Advent and Archangels

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent

This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church Eureka on Sunday December 2, 2018. 

O day of God, draw nigh as at creation’s birth, let there be light again, and set thy judgments in the earth.

At the Community of the Transfiguration in Glendale OH, the beautiful sisters dressed in blue gather together in their oratory at least six times a day to pray. They begin their day by praying Lauds at 7 AM, followed by Morning Prayer, then Eucharist; in the early afternoon, they pray the Noon Office, followed hours later by Evensong and then, at the end of the day, Compline. Before the Noon Office, one of the sisters rings the bell three times, each time followed by a pause, and then nine consecutive times. This bell is often referred to as the “Gabriel Bell” and after it rings, the sisters pray what is called the Angelus. The Angelus (which is Latin for “angel”) recalls the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary, when he announces that she will conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and that the Word will be made flesh within her. The Angelus prayer involves praying the words of Mary, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto my according to thy word.” And then the prayer concludes with these words, “We beseech thee, O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts: that as we have known the Incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by His cross and passion we may be brought unto the glory of his resurrection. Through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”

The Sisters of the Transfiguration pray this prayer every day and have been doing so over for over a hundred years and Christians (especially those in monastic orders) have been praying this Angelus prayer for over a thousand years, at least. By praying the Angelus prayer, we intentionally open ourselves up to the work of God in our lives, the God who longs to give birth to something new and beautiful in and through each of us. What does God want to give birth to in and through you? What is the new birth and new life within you that the angels are eager to announce?

If you take a look around our church, you can see we are in a new season. Jesus said that we can tell we are in a new season based on what we see around us, specifically what we see in the trees around us. Just as the fig tree’s sprouted leaves indicate the season of summer so too do the wreaths and the Sarum blue vestments (and the music) all indicate that we are now in the season of Advent, which means we are now beginning a new liturgical year together: Liturgical Year C when we read through the Gospel of Luke, the only Gospel that records the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary and the only Gospel that records the visitation of the host of angels to the shepherds as they announce the birth of the Christ child.

Advent is the season in which we wait with eager anticipation for the coming and the arrival (the adventus) of Christ, which was announced by the angel Gabriel and which we celebrate joyfully on Christmas with the Christ Mass. However, there are two other equally important meanings to the season of Advent. Advent is also the season in which we wait with eager anticipation for the Second Coming, the Second Arrival (Adventus) of Christ. And Advent is the season in which we welcome the arrival of Christ among us here and now, at this altar, in the consecrated bread and wine, and in our hearts through our worship together.

In all three of these arrivals of Christ (the first, the last and now), angels play an integral role, specifically the Archangel Gabriel. We already know that Gabriel was the one who announced the birth of Christ to Mary at the Annunciation. He also appeared to Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist, according to the Gospel of Luke. The Archangel Gabriel is also associated with the Second Coming of Christ. This morning we had a reading from Paul’s first Letter to the Thessalonians. In chapter 4 of this letter (verse 16), Paul says, “The Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of the trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise.” In our Christian tradition, it is the archangel Gabriel who has this task of sounding the trumpet to signal the Second Coming. And it is the archangel Gabriel who is remembered every day at noon by the Sisters of the Transfiguration and by Christian monastics all over the world whenever they pray the Angelus, asking that we may know the presence of Christ intimately within us and among us, that God may give birth to something new and beautiful within each of us. And as we pray the Eucharistic prayer, we join our voices with Angels and Archangels, including the Archangel Gabriel, who forever sing “Holy Holy Holy” to proclaim the glory of God’s name.

The concept of angels and archangels fascinates me. Our Bible is jam packed with them. We mention them in our liturgy and prayers. Christian medieval theologians almost obsessed over them, asking questions that seem almost absurd to us, like “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Protestant theologians, who rejected much of the church’s apparently superfluous ideas, still remained confident that angels were with us and among us. Even after the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, angels still remain as popular as ever. Although I personally find most portrayals of angels today in popular culture to be way too sentimental and saccharine and superficial, I still find the concept of angels deeply fascinating, comforting and inspiring.

Angels fascinate me because they tug at my imagination, inviting me to believe that there is far more going on here and now than we can see with the naked eye. Angels tug at my imagination so that I can move beyond the tangle of fear-thinking and the claustrophobia of small-mindedness, so that I can open myself up more to the real possibility of the arrival (the adventus) of heaven on earth, here and now. Angels tug at my imagination so that I become more open to all that God wants to give birth to in all of us.

The Archangel Gabriel plays a central role in the season of Advent, announcing the first, the last and the current and present coming of Christ. This Tuesday night (and subsequent Tuesdays) we will explore angels in more depth and discuss some of the unique roles and meanings and functions of the other archangels in our tradition: Archangel Michael and Raphael and Phanuel. Gabriel’s name means “God is strength.” God is my strength. God is our strength. The purpose of the angels is not to point us to themselves but to point us to God, to help us fulfill that first part of our parish’s new mission statement: to glorify God. Whenever we glorify God, angels show up to join us and to help us because that is who they are, that is their identity. So I invite us to let our imaginations be tugged and expanded by the presence of angels and archangels this Advent season as we celebrate the first, the last and the present coming of Christ; as we let God give birth to something new and beautiful in us individually and as a community, and as we together fulfill the primary part of our parish’s mission: to glorify our Almighty and most gracious God. Amen.

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