speaking about any well established part of our liturgical tradition.

So for point of reference, here is an example of one of Dr. Farwell’s liturgical recommendations that, as far as I could tell, was original to him. He taught that if incense is brought in during the procession, the priest should cense the ambo or pulpit, and not the altar. He thought the we should cense the place that will be used, and since the service begins with readings and preaching, those places should be censed at the beginning, and the altar censed only at the offertory. This is a practice I have to this day only ever seen observed at Virginia Seminary.

Suffice it to say that Dr. Farwell had some unique teachings. He also had some pet peeves, that is, liturgical traditions that he loathed and recommend that churches would abandon. And here today I am committing one the biggest offenses against my dear professor’s liturgical sensibility. Dr. Farwell was very much against the use of rose colored vestments on the third Sunday of Advent, and the 4th Sunday of Lent. He argued that the prayerbook makes no provision for any special deviation on these days from the rest of the season. For Dr. Farwell the typical Advent debate of blue vs violet was never the problem: rose was the problem! “It detracts from the overall theme of advent as a whole to have one special day of a different color, he said.” But, fundamentally, the very worst part about rose vestments, as well as having a pink candle in the advent wreath for that matter, is that preachers will be tempted to spend some sermon time talking about why we’re wearing pink today, and that time should be spent spreading on the scriptures, contemporary issues, or the overall theme of Advent as a unified whole.

So will all due respect to our clergy colleague and beloved professor, I will now commit one of the great pet peeves of Dr. Farwell by telling you all that, yes, we’re wearing rose vestments today, and if this were an in person worship service, you would see the pink candle lit as well, because today is….. Gaudate Sunday!

So what is Gaudate Sunday? Gaudate is Latin and it means means “rejoice.” This day is named as such because “Gaudate” is first word from the antiphon of the mass that would have traditionally been sung by the choir on this day in western liturgies while the celebrant and ministers approached the altar. And this first word – Rejoice sets the theme of the day – and not by accident! Advent, overall, is traditionally understood as a penitential season, as Lent is. But just as it is with Lent, even in the middle of a penitential season, we find joy in Our Lord.

St. John the Baptist calls us to “Make Straight the way of the Lord.” He calls us to change our hearts and our lives to prepare for the Lord’s coming. This call to repentance, the call for us to grapple and come to terms with our own sinfulness in order to prepare for Christ requires soul searching on our own part. It requires humility and personal penance. The violet color is associated with penance and penitential seasons. This is why priests wear a violet stole when hearing confessions. But penance is never for its own sake – it always has a higher purpose. St. John does not call us to Repent just for the sake of it, or in order that we feel bad about ourselves. Indeed, true repentance is not really about our feelings, as if we need to feel bad enough for long enough that we can be forgiven. Repentance is about changing our lives and our actions. To repent is to turn around, it is to change course, and to go in a new direction. And we find joy in this change in direction because we know that the coming of our Lord and Savior is neigh upon us! As people of faith, we are empowered to take on that sometimes painful but oh so necessary work of repentance not only because God gives us the strength to do it, but because we find joy in doing so. True joy is found in knowing that soon we will meet our Lord, having done the work to prepare for him a dwelling place in our own hearts.

It is true that our Prayer Book tradition does not specify rose, or use the term “Gaudate Sunday.” But the prayerbook does not specify any of the liturgical colors at all. The prayer book is written in a way that allows it to support a variety of traditions and pieties within our larger Anglican tradition. Nevertheless, if we look at the readings appointed, we can see the theme of Gaudate is present today. This is particularly clear in today’s epistle reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. It is no happy accident that we have an appointed scripture that begins with “Rejoice” – “Gaudate.”

St. Paul was writing to the Christians in the Church in Thessolonica. Some of Paul’s letters are contested by scholars who reject his authorship, but this is not one of them. This letter is universally agreed to be authentically written by Paul (with input from Timothy and Silvanus), and it was written around the year of 51 AD, only 20 or so years after the death and resurrection of Our Lord. This is quite possibly the oldest scripture in all of the New Testament. And here Paul is trying to reassure a Church that is struggling. The Christians in Paul’s gentile Church are facing rejection from local neighbors, and there was great temptation to fall away. In this letter we see Paul as pastor, reassuring his flock of his and of God’s love for them, and of Christ’s eternal faithfulness to them and to all believers.

In preaching I often find myself coming back to the summary of the Law: Love God and love your neighbor. This first line from today’s epistle can function and an expiation of that first great commandment to love God. What does it look like to love God? Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.

This Advent really can seem like the 300th odd day of Lent, with everything that has gone on in our nation and in our world this year. A deadly pandemic that continues to claim more lives each day, racial tensions and race based violence on the rise, and a national political landscape that is more divided now than at any time in living memory. And that is to say nothing of all of the businesses that have had to closes their doors, or of the food pantry lines with multi-hour waits in cities across the country. There are some in our time who experience ridicule for being Christian, too. I think most especially of younger people in more progressive circles. But beyond this direct comparison, taking a wider view, we share with the early Christians in the church of Thessolonica the sense the sense that we are living in a dark time, or as Fr. John says, and evil time. But as Christians, we have seen darks times before. We have seen evil before. Evil times can have their effects. Evil times can cause us to suffer, they can frustrate us, and even break our hearts. But there is one thing that times like these have no right to do; and that is that they have no right to cause us to despair.

As Christians, we rejoice in the Lord always! Yes, rejoice! The darkness darkness may be all around and the fear may be palpable. The evidence available to the secularist may be all doom and gloom, but not for us. As Christians, we are a people who we white at funerals, for even at the grave we make our song!

And so of all years, this year 2020 is a year where we really need Gaudate Sunday. This is a time full of complex issues; wicked problems, as the philosophers call them. We still have the old problems; racial division and hatred, destruction of the environment, nuclear proliferation, children and families going hungry. Add to this the “new” problem of a global pandemic, once again on the rise in our midst. Beginning today, for the safety of our parishioners, all churches in our diocese are barred from in-person worship. But even in the midst of all of this darkness, we find the joy in our Lord to make our song. Our chief joy not found in the obvious and the visible. Our true joy is found in things not yet seen; the glorious return of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Give thanks to the Lord your God in ALL Circumstances! In the midst of violet, rose! In the midst of pandemic, prayer! In the midst of scarcity, thankfulness! In the midst of despair, joy! And in the midsts of all of us gathered in prayer, we find the very presence of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, the savior and redeemer of the World.