Collect for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (“Laetare”)

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Collect for the season:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Jay C. James at the Church of the Advent, March 15, 2020, the Third Sunday in Lent

The woman said to (Jesus), “I know that messiah is coming, he will show us all things.”  Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

There is something in us that naturally draws us to water.  Beyond the physical need to have water when we thirst is a pull, an attraction, a deep desire to be near and enjoy water.  Maybe that’s why we treasure living in Boston. Here we have the pleasure of the inner harbor and the banks of the Charles.  This need to be near water has always been in us and is universal. Of course, we need to be near water to survive, but there is something more basic and elemental about being near bodies of water.  One of Massachusetts’ native sons and our thirty-fifth president, John F. Kennedy, knew well of the attraction of the sea. He and his family frequented their home in Hyannis on Cape Cod. He expressed love and desire to be near the sea in his address at a dinner for the America’s Cup crew in 1962:  I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it’s because in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change, it’s because we all came from the sea.  And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean.  And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or to watch it – we are going back from whence we came. President Kennedy’s pull of the sea he attributes partly to biology but in his description we also easily sense a romance, a mystical quality to the sea and our being drawn to it.

There is a well of water in Sychar, Samaria, in the Gospel passage for today and it is to that well that we are drawn and hear the well-known exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.  The attractions of the water here can be attributed to both material and spiritual phenomena. One could make the case that there is the physical thirst Jesus must have as He is on His hurried trip through Samaria.  It could be that thirst that has brought him to the well. This is similar to last week’s Gospel passage in which Nicodemus is questioning how one can be born again. Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?  Beyond and above this literalism, there is also the spiritual desire of the woman at the well for the water of life, who is Jesus.  That attraction to the living water that is Jesus is the more powerful. It’s more authoritative because it feeds the woman with the truth.  

The pull of the supernatural and divine grace of Jesus is present and active in the Samaritan woman and it is that grace that converts her and moves her to bring others to see Jesus as the Savior.  We learn from this that in matters of religion, persons will be drawn by the supernatural. There has to be a sense of mystery in our worship lives just as there was a deep sense of mystery in the woman at the well concerning Jesus.  She declared to the people in the city, Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.  Can this be the Christ?  She knew this man must be of divine origin because he was telling her things about her past even though this is their first meeting.  She would not have been amazed and awed by Jesus without that evidence of His divinity.  

We know it’s true here at the Advent.  We come here because there is a sense of mystery and awe and wonder in our worship.  That mystery lets us know that there is someone out there, for us it’s God Almighty, whom we need to have shed His supernatural grace on us.  We would not come here if the worship was just a reflection of what we see and experience all week long. We need to be drawn by the open space that makes us move our eyes upward to heaven.  The beauty of the art and architecture, the color, the music, the other-worldliness of the worship moves our hearts and minds to someone other than ourselves. As transcendent as God is shown to be in our worship, still He seems to know us intimately and we ask Him to come and love us personally.  Especially in these times of uncertainty visited on every one of us by the Coronavirus. Don’t we naturally look to the God who sees all, knows all, and will have the power to bring us through the crisis. At the same time, we want and need to know that He knows each of us and holds us in His heart.  In the end, we count on His mysterious and wondrous love to pull us through.  

It must have been the same for the woman at the well.  Two actions of Jesus let the women know that Jesus is no ordinary man:  He promises her water that will lead to everlasting life. Every one who drinks this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.  Then he told her things about her life that could only be possible if someone could know her heart and soul.  In response to Jesus’ bidding the woman to get her husband she responded, I have no husband.  Jesus, having never met her, said, You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.  The woman is not ashamed or offended by this.  She is amazed and awe-struck and even overcome with joy.  She responds, Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.  Jesus tells her the truth about herself.  She knows that Jesus sees her as she really is.  When she knows that He is the purveyor of the truth, she has a sense of joy and wonder and even freedom.  Jesus converts the woman and the conversion is so strong that she must run and tell others. 

The woman at the well becomes a convert.  She knows that the Messiah, in her words, …will show us all things.  Jesus had just shown her everything about herself and then declared, I who speak to you am he.  Like most excited converts she runs to share this new found truth and belief with those in the city and begins her work as an evangelist.  Many come out from the city to see Jesus when she bids them, Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.  This shows the universality, the catholicity, the all-encompassing love and grace of Jesus Christ.  Everyone has a soul and Jesus sees down to the heart of it.  

So what do we do?  Where does that leave us?  It leaves us in the middle of Lent, working on our own souls.  Maybe asking ourselves the question, “When Jesus looks at me and sees down to my heart and soul, what will He find?”  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Will He find me as I truly am supposed to be? If He finds things there that are not the way He wants me to be, can I have His grace help me make them right?  Part of the serious and important work of Lent is taking on Lenten disciplines. In setting aside the habits that are not helpful, and denying ourselves the things that are not necessary, we make opportunities to turn more to God.  The simple acts of our Lenten disciplines peel away layers of things that are not needful so we can concentrate on the things that matter to the soul. Praying at more frequent intervals. Not taking in foods that are not essential so we have more control of our bodies.  Opening the Scriptures for longer periods so the revelation of God in Christ comes to us. All these acts and more have the effect, with the correct attitude, of allowing Christ’s forgiving and healing grace to come into our souls and work His will.

