Why Advent? Why does the Church insist not only that we shouldn’t, but that we can’t, simply jump into Christmas like the world is trying to do right now? Why does she instead inaugurate a season of repentance – focusing on watchfulness in prayer, almsgiving, and fasting - all the while inviting more attention to hearing the Word and receiving the Eucharist? Why does she direct our attention again to the struggle against the flesh – as we just heard in today’s epistle: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make NO PROVISION FOR THE FLESH, to gratify its desires.” Why such a somber, serious tone?
I think today’s Collect nailed it. We ask in that prayer that our Lord would stir up His power and come and save us from the threatening perils of our sin. You see, we need Advent because we forget that our sins are threatening and are perilous. We forget that the only joy possible in this age is repentant joy. We forget why God hates sin so much.
Do you realize why? Not because it is some affront to His holiness, as though He were Felix Unger and can’t stand something out of place. No. He who is burning Love Himself hates sin with every ounce of His being because of what sin does to the creatures whom He loves. We think sin only affects Him. But it never affects Him – it always and only affects each of us and those we hurt in the process. Sin does damage. If we can come to believe that again, we can see why we need Advent.
Each season of penitence observed in the Church is observed with one goal in mind: to make you discontent with your life as it now is. To show you that there is so much more that your life can be in Christ. To stir up in you a hunger and thirst for change – change inside of you. Instead of settling for what always has been, the Church wants to entice you by the Holy Spirit’s power to dream for, reach for, and hope for what may yet come to be.
That’s why St. Paul’s epistle today begins by telling us that it’s time to wake from our spiritual drowsiness and slumber that is content with the way things are. “Salvation is nearer now than when we first believed,” he says.
Time to be rid of works of darkness. You know what they are. You have only to think about the things you do that you want no one to see, that you want covered in darkness. You have only to think of the things you think, that you want never to be exposed to the light of day. You have only to think of the things you WANT, that you hope no one ever knows were the objects of your desire. THESE are the works of darkness that St. Paul urges us all to cast off – dumping them from our lives and instead moving into the realm of the daytime, of Christ’s light. The key is always to put on Christ and to make no provision for the flesh to scratch its various itches.
Hence, a time of prayer, a time of fasting, a time of almsgiving – all three disciplines are gifts of the Spirit to crucify the flesh with its constant demands of putting itself first. Advent comes as liberation from servitude to the old Adam; it comes as a gift of the Spirit who can enable us to live in Christ, to live as new men and women. No longer slaves, but free.
But how can it happen? We’ve tried the path of will power. We know how far we get when we try. The Church sets a mystery before us today. She shows us Jesus, entering into Jerusalem as King, riding on a donkey. Do you see it? What you can never do to tame the beast that is your flesh, He can and does do. He rides the beast and even the one never ridden, and it does HIS bidding. It carries Him in to His City where He will not only be greeted as King, but where He will give His life as the ransom that will set all people free. What we can never do in the conquering of our own flesh, Jesus Christ CAN do. He who always prayed “Thy will be done” even when that will brought Him to Jerusalem to die as King upon a cross – He can do inside of you what you could never do on your own. HE can tame your flesh and make it Christ-bearing.
The first Palm Sunday they greeted Him as He rode into town, and as they sang their songs of praise to Him, they most likely had it all wrong about what He was coming to do. They were thinking that freedom from the Romans would be pretty nice. He was thinking all along that freedom from their sin would be even better. And that’s why the throne of King Jesus ended up being made of wood – a cross; His crown made of thorns; His life yielded as the sacrifice that atoned for the sin of the world. The enemies He came to defeat bigger by far than anything His people imagined.
Why Advent? Because the only life worth living is the life where Christ rides the donkey – the life where He controls our flesh and so sets us free from being slaves to our own appetites and desires. The donkey isn’t bad; it just needs someone to be its master. And He has come to be that. He is born in Bethlehem, laid in the donkey’s crib, to be the bread of life for the world. We need Him, for He alone can bring us forgiveness for all our sins of yielding to the flesh. He alone can wipe them out and break the chains that hold us in bondage. He alone can tame the donkey that is our flesh and bring it into subjection to the will of His Father. And each Advent the Church proclaims not only that He CAN do this, but that He WILLS to do this for us.
As He comes to us anew in the Holy Sacrament today, let us cry out to Him in joy the ancient song: “Hosanna!” That is, “Save us now, O Lord! Save us from our bondage to the flesh! Save us and be Yourself our Righteousness (OT reading) and to You alone with Your Father and Your Holy Spirit be all the glory, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages!”