The First Sunday of Advent – Year B
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
November 29, 2020
The Church begins its new year today on the First Sunday of Advent, not with the joyful carols we already hear at Costco or the holly and the ivy or egg nog, but with death.
I’ve been reminded of death a lot lately, not only because of the countless deaths from COVID-19, but because we recently converted the front half of St. Margaret’s Chapel downstairs into an office for me. If you haven’t been downstairs to see the chapel, please let me know – I’d love to show it to you. You can see what the back half looks like on the front cover of your service leaflet. Since 2014 or 2015, St. Margaret’s Chapel has been a mortuary, or requiem chapel, with a columbarium behind the glass door on the left for our beloved deceased. Each time I enter my office, I make a solemn bow toward the consecrated altar that is permanently draped in black, the liturgical color of death.
Sounds morbid to you? Well, in a way, it is. And such is our entrance into this new church year. For centuries, the Church used Advent not only to prepare for Christ’s coming in the manager, but also his coming again at the Last Day. This has traditionally been done by preachers examining what theologians call “The Four Last Things” on the four Sundays preceding Christmas: death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
Death is not something we talk a lot about in our culture, or even in church. Most people go to great lengths to avoid death at certain points in their lives. Yet there is no escaping death – we all know that each of us, one day, will die.
Those of us who follow Christ have already died, not physically, but spiritually in the waters of baptism. We followed Our Lord right on over the edge of life itself into his death, and by dying with him, we also are raised with him to newness of life. For death itself was transformed by Christ, having endured it in an act of total and free submission to the will of his Father. Jesus’s obedience transformed the curse of death into a blessing. This transformed view of death is expressed beautifully in our funeral liturgy: “For to thy faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body doth lie in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.”
This doesn’t mean that we are free from the pains of sin and suffering in our world right now. It means that “the essential bridge of death has already been crossed. We do not wait to “cross over the Jordan” or to “fly away” to heaven when we die. Rather, we are already living the resurrection life. Yes, the promise of the resurrection of the dead gives us hope for the future, but this resurrection from the dead is the state in which all of the baptized are already living – here and now. By our baptism, we are called to take concrete actions in our daily lives to care for the orphan and the stranger, to feed the poor, and to love our neighbors as ourselves now, not later.
And yet, the fulness of this resurrection life we live is not yet fully realized. We continue to live in a world rife with discrimination, division based on economic status, persecution, and poverty. When will it all be made right? When Christ returns again with power and great glory, an event we call the “Second Coming” which we profess in the words of the Nicene Creed when we say, “he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.” It is only then that Christ’s victory over sin and death will be fully realized.
Advent calls each of us to remember that we have already died with Christ in our baptism, and that we’ve already been given the grace we need to live out the resurrection life in our acts of charity, justice, and peace. But also, the Church calls us to be mindful of our end. In other words, we are to “keep awake.”
Keep awake, for death could come for you tomorrow, or Christ could return without any notice. Keep awake, for you do not know when you will die, nor do you know when Christ will come “with clouds descending.” Jesus’s call to “keep awake” goes beyond keeping our physical eyes open, it is a call to actually lose sleep as we are living out our baptism day in and day out. It is a call to vigilance – to mental, physical and spiritual rigor, despite the side effects that occur when we don’t get enough sleep. It is a call to cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light.
I’ve told some of you this story, but I am deeply reminded of one of our parishioners who died just a little over two years ago. His name was David Higdon, and he came to St. Mary’s a year before that after a friend of mine who is a psychologist recommended that he give us a try. He had been in prison, and had been suffering from non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma for years, though he was in remission. After his first visit, I went to coffee with him, and he adamantly told me that he wanted to get right with God, and to reconcile with those he had hurt throughout his life. Despite being introverted and quiet, David hung around at coffee hour and got to know a few folks, and joined the adult confirmation class. He was confirmed along with Raja Reed, John Stanks, Chris McQueeny, and others in April 2018. His cancer returned soon thereafter, and now-Deacon Lynda, Raja and I looked after him, taking him communion from time to time. On Thursday, November 8th, I received a phone call at the bank from a nurse at Truman Hospital who told me that David had gone downhill over the past week, and that she didn’t expect him to live more than a few hours. I was shocked as he hadn’t told any of us that he had been readmitted to the hospital. I was fortunate in that my boss at the bank was an Episcopalian, and she immediately told me to go. We got an early snow that year, as when I went outside to jump on one of those motorized scooters downtown, it was snowing pretty hard. By the time I got to the hospital, he was not conscious, and his nurse and I sat with him for a couple of hours as he died.
At first, I was frustrated that David hadn’t told any of us at St. Mary’s how bad his cancer had become. If he’d only made us aware, I could have taken communion to him to prepare him one last time for that great wedding feast in heaven. But in retrospect, I can see now that David heard Christ’s call to keep awake when he first came to St. Mary’s, ironically during the season of Advent. He spent his last year living out his baptism with rigor, not knowing the day or the hour of the Lord’s coming or of his own end.
When I enter my office downstairs, I bow at the consecrated altar draped in black, and I give thanks for the life of David Higdon whose final resting place is right there in the columbarium. For it is through David that God taught me what it means to “keep awake.”
Friends, as we begin this powerful season of preparation, let us be mindful of our end, both at our baptism, and at the end of our earthly life. Let us remember the death that we died in our baptism, and let us keep our own future death ever before us. Will you pray with me?
O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days; that, when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered unto our fathers and mothers, having the testimony of a good conscience; in the communion of thy Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; in the confidence of a certain faith; in the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope; in favor with thee our God; and in perfect charity with the world. All which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1006-1009.
 1979 BCP, p. 349.
 Hannah Bowman: https://livingchurch.org/covenant/2019/12/02/advent-the-four-last-things-death/
 1979 BCP, p. 328, with the word “living” used in place of the word “quick,” as in Rite II.
 Hymn #57, The Hymnal 1982. Words: Charles Wesley.
 Courtney Buggs: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-mark-1324-37-5
 1979 BCP, p. 489, attributed to Bishop Jeremy Taylor, slightly modified.
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St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.