This morning I am going to offer a bit of explanation about two quite different things – one is the gospel passage for this morning because it is a very enigmatic one. The other, because Advent Sunday is the beginning of a new church year, is an explanation about the way we Anglicans use colour throughout the year,
Some of you, who like me have been listening for years to sermons, will have heard an explanation of the gospel passage which goes something like this:-
The passage begins with bits about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem – which happened in AD69 – which Jesus accurately predicted. It then has bits about the second coming, and then, very awkwardly, a verse which seems to be out of sequence because Jesus says that the present generation would not pass away until these things had happened. The argument is that clearly that generation did pass away without the second coming arriving so the verse must be out of sequence and apply to the destruction of the temple.
I have been vaguely dissatisfied with this explanation for some time. The bible doesn’t usually have stray verses in odd places.
The first thing to note is that this whole passage was started by the disciples admiring the temple building, which by all accounts was worth admiring. But what Jesus was concerned with was that his own impending crucifixion and resurrection would usher in a whole new world order. No longer would the worship of the entire Jewish nation, both those who lived in Israel and those who lived further afield be centred on the temple. Indeed worship would no longer be confined to Israel, but opened up to the whole world.
When Jesus talks about a temple, he is referring to his own body. For Jesus, his death and resurrection altered everything. And he was so certain of their imminence that it was almost as if they had already happened. So in one sense the events Jesus described have already happened. Even the final gathering of the elect is already taking place. People from all nations are being baptised into the life of the new and eternal kingdom and are joining to share in the food of that kingdom in the Eucharist.
That is not to say that the end of the age has already come. It is simply to observe that we are not waiting for the future hour of Christ’s coming as if we were waiting for a bus. Instead we watch for the future hour by living as people who have already begun to dwell in it.
What about the stray verse? The gospel was in three distinct sections – first the bit about momentous signs and the gathering in of the elect. Then a bit about a fig tree before a story about servants being ready for the return of their master. Crucially, the verse about this generation seeing all this come to pass is at the end of the comments about the fig tree. What Jesus is actually saying, I believe, is that just as a fig tree budding up is a sign that summer is coming, so the disciples needed to look out for signs that Jesus death and resurrection were coming. And in the gospel according to Mark this is a point at which the increasing tension between Jesus and the religious authorities becomes apparent. So the verse about this generation seeing these things come to pass is a reference to the death and resurrection which took place in about AD27 – well within the lifetime of that present generation. Once we realise that the verse about this generation will see it all is part of the comments about the fig tree and that they refer to Jesus death and resurrection the seeming anomaly disappears.
Perhaps the most relevant part of the gospel reading for us as we begin Advent is the last part. This is about the second coming. If we think just for a moment about the slaves left to look after the house and the doorkeeper left to keep watch then we realise that they could not have been on a constant state of high alert. The master was away for some time. So the slaves and the doorkeeper must have had a pattern of working and resting – they couldn’t possibly of worked all day and all night for weeks or months on end. When they worked they were making sure that everything was ready for the masters return – and they weren’t caught out when he did come back.
So we too can learn to do what we can and then rest, rather than fretting incessantly. I know that’s easier said than done, especially when we are waiting for something to happen. But even in the rush up to Christmas it is possible to have some sort of pattern of work and rest. If we overlook the relaxation, the rest, and the opportunities for reflection then we are unlikely to be ready to truly greet the Incarnate Christ whose arrival Advent is a preparation for
There are many ways of using advent as a time of preparation. One way is to light candles in an advent wreath in church during advent. These come in either red or purple with a white one for the middle. I have been trying to find out why some churches use red, and I haven’t got very far except to discover that there is a song about red candles at advent which seems to be known by some older folk. Whichever colour is used, the first one is lit in remembrance of the patriarchs – that is, men like Moses and Abraham. Next come the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, then John the Baptist and finally the Virgin Mary. The central candle is of course lit on Christmas day in remembrance of the incarnation.
The use of purple in some advent wreaths ties in with the use of purple for Advent by some parts of the church. When Jesus walked on earth, purple dye was incredibly expensive. Only the rich wore purple clothes. And you can bet that the Roman emperor of the time had a load of purple in his wardrobe.
So the early church began to associate the use of the colour purple in worship with drawing attention to, and honouring, the greatest king of them all. Now we use purple in Advent – leading up to the celebration of the time when we remember that the King of kings became a baby – and in Lent. Lent is of course the time we remember the King of kings giving himself up to death and overcoming it. This is why we have purple in church. You will see the clergy wearing purple chasubles and the altar also draped in purple.
Once we get to Christmas – and Easter – the colour turns to white for celebration. That’s why the middle candle of an Advent wreath is always white. Red is used during Holy Week and in churches that tend to remember saint’s red is used whenever a martyr is remembered. Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is sobering to remember the cost some Christians have paid, and some continue to pay for their faith. Red can also be used at Pentecost.
Finally, green is used in between, in what is known as Ordinary time. My own green stole has on it a jar on one side and a symbol of the Holy Trinity on the other, showing that like all Christians, I am the clay and God is the potter. It also symbolises the humdrum jobs such as the washing up being balanced with the things of God – my own attempt to portray Gods activity in ordinary times. This explanation of the liturgical use of colour, a completely different way of marking the seasons, may excite you or it may leave you cold but there is reasoning behind it.
We do not know what the new church year will bring for us – but we do know that we face it together. Let’s use this Advent like the slaves in the gospel – working to make sure that everything is in order should our Master return. But let’s also remember that they must have had had times of rest, and try to make sure that we get time for reflection in amongst the Christmas preparations.