Sermon in the First Sunday
in Advent By the Rev Chris Snook
"Owe no man anything, but to love one another
In 1944, as the end of the Second World War drew near, an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life prompted a crack-down on dissident voices. Among the many arrested was the German Jesuit priest, Alfred Delp, whose life we considered together just a few months ago as term began. Delp was involved in discussions about the shape of a post-war, post-Nazi, Germany and he was arrested along with others from the group and charged with treason. You may recall that he was an academic by training and orientation. He had been put in charge of the parish of St George in Munich in the 1940s, before his eventual arrest, torture, and execution. While in prison he wrote a series of letters and reflections on scraps of paper smuggled into and out of his cell, including his now famous meditations for Advent. In them, he describes the condition of a holy Advent: “The deepest meaning of Advent cannot be understood by anyone who has not first experienced being terrified unto death about himself and his human prospects and likewise what is revealed within himself about the situation and constitution of mankind in general.”
Fr Delp wrote these remarkable words as the Second World War was drawing to a close. He was one of many deeply disturbed by the capacity of Christian Europe to engage in not one but two world wars within a single generation. As Delp lived his final Advent in prison, he wrote to his parishioners that the world needed to be shaken – shaken by a vision of what must be in the human heart in order to produce, in a world of extraordinary cultural and material wealth, the war-ravaged world around the human heart: “The deepest meaning of Advent cannot be understood by anyone who has not first experienced being terrified unto death about himself….”
“Owe no [one] any thing, but to love one another,” writes St Paul today. We begin our pilgrimage to Christmas with the Church’s proclamation of universal love. Owe no one anything, but love … On the one hand, these words are meant to be an encouragement at just the time of year that the world trades and shares so much and so richly. There will be hospitality traded and kindness in the coming month; season’s greetings and gift-giving. Paul’s exhortation this morning reminds us that beneath and behind all of this seasonal cheer there is a deeper and more urgent sharing – owe no one anything but love – by which we are to measure and assess all of the giving and receiving of the season. But on the other hand, and I think far more urgently, these words are also apocalyptic. That is, they are a judgment: Owe no one anything but love. Surely, to hear these words is in some sense to shake. For so much other than love is owed, or shared, in the world day by day. There is of course real love, traded around us and between us. There are patience and mercy, joy and friendship – none of it to be taken for granted. And yet that Christian love that calls us to will the good of friend and enemy alike, always and without exception, is not all that we trade. We trade as well in willful misunderstandings; we trade in judgments; we trade in resentments, and in fear. To be terrified about ourselves, as Delp suggested to his parishioners, is simply to see the extraordinary struggle at the heart of our life together.
It is to these hearts, fearful and confused in their loving, that Jesus comes in the Gospel lesson this evening. The Palm Sunday Gospel, the story of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week, is read annually on the First Sunday in Advent. It does not obviously point us towards the manger. Indeed, a less poetic church than the one that framed our Sunday readings replaced this lesson some forty years ago because it seemed so hopelessly out of place within the larger movement of Advent. But of course, this passage is read annually on this Sunday because it describes where the healing of our love begins: it begins when the Lord comes to the Temple of our souls, as he came to the Temple in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, to re-order our loving. Conversion begins with the visitation of our souls now, just as the Lord visited the Temple then. Tables must be turned over, those habits of trading in what is less than love must be driven out like the money changers, all so that we might become wholly love.
Owe no one anything but love, writes St Paul. It is an apocalyptic word. It is a judgment on international and national violations of love, on municipal and community and even domestic and household violations of love. But it is not a judgement that is meant to leave us broken or in despair. Rather, it is meant to stir up our yearning at the beginning of Advent for the Messiah, for one to come to us who can be the love that we owe and the gift that we share. As Fr Delp goes on to write in his Advent meditations, having seen the world’s wayward love, the joy of the Advent season is God’s promise to come and meet us. As we heard last week, God will raise up a righteous branch to call his people home from exile. Whatever else Christmas will be this year, it will be that call home to love. Jesus himself will be the way and the guide and the destination.
This is a lot to say this evening, I think. And it might all be said more simply, I suppose: Paul tells us to love, but since we can only love as we ought through Christ’s visitation, he enters the Temple of our souls to make us places of prayer; and in our praying, we become the place where a love greater than our own can be born.
Let me just conclude with this observation: It seems to me crucially important that Jesus comes this evening to the Temple of the soul. The suggestion is that, whatever else we might feel about our souls, the soul is fundamentally not small, but large, not simply our essential self, but the dwelling place of God. This image of the soul as the Temple will be conflated as we move towards Christmas with the image of the soul as a manger and so we will receive a kind of catechesis on the soul this season – it is large and humble, magnificent and meek, beautiful but modest. Advent offers us a kind of apocalypse of the soul – a revelation of what we are by grace. And what we are, chiefly and fundamentally, is loved. Owe no one anything but love – this is not simply God’s demand of us, but the promise of God to us: he will owe us, offer us, nothing but love. Marie Howe captures this poignantly in her poem for the Annunciation which many of us will have read earlier this season and I conclude with her words.
Even if I don’t see it again—nor ever feel it
I know it is—and that if once it hailed me
it ever does—
And so it is myself I want to turn in that direction
not as towards a place, but it was a tilting
as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where
it isn’t—I was blinded like that—and swam
in what shone at me
only able to endure it by being no one and so
specifically myself I thought I’d die
from being loved like that.
There is nothing else for us to know when we come to this altar rail but that we too are being loved like that. AMEN.
+ + + + + + + + +