What was good for the Samaritan woman is also good for us.  She was offered to drink from a spring of water welling up to eternal life.  When she, by faith, believed that Jesus is who He said He is, new life-giving water was given to her.  In Jesus she found that the endless supply from that well lasts until it brings her to eternal life. More of the Good News is that everyone can have that water.  Everyone is drawn to the water of life much like we’re drawn to the sea. It doesn’t matter who we are, the water from the well of life is necessary and open to all.  At the well a Samaritan woman was converted just like the Jewish disciples of Jesus were converted.  Later the same conversion is open to the Gentiles.  We find that the wellspring of life is for everyone and that’s why the believing Samaritans from the city declare Jesus the Savior of the world.  

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff at the Church of the Advent, March 8, 2020, the Second Sunday in Lent

In the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

The third chapter in the Gospel of St John is remarkably dense with reference and theological significance –and one verse –sixteen—almost sums up the entire Gospel:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Then, besides that monumentally clear declaration,  setting out that we have only to believe in him to enjoy eternal life, much of the rest of the chapter is taken up with the story of the fascinating if slightly strange encounter with Nicodemus.

Few of the subsidiary figures in the Gospels have occasioned as much scholarly interest,  however, as Nicodemus in the Gospel of St john (which speaks of him uniquely as he is absent from the Synoptic tradition) and he is manifestly a puzzling, enigmatic figure, for he only appears three times and in a manner that seems to leave much unresolved

He appears early in the Gospel, as we hear today, with a rather tentative profession of faith of a sort in Christ  (3:1-21) “we know that thou art a teacher come from God’. Then there is the second appearance by Nicodemus in chapter 7 (45-52) where he, again somewhat tentatively he defends Jesus before his fellow Pharisees and gets another rebuff,  albeit much more forceful.  Finally, in chapter 19 he appears at Jesus’ tomb with that other curious and ambivalent figure,  namely Joseph of Arimathea, this time saying nothing at all —but disconcertingly– bearing a truly vast quantity of burial spices  (v 38 onwards) such as might be used for embalming,  though that was not a Jewish practice.              

All of this means that, as one commentator put it, Nicodemus “appears in the narrative often enough to evoke curiosity, but not…often enough to satisfy it”.            

And on top of that enigma,  there is the further question of just where to place him in the great divide between who have true faith and those who do not which so defines the other figures in the Gospel.   And here it is of interest to note that through the course of history some readings of him yield a positive assessment and others do not.  The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental churches hold him to be a Saint as does the Roman Catholic church which venerates him together with Joseph of Arimathea on August 31st. [1]And the overall picture we have of him in all his tentativeness invites reflection on what it took to convince him, what kind of evidence did he need?


One of the great temptations – to which our culture ever more readily invites us at such times as those when our faith may falter —is  to suppose that if only we had more empirical evidence about the person and reality of Christ, faith would all be so much easier – much perhaps as we think of the Apostle Thomas desiring empirical proof after the crucifixion and resurrection.

Indeed, to the modern mind, the gold standard would presumably be to have access to a live video of the Resurrection, either from CNN or Fox news –for then all would be well, many might suppose and the truth would be clear.

But just pause for a moment and think about that whole line of thought. What could such a video actually show – be it of the Resurrection or even some other miracle that Christ performed? As soon as one asks that question, it becomes evident that the key problem would in fact remain–no matter how good the hi-definition images might be, and however impressive the number of pixels at work on your wall-to-wall television screen–and that question is about the meaning of what happened and certainly not the image of it                                                                                                                         

Thus do we see that the issue of the meaning and what it was that actually happened are shown to be inextricably entwined.[2]

But looking at the matter more theologically,  one can see much of this thinking as lying behind the periodically recurring quests to discover ‘the historical Jesus”.[3]

Moreover,  theologically, one can even say that the motivating thought behind the quest for the historical Jesus is fundamentally Nestorian.   (And that is not a compliment)

This is because such a project assumes that there was ultimately a human person, Jesus, in or through whom,  the Son of God became present to this world and that it was this human person who could be and was known like any other man which carries the implication that it is upon the encounter with the merely human Christ that we should, and indeed must, actually rely

But this is very much not the Gospel view, for the Gospels are deeply, Chalcedonian in this regard. (And that saying this is a compliment, for it references the Council of Chalcedon which emphasised the complete and perfect unity of the two natures in one hypostasis of Christ.

And just for the record, Nestorianism was an early church heresy that stands in contrast to the orthodox teachings of Chalcedon[4]  and — if I may indulge in a few brief technicalities for a moment: 

Nestorius (who lived from 386–450), was no less a figure than a Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, and was influenced in his thought about how best to understand Christ by the Christological teachings of that old friend of John Chrysostom, the wonderfully named Theodore of Mopsuestia of the (Middle) School of Antioch. But Nestorius reached the point that he and his followers opposed the concept of hypostatic union (i.e. of individual existence/substance, of person) and emphasized instead that the two natures (human and divine) of Jesus Christ were joined by will rather than personhood.   A perspective which yields a Christological position that can be defined as one of radical dyophysitism –for those who like grand historic names for their heresies.   This line of thought –as so often— stood  as one end of a heretical polarity with, at the opposite end, the error known as Monophysitism which held that Christ  had but a single nature, his human nature being absorbed into his divinity.)[5] 

But with all that said, in saying then that the Gospels are Chalcedonian I mean that they affirm that Jesus Christ,   the person who taught, suffered and ultimately died was actually,  in the fullness of his reality (which is to say as both perfectly human and fully divine) ultimately such as to transcend all human categories. In fact he would have to do so in order to be adequate,  not merely to the claims made of him,  but in order for him to participate fully in the triune Godhead, in which lies the ultimate cause of all of creation outside of itself.

