Sermon Preached by the Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, December 1, 2019, the First Sunday of Advent

A sermon given at The Church of the Advent, Boston,
by the Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, Bishop of Massachusetts,
on Sunday, December 1, 2019, being the First Sunday of Advent
and the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Parish

Looking Back.  Looking Forward.

Anniversary blessings, Church of the Advent.  A Blessed Feast of Title, and Happy 175th Anniversary to you!

One hundred seventy-five years is a long time.  The world of 1844 is barely imaginable to us.  Long before automobiles, or light bulbs, or telephones.  Before slavery was ended in this country.  Before women had the vote. 1844 was the year the University of Notre Dame was founded in Indiana, the year the YMCA was founded in London.  Samuel Morse sent his first telegram all the way from DC to Baltimore in 1844. Charles Goodyear patented his vulcanized rubber.  And James K. Polk was President. (Now, there’s a household name!)

When the fledging Church of the Advent held its first services in 1844, it was a different world.

A milestone anniversary is a time to look back, and you have been doing that.  At various events, and in Deacon Daphne’s weekly blog with treasures from the archives, you have been delving into your heritage.

By now we all know the famous (or infamous) tale of my predecessor-by-twelve Bishop Manton Eastburn – how on his first visit to the new Church in 1845 he was scandalized by the sight of such “offensive innovations” as an altar (in place of a communion table), and the golden candlesticks and large cross with which it was adorned.  So offended was he by such idolatrous and “superstitious puerilities” that he refused to return for over a decade.

Your look back has also uncovered some lesser known tales from the (archival) crypt – such as the Great Fake Gems Controversy of 1911.  The Associated Press reported on a Pentecost sermon in which the Rector revealed that “fashionable women” of the Back Bay had contributed towards a splendid new chalice certain ornaments that were gold plate only, not solid, and sham gems.  The Rector later objected that the press report was misleading, that his point had been misconstrued: not a scolding, but a parable of the many sorts of offerings made in good faith.  What is remarkable to me is that the Associated Press was reporting on Sunday Sermons at all!

Most delightful in Deacon Daphne’s archival blogs have been the stories behind so many of your beautiful architectural and liturgical appointments:

  • the silver thurible given in honor of Cecil Barlow, a 22-year-old Somerville resident and altar server, who in his job as tester of electric meters was killed by an electric shock in 1912;
  • the Madonna overlooking the Lady Chapel altar, given in honor of Robert Turner Walker, who for decades oversaw faithfully the liturgical servers of this place;
  • the bust of Charles Grafton, a sometime rector of this parish, and later Bishop of Fond du Lac, where members of his diocese petitioned for his removal on account of his excessive use of incense;
  • and numerous gifts memorializing the architect of this church, John Hubbard Sturgis, and members of his family, woven into the fabric of this place.  How much more poignant is our gaze upon the Nativity/Epiphany window at the west end of the north aisle, when we know that it memorializes Gertrude Sturgis Hunnewell who died at age 28 in “premature labor” – the grief of a tragic childbirth commended in glass to the Mother of God, the Mother of Us All.

We look back at all of this history, sometimes with sorrow, sometimes with delight, always with gratitude.  You know about the Church’s claim to “Apostolic Succession” – how the Church’s witness to the faith of Christ is manifested by the lineage of her bishops in ecclesial apostolicity.  As a Bishop in the Church – number 1084 in the American Succession – I am humbled to be in such lineage.  But I want to suggest that you have your own lineage of ecclesial apostolicity right here at The Church of the Advent.  Cecil Barlow, Robert Turner Walker, Charles Grafton, Gertrude Hunnewell – this is your very own “apostolic succession” – the lineage of faith and devotion of which you are a part. 

Now you bear the responsibility to care for and hand on this legacy.  That is why, at an anniversary, we cannot look back only.  We must also look forward – forward to a future which we cannot precisely foresee, and yet for which we must prepare.

That, as it happens, is the task of the season of Advent which begins this day.  Advent.  A season of gazing forward, looking to a future which we cannot precisely foresee, yet one for which we hope, and for which we must prepare and wait.

So much of our waiting is impatient or frustrated.  We wait for a traffic light to change; we wait for our turn at the cash register; we wait for the Red Line train to arrive.   Sometimes, such as in the secular run-up to Christmas, we fill our waiting with a checklist of frantic preparation.  Advent waiting, of course, is different – neither frustrated impatience nor self-imposed frenzy is what Scripture intends when it invites us to “Wait for the Lord.”  Advent preparation is patient, and it is open-ended. 

