Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

If you’re anything like me, last Christmas was the most difficult of my life. One of the most disappointing emails I think I’ve ever received (and I’ve got some nastigrams sent my way over the years, as one can imagine) was the bishop’s announcement less than a month before Christmas that we were being required to shut our doors again in light of the rising number of coronavirus infections. I think at the time I referred to it, rather indelicately, as an “interdict”, which some of you may know is what it’s called when the Pope bans the sacraments in entire countries, as he did to England and Wales for six years in the early 13th Century during the reign of bad king John. I should note that this was because said king had refused to accept the pope’s appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, not because he got the Sheriff of Nottingham to hunt down Robin Hood, though that would have been a fun twist in the legend.

In any event, being forced to return to “virtual church” was a blow. Add to that the fact that, like many of you, we had to make the difficult decision not to gather with family, and it was terribly hard to get into the holiday spirit. As you’ll read in my newsletter article this month, none of these sorts of things can make Christmas any less meaningful objectively speaking, but one still laments that it cannot be celebrated in as fulsome a way as we’re accustomed to. This year, thanks to vaccines and loosening restrictions, many of us will be able to join with family once again, thanks be to God, though I know this is not the case for everybody, and it will certainly be a difficult Christmas for those who lost a loved-one to this dread disease, or for some other reason and were unable to be with them in their final days and hours.

I was reminded of all this while thinking about this morning’s epistle. Paul is in lockdown in Rome, not because there is a plague, but because he’s been put in prison. It wasn’t the first time; Paul should really be the patron saint of recidivists. In fact, the first time Paul was arrested, sometime around A.D. 57, it was in Philippi, the city whose church he is writing to in today’s lesson. But this would have been the last time he had been arrested, sometime around A.D. 66. It was during the first significant persecution of Christians by the empire, after Nero blamed Christians for setting the great fire of July A.D. 64 (quite possibly actually set at Nero’s request, so he could clear space for his new palace, hence his “fiddling while Rome burned”). Paul was writing from a jail cell in Rome which he would only leave to face his own execution.

Like most of Paul’s letters, Philippians was written on the occasion of a difficulty in the community to which he was writing, and the Philippian problem was one which he had written about extensively before to other churches–namely the controversy surrounding circumcision and whether or not one had to become a Jew before becoming a Christian. But it is significant, I think, that he doesn’t bring this up until the third chapter, halfway through the letter, and then pretty quickly returns to the tone of the first two chapters of the epistle. One gets the sense that though the occasion for writing is this old controversy, Paul’s real point is to be found elsewhere.

And the point, I think, is this: He misses them. These are people he loves and longs to see, he knows he will be killed before seeing them again, and he wants them to know how important they are to him. Note the heart-wrenching language in this morning’s lesson: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you … I have you in my heart … How greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.” He will go on to remind them to be joyful, to be humble as our Lord who came to us as a servant, to avoid those who put their trust in the flesh and the works of the law (here, the putative occasion for the letter). But at the end of the epistle he returns again to how much he loves and misses the Philippians and how grateful he is for them.

So, I wonder, if our experience over the last two years might encourage the same fruit to be borne in us, the fruit of love and longing and gratitude for those whom we could not see and touch and share the physical manifestations of companionship – a shared meal, sitting round the Christmas tree, a hug. A sure and certain hope that those who did not make it will be held in the Father’s Almighty hands until we see and touch them once again on that other shore and in that greater light. This latter hope must have animated St. Paul who, as his own death drew near, encouraged the Philippians to rejoice.

I know we’re not entirely out of the woods. I sometimes suspect that in the era of vaccination, those of us who have seen our way to availing ourselves of that great gift (if I may be slightly controversial, for those who have not fallen prey to the satanic lie of antivaxxer propaganda), are being encouraged by omicron variant click-bait to live once again as those without hope. Even so, there are no guarantees, and I realize that those with suppressed immune systems and other conditions must remain vigilant. For many of us, this year’s Christmas will carry with it a difficult calculus of risk and reward, perhaps more difficult than last year when many of us had to come to terms with gathering being a more uncomplicatedly bad idea, as sad as that reality was.

Whatever one’s celebrations look like this year, though, I hope we’ll all take St. Paul’s words to the Philippians as our example and encouragement. To love and long for our brothers and sisters we cannot see is a good and godly thing. To feel and express gratitude when we do see each other again is the Christian response to the great gift of fellowship our Lord has established in making us all members of the same body. Let us never again take that for granted, and let us be ever swift to rejoice.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.