But that fulness of reality in Christ, (i.e. as divine) could not be grasped or comprehended in a human way ultimately at all, though his life and person was such—the Gospels show–  as to ground the beliefs of his followers a body of affirmations which we capture in the Creeds and statements of faith, and thus affirm as true  – even though the full meaning of what is entailed in those affirmations and in order for those propositions to be true, is more than we can possibly know in this life, short of the beatific vision of the world to come.

All of this entails, that there was a sense in which the person of Jesus was recognized by those who were closest to him,  as somehow always transcending their reach when considered  in its fullness.

Thus it can be said that the more they got to know of him the more they realised that their knowledge was incommensurate (which is to say inadequate) to its object.

Knowing him thus was not something that comprised merely an enriching of one’s own life by sharing perceptions of another; it was ultimately to begin to approach seeing Him and the whole (of his) creation sub specie aeternitatis – from the perspective of eternity—And to embark on that level of understanding is to embark in a sense upon the threshold of eternal life; for it was an adumbration made possible by the Holy Spirit of seeing him, whom no one has ever seen,  namely God the Father[6].

But getting back to that point about the ultimate impossibility of (or perhaps it would be better to say an ultimately misguided) the quest for the historical Jesus, this can be held to have a rather surprising corollary. This is that from the Gospel perspective we are invited and enabled to capture the specific, and unrepeatable historical events of his life by means of  identifying ourselves with those individuals presented to us in the Gospels and who thus witness to us the deeds of Christ.  In other words, it is not so much a quest for the historical Jesus that should engage us but rather a quest for the historical followers of Christ that we are instead more truly called.

The Resurrection indeed stands as a cardinal, or hinge concept, as well as utterly fundamental reality in all this, for it stands in a three-way relationship both to them and to us, and through them, to Christ.   The Resurrection would be nothing but a day dream, even for his closest followers,  if not for the encounter they had with the risen Christ.

Thus it could be nothing but a day dream for us,  if not for the encounter with the words and deeds of Christ, that they make possible for us,  through them,  as we identify ourselves with them.

This is something that goes beyond mere empathy, for we are enabled thereby to experience (as re-presented to us in an instance of anamnesis) something of the impact of what they experienced –as we apprehend what the Gospels set forth.

For this reason,  it has been well said that

“If we take the Gospels on their own terms, try to enter into the intentions of the Evangelists, and let their story work on us in the way that its authors meant it to, Gospel-reading (and a fortiori Gospel Commentary) will be a quest not for the historical Jesus, but for the historical Peter, James and John,”[7] and all the apostles as well as his other New Testament disciples and followers. 

Deposition of Christ or The lamentation over the Dead Christ (the Bandini Pieta), 1547-55, by Michelangelo
(who is generally understood to have offered likeness of himself in the guise of Nicodemus)

But what then of Nicodemus?

The characters in the Gospels are sometimes understood as symbols or even mere allegorical representations. And in such a perspective Nicodemus can stand for the Pharisaism and the established Judaism of his day, just as the Samaritan woman for Samaritanism and the paralytic could stand for mankind, unable to save itself. But such an approach must be untrue to the historic immediacy of the Gospels themselves,  while Christ at no point is interested in movements, schools of thought or “isms” of any kind,  but rather only and always with individual people. 

Nonetheless, there is a sense in which the Samaritan woman is still with us and so is Nicodemus for he has been present as was once said from ‘….the Academies of the ancient world, and the salons of seventeenth century France, in College common-rooms and TV discussion programmes today”.  And in fact it is quite easy for many of us actually to identify with Nicodemus.

So let us look again to the context and today’s Gospel.

This was a conversation that took place fairly early in the public ministry of Christ  before the Sanhedrin had begun to take any official action (John 7: 50), but even so Nicodemus finds it more expedient to meet by night –which conveys a suggestion of something private, or even furtive about it.

Is it not all too easy to recognize in Nicodemus here the stereotypical cautious public figure wanting to do the right thing but nonetheless unwilling to commit himself or get himself involved. 

Then again there is more than a hint here that night enables Nicodemus to avoid committing himself and to deceive himself into thinking that he can have some of the advantages of faith without paying the full price. Thus does the night both hide Nicodemus’ contact with Christ from others but also it hides him from himself.

Yet the somewhat jarring dialogue with Jesus disrupts any such delusions, far from having his learning acknowledged and tastefully advanced in a dialogue enriched with Socratic method,  Nicodemus is told bluntly that no matter what learning he has laboriously acquired before,  he must start again now and go back to the very beginning.

Far from being invited into an elegant debate about ideas,  he is presented with a challenge that is almost offensively personal and particular,  and one that is set out in an almost shocking imagery of his needing to be reborn in the manner of a baby.  What he needs is a child-like heart unprotected by the elaborate and ultimately self-defeating defences and sophistical subtleties of Rabbinic wisdom.

Yet for all the implied insult, Nicodemus responds graciously, albeit with a degree of subtle irony,  by asking simply “How can a man be born when he is old?”

He would have known well that the prophets had declared that God could and would raise even dry bones to life (as set out in Ezek. 37: 1-4) And that God could give a new heart and a new spirit to his people (Ezek. 36: 26). But it was still not unreasonable to ask how these wonders were to come about – which is the point made by his question.    Can Jesus Christ seriously be saying that all the discipline,  good habits, right impulses and judgements are to be scrapped, and that an educated, decent and pious man in mid-career has to start from scratch all over again?

