"But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision
for the flesh,
to fulfil the lusts thereof."
Our Eucharistic lectionary - that selection of
Epistle and Gospel lessons we read week by week through the course of the
year - has shaped the mind of Western Christianity for well over a thousand
years. Very little of it has been altered since the time of Charlemagne,
and substantial portions of it, including our Advent lections are even
older, and date back to the era of the Latin Church Fathers. That age-old
pattern of instruction and meditation, in which Scripture is presented
in a doctrinally ordered sequence, is now being swept aside by the introduction
of a variety of new lectionaries - mostly two or three-year cycles, constructed
on very different principles - and the ancient system now preserved only
in the Book of Common Prayer.
From the new cycles of Advent lessons, today's Gospel lesson has been
firmly excluded, because it seems to have nothing to do with Advent. After
all, it's the Palm Sunday story, isn't it? It's all about Jesus' entry
into Jerusalem at the time of his Passion; so, obviously, it can't be about
Advent. Our modern interpreters, you see, have difficulty getting beyond
the literal sense of the text. The ancient Fathers, however, saw a further
level of spiritual interpretation, according to which the story became
for them a dramatic parable of Advent: A story of the coming of the Son
of God as Messianic King, as Judge, and as Redeemer of God's city. "And
the multitudes...cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David...Hosanna in
In the 1549 Prayer Book, Archbishop Cranmer extended the ancient readings
by two verses, so as to include Jesus' cleansing of the Temple, thus sharpening
dramatically the Advent theme of divine judgement. "And Jesus went into
the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple...and
said unto them, I is written, my house shall be called the house of prayer;
but ye have made it a den of thieves". The true business of the temple,
the true business of the city, the true business of the soul, is prayer:
willing God's will; willing the eternal good which is God's will. That
is to say, the temple's true business is the business of love. That is
the city's true commerce; that is the soul's coinage; and anything short
of that is thievery and counterfeit. Thus, the Advent message of the Gospel
lesson is just this: The coming of the Son of God as Judge and Redeemer
of the human city demands in the first place a "cleansing of the temple"
- a purgation and refocusing of our loves.
Now, see how perfectly our Epistle lesson complements that Gospel message:
"Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth his neighbour
hath fulfilled the law." As citizens of God's city, our only debt is love.
But just what is this love that fulfills the law? Is it sentiment? Is it
emotion? Is it affection? But sentiment does not fulfill the law; nor does
emotion; nor does affection. None of these is love. They may sometimes
accompany and support love, and that's a happy circumstance; but all too
often, I'm afraid they impede love and delude lovers. The love that fulfills
the law is not a matter of sentiment, or emotion, or affection; it is a
matter of will. To love one another is to will the eternal good of another,
as that eternal good is objectively manifest and understood in the clear
light of the Advent of the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ.
Here in the Epistle, just as in the Gospel, that message is pressed
upon us with dramatic urgency: "knowing the time, that now 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". Come out of
that drunken dream-world of fickle sentiment, emotive judgements, and misunderstandings,
and prejudices; and enter unto the honest daylight of objective truth manifest
in the Advent of the Word of God.
Let us walk honestly as in the day;
I suppose there can hardly be anyone who can hear that passage read without
recalling the role it played in one of the most decisive moments in the
history of our civilization. It is, of course, the passage read, in the
garden at Cassiciacum, on the urging of the mysterious voice which cried "Tolle lege, tolle lege" (Take and read, take and read). That conversion
scene is described at the end of Book VIII of the Confessions; and,
indeed, the whole of Book VIII might well serve as a kind of meditation
on our Advent lessons. That book describes Augustine's soul as the battle-ground
of divided will, divided loves in agonizing conflict. "In this warfare"
says Augustine, "I was on both sides" (VIII, 5). "I prayed to God to grant
me chastity, but not yet - sed noli modo: not right away" (VIII,
7). "My inner house was a house divided against itself" (VIII, 8). The
terrible struggle was finally resolved only in the encounter with the living
word: "Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the
flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof." You see, it's the Advent of the Word
of God; it's the cleansing of the temple, the unifying of the will, the
purgation and re-focusing of love.
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 fulfill
the lusts thereof.
Some of you, no doubt, have read another great work of Augustine, The
City of God - the greatest of all writings on the theology of history
and the dynamics of human community. The essential argument there is really
the argument of the Confessions, writ large, projected now onto
the wider screen of the whole angelic and human history, from creation
until the end of time. From the beginning, Augustine argues, two cities
have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to
the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt
of self" (XIV, 28). Throughout the treatise, Augustine argues - against
the poets, philosophers and religious leaders of the pagan world - that
our goods and ills are not fundamentally established in the fates, nor
in the nature of things, nor in our circumstances, nor in our flesh, but
in our wills. The fundamental issue for angelic and human community is
therefore the issue of love. That is to say, it is a question of the steadfast
willing of the eternal good, which the Advent of the Word of God reveals.
That is the substance of which the City of God is built.
And that is, I think, the meaning of our lesson for this first week
of Advent. The season is one of preparation. Maybe a good deal of our Christmas
preparation has to do with making provision for the flesh. Let's try to
make it more a matter of putting on the Lord Jesus Christ; more a matter
of the cleansing of the temple, the purgation and refocusing of love. May
God give us grace to cast off darkness, now; and clothe ourselves in light.
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