Rev. Charles Hoffacker
A new church year begins today.
For the next several minutes let us look at the prayer we offered at the start of this service. It has much to tell us about this day, this new year, and the entirety of the Christian life. Whether it is familiar to you or not, hear again this single sentence known as the Collect for the First Sunday in Advent.
give us grace
that we may cast away the works of darkness,
and put on the armor of light,
now in the time of this mortal life
in which thy Son Jesus Christ
came to visit us in great humility;
that in the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge both the quick and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who liveth and reigneth
with thee and the Holy Ghost,
now and for ever. Amen.
This collect initially appeared in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, the first English Prayer Book, and has been prayed by countless people over four and a half centuries. From 1662 until the current 1979 Prayer Book, it was repeated daily throughout Advent Season. Based in Scripture, this powerful prayer has exercised and continues to exercise an important influence upon God’s people.
Let us explore it in more detail. This collect amounts to a request, a plea, for what we need, and it is directed to God, who hears our prayers. We offer the collect through Christ, confident that our victorious brother Jesus, the eternal divine Son, now reigns as one God with the Father and the Spirit and will do so throughout eternity.
Give us grace, we ask, for two complementary tasks that lie before us. First, to cast away the works of darkness. Second, to put on the armor of light. We beg grace from God as we cannot accomplish these monumental tasks on our own; we do not have that strength.
But what are the works of darkness? What is the armor of light?
A passage in Paul’s Letter to the Romans which is foundational to this prayer specifies only some of the many works of darkness. They include “reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy.”1 It’s not hard to imagine others, but do not let them grasp your imagination here in this holy place.
1 Romans 13:13.
2 Ephesians 6:13-17.
What comprises the armor of light? Near the end of his Letter to the Ephesians,
Paul admonishes us in stirring terms to take up the entirety of God’s armor so that we can withstand every threat that comes upon us. This equipment includes the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes that help communicate the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit.2
Cast away the works of darkness. Put on the armor of light. And when, with the help of God, are we to perform these two tasks? The answer is: NOW. Now in the time of this mortal life. Mortal life! That sounds like a contradiction. Yet that is where we are. Constantly we witness life interrupted by death, by mortality.
We need to cast off dark works and put on bright armor with God’s help. And we must do so now and in every new now that comes to us in the flow of time.
This collect not only identifies now as the time of mortal life, of death in life, but also identifies now as something else: as the time in which Jesus came to visit us, born for us, active among us, suffering for us. That time centuries ago is mortal life along with time present.
He came in humility then. He comes in humility today. Be alert. Do not miss his visit with us.
Pray to recognize it. Remember words from a popular Christmas carol:
“O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.”3
3 “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
4 Mark 13:24-25, 27.
Christ came in humility. Christ repeatedly comes in humility. What we must do is repeatedly open our hearts.
Now we move from the first half of this collect to the second half. We move from what has happened and does happen and can happen in this familiar life to what will happen when this life is finally exhausted and surrenders to something different. The word “that” is the pivot, the hinge. We ask for grace now, in this mortal life, that something may happen at the last day.
We beg for grace, hoping for the fulfillment of that grace. We dare to ask for what some call incredible: that we may rise, that we may resurrect, to a life as yet unknown to us, except as we encounter it in the resurrected Christ. We ask that by grace we may rise to this life immortal.
And when will our resurrection occur? When Jesus comes again. Once he arrived in humility. Then he will come in glorious majesty.
Today’s gospel announces that arrival, when “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Christ “will send out his angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”4
This language has been understood in ways cosmic, environmental, political, and in other ways. Often this language has been discarded rather than understood.
Should it be taken literally, whatever that means? This language is poetry, and poetry, which is language with many layers, should not be dismissed as “just poetry.” This language, this poetry is gospel proclamation. Whether taken literally or not, it needs, more importantly, to be taken seriously.
Our mortal life is finite. Our mortal world is finite. Although in a sense he has never left, Jesus is due to come back, when we do not know.
Stay awake. His coming will seem sudden. This final coming will be a tremendous event and not everyone will welcome it for it will constitute a judgment on all our human ways.
But like his earlier advent in humility, this later coming of Jesus in power and great glory will be an occasion of joy for those able to welcome him. Its promise is eternal life, sorrow replaced by joy.
So in this splendid collect, this long and single sentence, we have a map for Advent Season, for our lives, and for the entire human project. Only one part of it remains tentative, conditional. Will we accept the grace that God so readily bestows? Will we indeed cast away the works of darkness and put on ourselves the armor of light?
Allow me to offer this practical suggestion. Starting today and continuing through the Advent Season, each of us can practice casting away of the works of darkness by a focus on throwing out one sort of dark work. And starting today and continuing through the Advent Season, each of us can practice putting on the armor of light by a focus on taking up one piece of bright armor.
So I invite you, before you leave this place today, to determine what sort of dark work you will cast away, and what piece of bright armor you will put on.
Commit yourself to asking God’s help in all of this, even as today’s collect begs for divine grace.
The dark work and the bright armor you focus on may not be among those from the New Testament mentioned earlier. That is just fine. You can discern appropriate choices. Writing down these two items may make them more real to you.
If each of us does this, however imperfectly, throughout the Advent Season, then I have no doubt that Advent will be a season of transformation for us and gladness will shine a bit more brightly.
give us grace
to cast away the works of darkness,
and put on the armor of light.