But Christ’s answer is uncompromising: if rebirth is to mean anything it must involve a kind of death.  Nicodemus may retain the mature wisdom of the tradition of the learned rabbis of the people of Israel but he must place no reliance on all that in the end,  for it cannot leave him aright with God or “save” him. Form in terms the Kingdom of God all this is utterly irrelevant.

For such is not just a matter of incremental behavioral improvement, or even a change of heart, but instead something far more radical,  namely total transformation and complete commitment in short,  a whole new creation. This is something far beyond well laid plans and piously implemented intentions. Moreover it is, as birth is to a baby, a gift conferred, something that happens to us, not something we do.

And if you see here at once an echo of baptism you are right.

Nicodemus is thus implicitly but bluntly presented with his need for the sacraments: water and the Holy Spirit.

Why not water alone, he might have wondered? After all,  would it not be enough that a man turn from his past life and, say, by some symbolic act (like the baptism of John) declare simply a firm resolve to lead a new life? But the answer is no, because man cannot forgive any sins –least of all his own. In the deepest sense he cannot create new life for himself. None of us can restore a right relation to God on his own.

But why not then Spirit alone?

For surely God does not require water in order to confer new life? No again, but we do –by virtue of what it is to be human– in order to receive it.

Pure spirits cut off from the rest of Creation, might experience death or rebirth as some kind of purely internal private event. But for incarnate creatures that are of flesh and blood, rebirth is appropriately enacted through a physical act that speaks to our incarnate nature.

The physicality of Christianity –with its sacraments–  reminds us that it is not just a philosophy,  or a collection of more or less interesting religious views, but instead a life that is always of, and lived out within,  the community that is the people of God, which is his Church.

Discipleship is not some mere frame of mind, or intermittent disposition or “lifestyle choice” like some kind of tasteful “exterior décor” of the person. Rather it involves belonging to the church militant.   As Augustin put it tartly,  to one who had expressed himself piously as favourably disposed to Christianity —philosophically speaking—  “I shall not count you as a Christian until I see you in the Church of Christ’ (Confessions 8, 2)

And still we have that wondering sentiment of Nicodemus who muses about all this: “how can this be?” 

And if Jesus seems almost harsh in his response it is important to remember how much of what he was saying should have resonated to a man as learned in scripture as Nicodemus.

He should readily have recalled that the prophet Ezekiel, once again,  had prophesied that in some unspecified future time God would sprinkle clean water upon his people and give them and new heart and new spirit. (Ezek. 36: 22-32).

So this should have been a conceptualization that might have been expected to receive immediate recognition, understanding and acceptance from this “this famous teacher of Israel”. But instead he raises difficulties.

Moreover such difficulty in accepting the basic imagery of rebirth would have to auger ill for the capacity of Nicodemus to accept that the agent of this needed new birth was none other than the Son of God taking human flesh and then being lifted up so that “whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. 

But then great mysteries of the incarnation and redemption carry their own conviction among those who will allow themselves to be reached and saved. In the words Simeon had prophesied to Mary, Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel….that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed (Luke 2:34-5).

It is then at a quite late stage that  St John introduces for the first time in his Gospel the term the potentially terrifying word ‘judgement’. But this is understood in a characteristic and unique way.  For here, it is not primarily a sentence passed on us by Christ at some future occasion, or at the end of time, but rather something that the sinner brings on himself by rejection and a falling back into his darkness and a pulling away from the kindly light of Christ and his Cross – and it that reality of the Cross that judges us.

Yet for ultimately, all the hesitancy and ambiguity present in the Nicodemus presented to us in today’s Gospel,  it is not the end of that story.

For much later in the Gospel we see,  however quietly,  that in the end the cautious, sensible, self-reliant Nicodemus emerges again and slips back into the narrative after the crucifixion when he comes to the tomb.

This time he has no need to speak at all, for his actions are perhaps far more eloquent than his words ever were, for now we see him as one who has found the Cross and understood its meaning for the reality of who Christ was and is, after all.

In between that last appearance and the Gospel today when the Sanhedrin first sets in motion Christ’s judicial murder, it was Nicodemus alone who spoke,  however cautiously,  in the name of decency and justice (7: 50-I), and it is after the Crucifixion, when darkness appears to have been triumphant, that St John’s Gospel presents him as one no longer ashamed to be numbered openly among the disciples.

This means that for him in the end when it really counted it was it was at last no longer night.

So too must we pray —  in this season of personal reflection and preparation—that it will be at the last for each of us. Amen.

[1] But not everyone has taken such a view, see the work of Dorothy L  Sayers (1943), The Man Born to Be King: A Play-Cycle on the Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Written for Broadcasting , discussed in an unpublished paper by Margaret

[2] Lurking in the background there is of course a philosophical issue about the very possibility of uninterpreted experience —which I shall leave to one side– beyond saying that in my view the answer to a doubt about that possibility would be “yes”.

[3] A line of thought which actually goes back further than the time of Albert Schweitzer even if he most famously launched an explicit search framed thus in relatively recent times.

[4] A background that comes readily mind, given that I recently had occasion to address the subject of heresies and how to choose your own,  in a Theology on Tap event recently here in Boston for which I had a handy little list of 50 or so we could explore – another time!

[5] A brief definition of Nestorian Christology has been given as holding: “Jesus Christ, who is not identical with the Son but personally united with the Son, who lives in him, is one hypostasis and one nature: human.”[ Martin Lembke, Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University, 2010.] This contrasts with Nestorius’ own teaching that the Word, which is eternal, and the Flesh, which is not, came together in a hypostatic union, ‘Jesus Christ’, Jesus thus being both fully man and God, of two ousia (Ancient Greek: οuσία) but of one prosopon.[

Nestorius. The Bazaar of Heracleides] Both Nestorianism and Monophysitism were condemned as heretical at the Council of Chalcedon.

