Wednesday 20 December 2023

Stella coeli exstirpavit


Deeper into mediaeval Marian theology than would be usual for my approach to Christmas, although my post about Deborah’s death three year’s ago today dwelt on the Magnificat being read as Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent that day.

I’m newly caught up on the periphery of the Lincoln Mystery Players ahead of two performances of the Christmas part of their sequence, a mixture of material with biblical roots and apocryphal roots. 

So the Cherry Tree Carol is to be acted out.  Joseph saying ‘he who got you with child’ can pick cherries for Mary, and the tree (a stage hand – me!) meekly bowing down to give her the direct access to them which she desired.

And the singing of the Latin ‘Prayer in time of pandemic’ which I’ve had a go at rendering in English thus:


Star of heaven,

rise in the warring constellations

whose conjunctions

dictate our deathly ulcerations,

and stop the fight.


Gracious Lady,

the first taste of an apple seeded

invasive death,

so, suckling the Lord, you weeded

that great plague out.


Star of the sea,

knowing your son, who honours you,

will not say ‘no’,

beseech him now to make all things new,

pandemic free.

Sunday 3 December 2023

An Advent Sunday sermon


Now it is time to wake out of sleep.  For the night is far spent and the day is at hand.  Now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed.   So cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.

That is Paul writing to the Romans.  It wasn’t read just now.  But the key phrases from it began the prayer for Advent Sunday used near the beginning of this service.  And it is scripture used as a chant at Morning Prayer every day in Advent, which begins today.  We’ll come back to it.

Over the years, I think I’ve preached on the first Sunday in Advent often enough to know exactly what I’m going to say - without actually doing any work. 

It therefore feels very strange - now that I preach hardly at all but have been asked to climb into a pulpit on Advent Sunday - that I don’t really see the real value of saying those things.

Some or most of you probably know some or most of them anyway.

The calendar year begins in January, the financial year in April, the academic year in September – and the church year begins today.

It is always on the Sunday nearest St Andrew’s Day, which is 30 November.  That’s the only way to make sure we fit in exactly four Sundays of Advent before Christmas.

The word ‘Advent’ comes from the Latin verb ‘venio’ – which means ‘to come’.  So Ad-venio is an intense form of coming – an intense form of waiting, of longing. 

What we are longing for is Christmas.  But we are also waiting for the wrapping up of the whole creation at Jesus’ anticipated second coming at the end of the world. 

In which case, for four Sundays, we are almost looking forward to our own deaths, and to some sort of judgement after our deaths.

So it isn’t much of a surprise that the bit of the Gospel read at this service came from chapter 13 of Mark which is quite unlike any of the other chapters in that Gospel.   Full of stuff like the stars falling out of the sky, God coming on the storm, the angels gathering everything in.

So a serious sombre season. 

Things like this purple stole usually come out for many funerals, and for the hearing of individual’s confessions, and for Lent.  The fact they come out for Advent is a pretty strong signal about the mood of the season.

What else?

Every Sunday the choice of our readings comes from a cycle of readings which is spread over three years.  Last Sunday we finished using the list of readings for Year A.  Today, we begin using the list for Year B.

One of the features of Year B is that it gives a lot of space to Mark’s Gospel.  Which would be the other reason we read from Mark today.

If you turn out every Sunday in the year just beginning, you’ll hear Mark read on about two thirds of the Sundays.

And by Advent Sunday next year you will have heard four fifths of that Gospel read – although you will need to be diligent in turning out on the eight days from Palm Sunday, through Good Friday to Easter Day because the whole of the last three chapters are read then, and you wouldn’t want to miss them.

And, and, Christmas preparation, Christmas decorating, Christmas carol singing are already going on – so hardly anybody really notices Advent much anyway.

Which is something those who prepared our cycle of readings realised, which is why they arranged for some of the readings on Sundays before Advent to smuggle in Advent themes already.

There you are.  That is the three or four minute summary of the sort of things with which I no longer think should clog up an Advent Sunday sermon.


Perhaps it simply gives too much of the false impression that if we are going to be better Christians it will be because we know stuff.  We are ready to navigate round the intricacies of the church year.  We are set up to score well in a religious knowledge quiz.

Which aren’t bad things.  But they don’t get to the heart of Christian living.

So what should I have been saying all those years instead?

Well, what about  -

Now it is time to wake out of sleep.  For the night is far spent and the day is at hand.  Now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed.   So cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.

Don’t inhabit the things of darkness, however dominant they may feel. 

Instead, be clothed in, be equipped with, be protected by the things of light, howver remote they may feel.

Feel the way our planet circles its sun. 

Notice the stage of that journey when we find we have tilted away from the sun’s warmth and have created winter.

Last Wednesday (St Andrew’s Eve), we tilted so much that we moved into that bit of the year when the gap between sunrise and sunset is less than eight hours – darkness now lasts more than two thirds of the time.

And things are not about to get better – in three weeks time there will be twenty minutes less light, twenty minutes more darkness.

So, watch, long for, wait for, ache for, the possibility that this won’t go on getting worse and we will tilt back to God again.

And feel the daily turning of the planet.  There is a point in the middle of every single night when we turn our backs on our source of light and warmth altogether. 

So sit alongside the night watchmen for whom any hint of dawn feels a long way off, a very cold way off. 

There is a hymn which includes the line ‘short as the watch that ends the night’, but I am the son of a war-time naval officer and I’ve stood next to him in church often enough as a boy or a young man to recognise the little harrumph every time that line came up – I know that the last watch of the night actually feels agonisingly long.

So watch, long for, wait for, ache for, the possibility that at the point of final exhaustion and desperation a glimmer of God will appear.

And – I’ve got to the point now - be people of light even when there isn’t any.

Be people of hope - even when things seem hope-less.

Be people of God-closeness - even when things seem god-forsaken.

Be neighbour-loving people - even when relationships and politics are toxic.

Somehow - be equipped with - be protected by - what light will be - just as we make our final tilt further away from it, even as the darkness lengthens.

That way, when the first suspicions and signs do come that there is light (and hope, and a God footprinted way, and a neighbour loved path), we will be eager and ready to possess it, because we have watched and ached for it so long.

There you are.  That is what God might have been trying to tell me all these years - while I’ve be prattling about the Latin origin of the word ‘Advent’, the use of purple vestments, how our cycle of Sunday scripture readings works.

I’d finish by saying the service today just adds that God is with us as we feel these things.

We heard the prophetic poetry of Isaiah From ages past, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 

God works for those who look for him.  That’s good enough to be a whole Advent Sunday sermon in itself: God works for those who ache for him.

We heard Paul say simply He will strengthen you to the end, so you will be blameless on the day of our Lord.  God accompanying our struggles isn’t going to stop.  He’ll even be on our side on the final judgement day. 

That is quite a promise for Advent Sunday too.  God will even be on our side on the final judgement day.

And we heard our first portion of Mark’s Gospel - our appetiser, our entree for the new year. 

The passage read ended with something which those in the know tell me has the shape of Aramaic poetry about it, which was Jesus’ language, and which was often the way rabbis used to teach so that people would remember and be able to record what they said. 

Keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come – in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn – or else he may find you asleep when he comes – what I say to you I say to all – keep awake.