Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent III (Gaudete) 2010: Fr. Charles McClean

Fr. Charles McClean is a man of precise words and deliberate speech. As the visitation pastor at Immanuel Church in Alexandria his duties mainly entail the ministry to the infirm, elderly and otherwise shut-in, thus enabling our already time-strapped senior pastor, Pastor Esget, to focus on other duties in the parish. Occasionally, though, Fr. McClean steps into the pulpit during Sunday Divine Service, or at times at midweek Vespers, and preaches the sermon. An excellent homiletician, he faithfully and incisively delivers Christ to the faithful who are present, often with subtle and unobtrusive reference to literature, history and poetry, as well as to theology and liturgiology from the Patristic period up to the present day. Indeed, Fr. McClean's knowledge in all of the abovementioned areas is nothing less than well-like. Moreover, he is a kind man; his kindliness accompanies even the sternest emendations of Law in his sermons, though in no way lessoning its power to convict, to kill the Old Adam, and make way for Christ.

In light of his confessed "technological handicap" (or some such self-deprecation), Fr. McClean has graciously agreed to let me publish his sermons on my blog whenever he preaches.

In the liturgical year, the third Sunday in Advent is known as Gaudete, Latin for "Rejoice!" The lighting of the third, rose-colored candle signals a break from the penitential character of the season signified by the three purple candles. Traditionally, the celebrant (today, Pr. Esget) will doff purple himself and don a rose-colored chausible, instead.

I hope this sermon convicts and ultimately blesses those who read it, even as it has those who heard it.


Nota Bene: Yes, Advent is and has always been a penitential season in the liturgical calendar. Yet this is in no way at odds with the hopefulness of the season. Penitence is always bound up in and with hope; but the joy and anticipation of Advent must be just that -- anticipatory, if they are to be crowned with the far surpassing joy of Our Lord's Nativity on Christmas. Yes, I'll say it: in light of recent conversations and ratiocinations on this topic, I've become less of a fan of the broad use of those songs intended for Christmas Day, even in their very grammar (e.g., "Joy to the World! The Lord is come), before the day of His coming. Just so I don't seem like too much of a liturgical curmudgeon, let me add that a full festal celebration of Christmas ought to extend for twelve days, until Epiphany. Now twelve days should be plenty, shouldn't it? I'm not sure that baptizing the secular jumping-of-the-gun on Christmas by playing Christmas carols from Black Friday through Christmas Eve properly keeps the Advent season.

Advent. Christmas. They're different. More to come on that idea later, perhaps.

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Immanuel Church

As I thought this past week about the Gospel just read [St. Matthew 11.2-11], my thoughts turned as they so often do to C.S. Lewis, surely one of the greatest witnesses to Christ our age has seen. Author of the Narnia tales, Perelandra, Mere Christianity, and so many wonderful writings, he was until late in life what you might call "a confirmed bachelor." And so the most surprising event in his life was perhaps his rather late in life, yet wonderfully happy, marriage to Joy Davidman. Lewis, who many years before had told the story of his conversion in a book delightfully named Surprised by Joy, was now again "surprised by Joy" -- Joy Davidman, who became his wife. And when she died after only four short years of marriage, Lewis was utterly devastated. His friend Chad Walsh writes: "The loss of Joy plummeted Lewis into the very depths of despair. His religion, which had seemed so sturdily based, began to crumble. A meaningless and malevolent universe opened at his feet."

We see something similar today in today's Gospel with John the Baptist in prison, whom Jesus calls "the greatest born of women," a "prophet and more than a prophet": and all that John had surely been! Never mincing his words, John called a spade a spade! He said to the self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees, "You snakes! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" And he told King Herod plainly, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother Phillip's wife!"

And where had all this gotten him? In the loneliness and misery of Herod's dungeon, Herod still securely on his throne and the Scribes and the Pharisees firmly in possession of their power over the people! And so John sends his disciples to Jesus with the anxious question in which the whole meaning and purpose of his life was at stake: "Are you He who is to come or shall we look for another" -- as if to say, "Can it be that I have been deceived? Worse yet, have I deceived others?"

And the point is this: if even the great witnesses to the Lord Jesus knew their times of agonizing doubt and darkness, you and I need not be too surprised nor even to greatly distressed -- although we almost certainly will be! -- by our own times of darkness and doubt. The Lord Jesus Himself, although true God, is also our fully human Brother, and He was "tempted in every way as we are yet without sin," crying out in the darkness and gloom of the cross, "My God, My God, why?"

"We walk by faith and not by sight." And yet the struggle with doubt and unbelief remains a lifelong struggle with our corrupted human nature, our Old Adam, which is never really content to walk by faith but always longs for proof we can touch and see!

So what sort of answer does Jesus give to John's anxious question? Certainly not deliverance from Herod's dismal dungeon; only this simple word: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear and the dead are raised up" -- and then this climax: "And the poor have good news preached to them."

"The poor have good news preached to them." And who are the poor? The poor in spirit who know that in themselves they are nothing and Jesus everything, who know that they cannot make a case for themselves in the judgment that will surely come but must depend entirely on his mercy. John languishing in prison is such a poor one, and to him the good news is preached: no miraculous deliverance of prison, not even a vision of angels, but only a word -- but such a Word! Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, the enfleshed love and mercy of God for all who despair of themselves and look to him alone, as we sing, "On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand."

And to us this same word that is Jesus is given: through the simple words of Holy Scripture which is His book, every last bit of it is about Him; and through the plain water of Baptism in which all our doubt and unbelief is pardoned and the Holy Spirit given, through the word of forgiveness spoken by the pastor put there by Christ to do just that, and in that lowly bread and wine where all unseen His true Body and His true Blood are mysteriously yet truly given us to eat and to drink.

Now none of this can be seen! Not the Holy Spirit in Baptism, not God speaking through the Scriptures and the pastor's words, not the Body and Blood in the hallowed bread and cup. None of this can be seen with the eyes of the body, none of this can be touched. Like John languishing in Herod's prison you and I have only Jesus' word to go on -- as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen," and as our Lord Himself says, "Blessed is he who is not offended by Me," or as the Revised English Bible puts it, "Blessed are those who do not find me an obstacle to faith" -- this meek and lowly Messiah who comes not with irresistible power but with utterly rejectable love.

Yes, "among those born of women," says Jesus, "there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist, yet he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." And who is this "least in the kingdom of heaven"? Surely the Lord Christ Himself, who though he was in the form of God assumed the form of a slave, humbling Himself, making himself nothing, who was obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Or to put it most simply: "Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" "The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay."

John heard and believed the simple word of Jesus and went on to seal his faith with his blood; and through much struggle C.S. Lewis found his way back to triumphant, enlivening faith. In his book A Grief Observed, Lewis tells of his struggle, and we should perhaps end this morning with some poignant and ponderable words from the book. Lewis writes:

My idea of God has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? The Incarnation is a supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are "offended" by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.

Yes, Jesus alone, Jesus in the manger, Jesus on the cross is the only True Image of the God we cannot see, Jesus is Himself the shining forth of the Father's glory. In Him -- alone! -- we rest until that Last and Great Day when faith gives way to sight and hope to fulfillment as we then shall see Him face to face.

Rev. Fr. Charles McClean
Advent III, 2010

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