[6] Cf. John 14: 9; Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?, 1: 18, 1 7: 3.

[7] Laurence Cantwell, “The Quest for the Historical Nicodemus”, Religious Studies, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Dec. 1980), pp. 481-486.

Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent

Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for the Season:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This Week at the Advent, March 15-21, 2020

Welcome to the Church of the Advent! If you are new to the area, visiting, or seeking a church home, we are glad you’re here and hope to have a chance to greet you in person. Please join us downstairs following the service for a coffee hour.

Welcome cards are located in each pew; please fill one out so we can keep in touch.


No Entr’acte or Church School until after Easter.

Coffee Hours are suspended until after Easter.

No Advent Tours today. Building tours with verger Ray Porter, usually offered on the third Sunday of each month, have been cancelled for March. We hope to have them resume in April. 

The Evensong & Benediction scheduled for this evening has been cancelled.

The Advent’s full COVID-19 response, including any updates to the service schedule, has been added to the parish website and will be posted on our Facebook page as well. Please check these regularly, as the situation is constantly changing.


Lenten reminders:

  • Morning Prayer will be said at 8:00 am.
  • The women’s reading group that has been meeting on Mondays is transitioning to a virtual meeting; please contact Agnes Coakley Cox ( for information on participating.
  • Wednesdays: Readings in John study immediately following the 6:00 pm Healing Mass, in the Hunnewell Room (Library). Light refreshments are served.


Can you help the parish Flower Guild? Preparing the floral decorations for Easter would be utterly impossible without reinforcements from outside the guild. Please join us if you can on either or both of the following days:

  • Maundy Thursday, April 9, 10:00 am to noon and/or 1:00 to 3:30 pm
  • Holy Saturday, April 11, 10:00 am to 4:00 pm — please try to arrive by 11:00 am, but you do not have to stay all afternoon; even an hour or two is helpful.

No flower arranging skills are required — if you can carry a bucket, climb a stepladder, use a broom, or fill a trash bag, we can use you! And if you like flowers but have never made an arrangement, this is a great chance to learn some basic techniques. Help is especially needed on Saturday, April 11.

First Holy Communion Class for students in the 2nd to 4th grades will be offered on Sundays in Eastertide during the Christian education hour. If your child is interested in participating, please speak to Meg Nelson or Fr Jeff.

Report of Sunday, March 8 — Attendance (all Masses): 219; Collection: $4296


Bishop William Stevens Parry (18321898) wrote The History of the American Episcopal Church, 15871883, published in 1885 by J. R. Osgood in Boston. Volume II of this magnum opus includes a monograph by the Rev. Phillips Brooks (18351893), then rector of Trinity Church, entitled “A Century of Church Growth in Boston.” Speaking of the founding of the Church of the Advent, Brooks writes,

“This great movement — this Catholic revival, as its earnest disciples love to call it — was most natural. It was the protest and self-assertion of a partly neglected side of religious life; it was a re-action against some of the dominant forms of religious thought which had become narrow and exclusive; it was the effort of the Church to complete the whole sphere of her life; it was the expression of certain perpetual and ineradicable tendencies of the human soul.”

Brooks is quoted at length in King’s Handbook of Notable Episcopal Churches in the United States, by the Rev. George Wolfe Shinn (18391910), rector of Grace Church, Newton, published by Moses King Corporation, Boston, 1889. Shinn notes that with 600 communicants, the Church “has a congregation that tests its seating capacity.” He describes its design in great detail:

“The Church edifice is built of brick, with brown-stone trimmings. It is not yet entirely completed; but when the tower and other additions are made, it will be one of the most beautiful structures in the country…Upon entering the building, two things attract the attention of the visitor: the first is the great height of the nave, some ninety feet, and the great size of the chancel. The latter is thirty feet wide and forty-eight feet deep, divided into choir and sanctuary, and is separated from the nave by a rood-screen of gilded iron-work. All the interior walls are of brick, with occasional spaces of brown-stone, some of which are elaborately carved, while others await their final decoration. Their [sic] are some good specimens of stained glass already in position, but other windows will be filled later on with bright colors. The use of brick-work for the interior shows what wonderful solidity and beauty are possible by the judicious use of a material not yet well appreciated in this country.”


March 16-22, 2020

Monday, March 16

Tuesday, March 17
6:00 pm: Community Supper

Wednesday, March 18
6:00 pm: Healing Mass followed by Lenten Bible Study
7:00 pm: Bellringers

Thursday, March 19
Saint Joseph

Friday, March 20
11:30 am: Rosary

Saturday, March 21

Sunday, March 22
The Fourth Sunday in Lent (“Laetare”)
7:30 am: Morning Prayer
8:00 am: Low Mass
9:00 am: Sung Mass
11:15 am: Solemn Mass

Holy Week Schedule

Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from thy ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of thy Word, Jesus Christ thy Son; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for the season:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This Week at the Advent, March 8-14, 2020

Welcome to the Church of the Advent! If you are new to the area, visiting, or seeking a church home, we are glad you’re here and hope to have a chance to greet you in person. Please join us downstairs following the service for a coffee hour.

Child care is offered during the 9 am and 11:15 am services; an usher can guide you to the nursery.

Welcome cards are located in each pew; please fill one out so we can keep in touch.