In our Scripture lessons today we are reminded that such waiting and yearning has always characterized the people of God.  The prophet Isaiah [2:1-5] invites the people to wait for God’s reign – a reign to be characterized by beauty and peace.  The people yearn for that day, they yearn for that peace – though they do not know how or when it will come.  They can but wait.

Jesus likewise tells his friends that the day of the Lord will finally come. [Mt 24:36-44] It will come suddenly, unexpectedly, cataclysmically even.  The task of the people is to wait – ‘til they know not when – for the coming of Christ.

Here’s how Henri Nouwen describes such waiting, open to unexpected turns and unforeseen possibilities. Nouwen says:

“Open-ended waiting is hard for us because we tend to wait for something very concrete, for something that we wish to have.  Much of our waiting is filled with wishes: ‘I wish that I would have a job.  I wish that the weather would be better. I wish that the pain would go away.’  We are full of wishes, and our waiting easily gets entangled in those wishes…. But [the biblical exemplars of waiting, Elizabeth and Mary and Simeon] were not filled with wishes.  They were filled with hope.  Hope is something very different. Hope is trusting that something will be fulfilled, but fulfilled according to the promises and not just to our wishes.  Therefore, hope is always open-ended. “ [Watch for the Light (NYC: Orbis Books, 2001), pp. 32-33]

Waiting is the first discipline of Advent.  It’s the discipline of our lives. So many things for which we wait most deeply are simply beyond our ken.  That is why we give voice to them so achingly in Advent prayers and hymnody. 

Advent Sunday, then, is the perfect feast for an anniversary celebration: a time to look back with gratitude, and forward with hope.  Perhaps that is even more true in a parish drawing towards the end of a transitional, interim year.  “Come, thou long-expected rector!” sings the congregation, without a hint of blasphemy.  At such a moment it bears recollecting that looking forward with hope also entails being open to some element of change.  For that, too, is part of a posture of expectation.

Let me tell you a story.  In 2001 I was part of a contingent from the Anglican Study Centre in Rome paying a formal visit to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That’s the department of the Curia known before Vatican II as the Congregation of the Inquisition.  (In full: Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition.)   In 2001 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was headed by Cardinal Ratzinger – later Pope Benedict XVI.  Our group was not senior enough to warrant the presence of Cardinal Ratzinger, so it fell to one of his archdeacons to explain to us the department’s work of defending the church against heresy.

It was a hot day in July, the sultry air in the room relieved only by a slight breeze blowing through an open window.  During the discussion, one member of our group inquired as to how the department assured that, in addition to guarding against new teachings which might threaten the church, we might also be open to genuine movement of the Holy Spirit towards change, such as that which led the Apostle Peter to recognize the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation, as reflected in the Book of Acts.

The archdeacon got up, closed the open window, and announced that no such further changes were to be anticipated in God’s plan.  That closed window said it all!  Window closed; discussion closed; revelation closed.

The challenge for those of us who cherish tradition and the reassurance of God’s eternal changelessness is that we must never become a sealed-off room into which the wind of the Holy Spirit cannot blow, never become a historical shrine only, and not the living Body of Christ.

At the centennial celebration of this parish in 1944, then-Rector Whitney Hale said this:  “The Anglican branch of the Catholic Church has preserved a providential balance between authority and freedom which the democratic peoples of the West instinctively value.”

Seventy-five years later I charge you, dear people of The Church of the Advent, to preserve just such a “providential balance” – the providential balance between authority and freedom, the providential balance between “things grown old” and “things made new,” the providential balance between looking back and looking ahead.

Some would look to the past with romanticized nostalgia.  Others would look at the past with a patronizing air of superiority.  Do you neither! But look to the past with humility and gratitude.

Some would look to the future with dread.  Others would look to the future with a grimly determined defensiveness.  Do you neither!  But look to the future with anticipation and hope.  A church bearing the name of “Advent” can do nothing less.

This parish has been richly blessed by God.  This parish has been in like measure a blessing to its people, to its diocese, to its city, and beyond.  So, anniversary joy to you, dear friends.  Make your Advent cry:  Come, thou long-expected Jesus! And then wait.  Hopefully.  Patiently.  Expectantly.  Go on about your lives, but even as you do, place yourselves in a posture of faithful expectation.  And wait.