Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, December 02, 2012

The First Sunday of Advent: with apologies to Presbyterian and Lutheran friends

Today was another perfect Sunday in New York, with St. Thomas Fifth Avenue at 11, a three-hour walk in Central Park, and Bach Vespers at 5 at Holy Trinity Lutheran on Central Park West.

The first Sunday of Advent, I would argue, is the most important Sunday of the year if you bracket Palm Sunday and Easter Day. The Episcopal Church, as far as I can judge, continues to do Advent better than any other tradition. The theme of Advent I is  the Second Coming of Christ in majesty on the Last Day to judge the world. The horizon is cosmic; the imagery is all-encompassing; the promise is unconditional. Charles Wesley's magnificent hymn, "Lo, he comes with clouds descending," presents a picture of the entire human race faced with the reality of the Redeemer. "Those who set at naught and sold him" are the subject of the second verse, and "His ransomed worshippers" are the ones who, in the third verse, gaze with exultation upon his "glorious scars." But the secret of the hymn is that these two differentiated groups are actually one and the same. Which of us ransomed worshippers did not set at naught and sell him? Christ died to redeem us precisely from the sin of rejecting God. And so in the fourth verse each one of us and all of us together, ransomed sinners, join in the chorus, "Yea, amen, let all adore him." In that sense, it is truly an "inclusive" hymn--one of the greatest of all. "Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess..."

The service at St Thomas never strayed from its theme. The church was entirely undecorated except for the vestments and hangings of Sarum blue. There was no whiff of Christmas merriment. Everything was designed that we should "hear in Holy Scripture and Sacred Song the message of salvation wrought by [Christ], and be put in remembrance of the great day of Judgment." The second hymn, "Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding" contains this verse by Charles Wesley:

So when next he comes in glory,
 And the world is wrapped in fear,
 May he with his mercy shield us,
 And with words of love draw near.
Wesley (again) gives us powerful doctrine in the third hymn:
By thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to thy glorious throne.
In these days as the church is becoming more and more "semi-Pelagian," introducing elements of human spiritual achievement into the work of salvation, it is good to hear that phrase about Christ's "all-sufficient merit."

The fourth hymn of the morning, interspersed of course with choir anthems (notably by Palestrina), is a translation of a hymn by St Ambrose (340-397). (I heard it again at Bach Vespers in a different translation derived from Luther's German rendering. I don't know the original Latin [or German], but the John Mason Neale translation used at St Thomas is better in English than the Lutheran one.) It is a history of salvation in miniature. In the fifth verse we sing, "His course he runs to death and hell, returning to God's throne to dwell." Ambrose's hymn teaches that the blessed Trinity arranged from within the Godhead that the Son would take upon himself the judgment that we deserved, in order to deliver us and the entire kosmos from the power of death and hell.

The service was an hour and twenty minutes and I think many of the full congregation wished it could have gone on much longer. It was stunning musically, biblically, liturgically, theologically.

So I emerged from the church into the maelstrom of Christmas commercialism on Fifth Avenue, which is always a bit of a shock, and headed for the tranquillity of Central Park. Before I could get there, though, I had a much bigger shock. On the front steps of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, a building in which I have heard many fine sermons (and have preached myself a couple of times), an assembled group of about 25 volunteers, presumably Presbyterians, wearing Santa Claus hats, regaled the crowds with Christmas carols.

Am I a liturgical snob? Yeah...The Presbyterian Church has been my home away from home for many years, but we Episcopalians have one thing that we do better than anyone else, and that's Advent!

"Let us cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light..."

Addendum: the next day or so after I posted this, I got a call from a friend saying that he had preached on the text of "Lo he comes" and had made the same point. Those who wail and those who rejoice are not two different groups of people, but one and the same. I also got an email from the rector of St Thomas Fifth Avenue who said that he thought "Lo he comes" was the greatest of all hymns, 18th century tune and Charles Wesley words taken together. I agree entirely.

(With regard to words, though, I have two or three more to propose, in due course.)