See the Rectory. Following both the 9:00 and 11:15 Masses, Advent parishioners are invited to walk through the newly renovated Rectory. Please come to the front door, at 135 Mt. Vernon Street, and be prepared to remove your shoes upon entering.

9:00 Coffee Hour: Hosting today are Abigail & Alister Lewis-Bowen with Barbara Boles. If you would like to sign up to host coffee hour, please contact Barbara Boles by phone, 617-501-7572, or email,, if you’re interested or have questions.

1:15 Coffee Hour: Hosting this morning are Stephanie Brown & Julius Krein, Meg Mill, and Philip Sawyer. We are always in need of more volunteers; to view the schedule and select a date to co-host, visit If you have any questions, please contact Frederick Ou (, Roxy Hanson ( or Betsy James (

Name Tags. If you have a nametag, please wear it at coffee hour. This helps us know each other better – and helps Fr. Anderson learn all our names. If you are a pledging member of the Advent, and do not have a nametag, please contact the church office.

Entr’acte. Robin Landrith continues a study of  “In the Beginning…: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall.” This series of homilies was delivered by Pope Benedict XVI, then Joseph Ratzinger, during the Lenten season of 1981, and Lent remains a fitting time to renew reflections on the first principles of our world. Benedict’s homilies focus on Israel’s experience of God as Creator in the unfolding testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures, together with the ethical implications of belief in creation as recounted by the Bible as a whole—that is, in light of the fulfillment of creation revealed in Christ. Entr’acte follows the 9:00 am Mass in the Hunnewell Room (Library).

20s–30s of the Advent are invited to an information/listening session with the clergy in the Library following the 11:15 Mass.

Compline at the Advent: Join us at 8:00 pm in the nave for the ancient liturgy of Compline, preceded by Lucernarium, an evening service of lamp-lighting. We pray Compline, the service of prayer before bedtime in the custom of early Christian monasticism, on the second Sunday of every month.


Lenten reminders:

  • Morning Prayer will be said at 8:00 am.
  • Wednesday Morning Bible Study moves forward one hour, to 9:00 am.
  • A women’s reading group meets Mondays from 6:00 to 7:30 pm (through March 30) in the Frisby Room to read and discuss the book A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans, and to get to know one another better theough sharing. Women of all ages are very warmly invited to join; please contact Agnes Coakley Cox ( for more information. 
  • Wednesdays: Readings in John study immediately following the 6:00 pm Healing Mass, in the Hunnewell Room (Library). Light refreshments are served.
  • Thursdays: Stations of the Cross and Benediction at 6:00 pm

The Parish Lenten Guide for 2020, A Lenten Journey, is available at the back of the church, on the parish website, and in Moseley Hall at coffee hour. This booklet allows all of us to keep a Lenten discipline, together with weekly Scripture readings, acts of self-discipline, and meditations we can all take on as a community.


Evensong & Benediction. March 15, at 5 pm, the Advent Choir will sing for Evensong & Benediction, featuring Renaissance polyphony of Victoria, Palestrina and Blitheman. The 4:30 Organ Prelude Recital will be played by James Kealey of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.

Following the Evensong, our parishioner and friend Dr Brian Sirman will present a particularly interesting talk during the light supper which follows at 6:00 pm in Moseley Hall. The presentation is entitled: “Jesus Christ, Cornerstone: Faith, Worship, and Unity in Anglo-Catholic Architecture.” The Church of the Advent was built during a period of consequential and controversial changes in church architecture. Despite criticism from without as well as within, Anglo-Catholicism’s architects sought to use church buildings as outward tokens of essential spiritual and liturgical principles. At its core, this architecture was grounded in both the solemnity of worship and an understanding of Anglican union with the Church universal, both past and present. As we explore broader trends in Anglo-Catholic architecture during the mid to late 19th century, we’ll consider how these motivations find cogent and powerful expression at the corner of Brimmer and Mount Vernon Streets. Currently studying law at the College of William and Mary, Dr. Sirman taught at Boston University, where his scholarship focused on twentieth-century American politics, architecture, and urbanism. His book, Concrete Changes: Architecture, Politics, and the Design of Boston City Hall, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2018.


Another missing coat! Last Sunday, March 1, after the 11:15 Solemn Mass, one of our parishioners discovered his navy blue overcoat missing from the coatroom by Moseley Hall. A similar dark brown overcoat was left in the coatroom on the same day. Has someone taken the wrong overcoat? If you discover you have the wrong coat please contact the Parish Office at 617-523-2377.

A contribution has been made from the Rector’s Ministry Fund to St Bartholomew’s Church, Nashville (where Fr Sammy Wood is rector), for tornado relief in the area.

Can you help the parish Flower Guild? Preparing the floral decorations for Easter would be utterly impossible without reinforcements from outside the guild. Please join us if you can on either or both of the following days:

  • Maundy Thursday, April 9, 10:00 am to noon and/or 1:00 to 3:30 pm
  • Holy Saturday, April 11, 10:00 am to 4:00 pm — please try to arrive by 11:00 am, but you do not have to stay all afternoon; even an hour or two is helpful.

No flower arranging skills are required — if you can carry a bucket, climb a stepladder, use a broom, or fill a trash bag, we can use you! And if you like flowers but have never made an arrangement, this is a great chance to learn some basic techniques. Help is especially needed on Saturday, April 11.

An introductory course in Biblical Greek will be offered at 6:45 pm on Thursdays at 43 South Russell Street. Corey Rouse will lead a 1.5 hour course using Clayton Croy’s Primer of Biblical Greek. Registration not required! Email for more information.

Discount parking vouchers for the Boston Common Garage are available for $9.00 each from Nola Sheffer or are also available at the Bookstore. You can find them between the 9:00 and 11:15 Masses at the Coffee Hour or Entr’acte. The vouchers can be used after 4:00 pm weekdays, and all day Saturday and Sunday. Questions? email:

First Holy Communion Class for students in the 2nd to 4th grades will be offered on Sundays in Eastertide during the Christian education hour. If your child is interested in participating, please speak to Meg Nelson or Fr Jeff.

Reminder: Suspicious Messages. It seems that a number of Advent parishioners have received bogus email (and text) messages purporting to be from Father Anderson. Please note that his email is (preferred) or If you receive a suspicious message, please double-check sender e-mail addresses for authenticity; disregard and delete messages from any other address. Remember also that Clergy and church leaders will never ask for emergency aid or donations. If you have doubts about authenticity, phone the requester to confirm. Find more information about phishing scams, including how to report them, at

Report of Sunday, March 1 — Attendance (all Masses): 242; Collection: $12,278


Thanks to those from whom we have recently received pledges. Thus far we have received 202 pledges, amounting to a total of $550,777. 71 have increased their pledges by an average of 17.5%, and there are 31 from those who did not pledge in 2019. We have yet to hear from 38 parishioners who pledged a total of $48,475 last year.


“For the Whole State of Christ’s Church and the World”

The Rev. William Harman van Allen (rector, 1902-1929) regularly concluded his weekly message with detailed, dignified requests for intercession. A sampling of these provides a richly detailed picture of parish life in the early 20th century, and of his devotion to the people of the Church of the Advent, and beyond.

I ask your prayers for…several who are in affliction; for a sick child; for the perseverance of all new members of the congregation; for the return to her duty of a Christian girl who has lapsed into Eddyism.

I ask your prayers for a woman gravely ill; for a wayward young girl; for a college student, that he may be faithful; for our fellow-Christians of the Papal Obedience, that they may be led to reform the Latin Church from within, purging it of tyranny, superstition, and political activities; and for all who are in isolation or poverty.

Your prayers are asked for Fr. Tovey, SSJE, who is on the ocean, bound for England and India; for a couple to be married on Saturday; for several in doubt who are turning Church- ward; for all who are lonely; in thanksgiving for several recovering from illness; and for many vocations to the Priesthood.

I ask for your prayers in thanksgiving for a girl’s recovery from appendicitis; for a man ill in a foreign land; for a sick girl who has had two operations; that we all may have a repentant, pregressive [sic], and happy Lent…

I ask your prayers for the recovery from grave illness of one of our young girls and of a priest’s son; for the approaching missionary exhibition; for all who mourn, that they may be comforted; and for a blessing on our Lent.

I ask your prayers in thanksgiving for the preservation of several persons through surgical operations; or those who are seriously ill; that the Parish apportionment may be met in full, and that every member of the Parish may be enrolled as a supporter of the Church at home and abroad; for those who suffer from famine in China; and for industrial peace.

I ask your prayers for the repose of the soul of Florence C. Cottle, a communicant who fell asleep April 4; in thanksgiving for an answered prayer; for the preservation of E.B.G. on the high seas; and for a blessed Easter, on which all the faithful shall receive Holy Communion devoutly and worthily.


March 9-15, 2020

Monday, March 9
6:00 pm: Women’s Lenten Reading Group

Tuesday, March 10
6:00 pm: Community Supper

Wednesday, March 11
9:00 am: Bible Study
6:00 pm: Healing Mass followed by Lenten Bible Study
7:00 pm: Bellringers
7:00 pm: Parish Choir Rehearsal

Thursday, March 12
6:00 pm: Stations of the Cross & Benediction
7:00 pm: Advent Choir Rehearsal

Friday, March 13
11:30 am: Rosary

Saturday, March 14

Sunday, March 15
The Third Sunday in Lent
7:30 am: Morning Prayer
8:00 am: Low Mass
9:00 am: Sung Mass
10:15 am: Entr’acte/Church School
11:15 am: Solemn Mass
4:30 pm: Organ Recital
5:00 pm: Evensong & Benediction, followed by supper & talk

Holy Week Schedule

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey Hanson at the Church of the Advent, March 1, 2020, the First Sunday in Lent

There are two things going on in today’s Gospel that I think need to be distinguished. The Lord Jesus is fasting, and he is being tempted. These are two different sorts of experience that we often conflate but that should be kept separate from each other.

Jesus is in the desert fasting for 40 days at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. This is a good thing, it is of God, and it strengthens him for what is to come in his ministry.

At the end of this period he is tempted by the devil. This is a bad thing. The devil does this, and the devil’s malicious intent is to weaken and distract him from his ministry.

Being tested and being tempted are not the same thing. In fact, I think we can say that Jesus being tested is what makes him ready to face being tempted.

And this is not unusual in the Scriptures. Israel as a chosen people was tested in the desert for 40 years; Jesus is simply repeating this same pattern, and we know this because in every temptation he eventually faces he quotes from the book of Deuteronomy to thwart the devil, and Deuteronomy is a reflection on Israel’s sojourn in the desert right before entering the land of promise.

I quote from chapter 8, where Moses is addressing the people: “You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.”

This I suggest is our way in to understanding Jesus’ experience of testing because it is his way of understanding it. These verses from Deuteronomy are obviously on his mind since he casts them in the devil’s face when he is eventually tempted.

Israel was tested in the desert for 40 years by God to try their hearts, to see if they would keep God’s commandments and be worthy of their calling to be God’s witness to the nations. During that time God fed Israel with the food of angels, manna, to show to them that no one lives by earthly bread alone but by God’s sustenance and provision.

At the end of the 40 days of fasting, only then, does temptation come. It is only then in fact that Jesus feels hungry, that is, feels the effects of his having been tested.

And let’s try to be very clear about what exactly the devil’s temptation consists in. I think it’s everything to do with this insidious little word, “If.” This is how the devil always works; his only power is that of deception, and he uses it to undercut our confidence in the promises of God. Jesus has just heard, in the immediately prior verse to this reading, God the Father himself proclaiming from heaven, “This is my beloved Son.”

What could be clearer? Yet no sooner does that happen than the devil right away begins playing his games of nasty insinuation. “Are you really the Son of God? Did God the Father really say he loved you?” “If you are the Son God, then why not prove it?”

Now normally this temptation to turn stones into bread is interpreted as an enticement to gratuitously display supernatural power: If you are the Son of God then do a magic trick. I think that may be part of it, but I don’t think that’s the whole explanation.

Jesus’s answer to the devil, which again comes straight out of Deuteronomy, tells the whole story. The reason Jesus refuses to turn stones to bread is not so much because he refuses to do a magic trick but because he is reliant on the promises of God to provide what he needs. To say as Jesus does that we live by everything that proceeds from the mouth of God is to say that we live by the promises of the Father. The point of his answer is that he doesn’t need to provide himself with bread because God has promised that one way or another, even when it seems like our need is very great, God will provide us with everything we require.

It is I suggest precisely the same issue that is at stake in the second temptation our Lord faces, which again is couched in this cynical hypothetical tone: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” from the pinnacle of the temple.

Once again, the whole story here only comes into clarity if we read Jesus’ response against he background of Deuteronomy, which again Jesus quotes verbatim but incompletely: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” comes now from chapter 6, where Moses tells the people of Israel, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”

So what is that? Well, it’s a place and a place of some import during Israel’s journey though the desert. It was there that the people of Israel complained that they had no water to drink and condemned Moses for having led them out of Egypt to their graves. When Moses appeals to the Lord, God commands him to strike a rock with the same staff that was instrumental in the plagues of Egypt, and water in abundance bursts forth from the rock. Moses then names the place where God wrought this miracle “Massah,” which in Hebrew just means “testing,” and he names it this because he says there the children of Israel found fault with God and “put the Lord to the test by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” The miracle at Massah proves that the Lord is with his people and that he will provide what they need.

So, when Jesus tells the devil that he will not put God his Father to the test what he means is that he will not question whether God his Father is with him, and he will once more instead trust God to provide what he needs.

The devil’s last try casts aside all subtlety and goes right for the jugular: “Worship me, and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” Once more Jesus’s answer recalls a verse from Deuteronomy: “You shall fear the Lord your God and serve him only.”

At this time Satan departs, and Matthew tells us that angels came and ministered to Jesus. I suspect this too is a deliberate reference to Israel’s experience in the desert, when they ate manna, the food of angels, as we have just been reminded by our Lord’s first reference to Deuteronomy. The Greek word translated here as “ministered” is “diekonoun,” which is where we get our word “deacon.” The most literal meaning of this term is someone who serves by waiting at table, providing food. Since Jesus is now hungry, I think it likely Matthew is telling us that angels brought food to our Lord upon his routing of the devil’s three-fold temptation.

If I am right, then notice something very interesting. In the end Jesus gets from his Father exactly what the devil promises and yet cannot deliver himself. The devil tempts Jesus to eat bread, and God provides him with bread from heaven. The devil tempts Jesus to summon angels from heaven, and God sends angels to minister to him. What about the last one though? Satan promises Jesus authority over the whole world. This too is not his to deliver, but God does crown Jesus the beloved Son with authority over all things. Just not yet.

Because there is one final temptation that Jesus must resist. It comes much later and not from the devil himself but from someone who is speaking diabolically. This final temptation has that same telltale formula: “If you are the Son of God…”

Matthew, chapter 27, verse 40. The witnesses to our Lord’s crucifixion put one last temptation before him. “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”

Jesus successfully resists temptation three times at the very beginning of his ministry. And once more at the end.

And he is able to do so I think because he trusts God from beginning to end.

When Jesus has won the final victory over Satan, over death, and has been raised by the Father to new life, then and only then does he claim for himself what the devil vainly promised in exchange for forsaking God, dominion over all things: Matthew 28, the risen Lord Jesus’s final words to his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

Those words of promise are the ones we should trust in when facing our own temptations and difficulties. Jesus Christ trusted in the Father who called Israel to be his own people and who promised to be faithful and loving to them. That same heavenly Father is made fully known to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. And he has promised us that he will be with us forever.

Lent is a time to remind ourselves of this truth. We do this by imitating our Lord’s life and practice. Jesus begins his ministry and readies himself for temptation by 40 days of fasting. The church wisely asks us to do the same and for the same reason: Fasting prepares us for the challenges of ordinary life and draws us closer to God in trust. We forgo things we are accustomed to providing for ourselves in order to tangibly live out our belief that ultimately all things come from God. We part with our needless possessions to demonstrate our confidence that God will give us whatever we really need. And we redouble our commitment to prayer and spiritual discipline because this proves to ourselves that are not just physical beings with physical needs but spiritual creatures who require relationship with our maker to be fulfilled.

The Lenten way is the Lord’s own way. If we will follow it, we will endure our own tests, vanquish our temptations, and share in the final victory that Jesus Christ has won on our behalf. Amen.