Dr. McGowan is the Dean & President of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:25).
So spoke Jesus once. And most years as Advent comes around again there seem to be apocalyptic events that offer themselves as signs and portents, of something at least. Many of us wonder what the world is coming to, looking at Paris and Beirut, or just at Colorado Springs. Our fundamentalist cousins may even now be off finding hidden references to Turkish anti-aircraft fire in the Book od Daniel and to Russian bombers in the Revelation to John, or calculating where and when they imagine the second coming will be.
The response of the English comic Marty Feldman to this sort of literalism was apt, if cynical; in a comedy sketch from the 1960s he took on the role of the apocalyptic prophet, but with a twist:
You want to know how it’ll be?
I’ll tell ‘ee
The heavens will open up,
and blood will come raining down
And there will be plagues of frogs and locusts
And the earth will crack,
and the seas will boil over
And nameless abominations will come forth,
crawling from the slimy depths
There will be storms,
there will be sleet,
and fire will engulf the whole earth!
…The rest of the night will be fine except for outbreaks of rain.
If the relevance of Advent or our expectation of Christ’s coming were really focussed on such things, our waiting would be in vain and so would that of every Christian who ever expected the coming of Christ. But this is not so.
The great spiritual teacher of the twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux, spoke to his monastic brothers about three comings of Christ, not just two. “The third lies between the other two” he says. “It is invisible, while the other two are visible.” ”In the first coming he was seen on earth… In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God…The intermediate coming is a hidden one.” (Sermo 5, In Adventu Domini, 1-3).
What does Bernard mean? To answer, let me turn your attention for a moment to the other but related cause for celebration today, your dedication festival.
Many of you here know perfectly well, in that connection, that there have been not just three but many “Advents.” Despite the impression of antiquity or even eternity this building gives, this is but the latest, not the only, Church of the Advent. The parish historians can correct me afterwards, but I count services on Merrimac Street before properties on Causeway, Green, Bowdoin Streets, before the relative stability of Brimmer St. Yet in each of these places there was a Church of the Advent, whose purpose in gathering and praying was precisely to witness to the coming of Christ now.
The organization of this Church, as of others like it around the country and around the world—such as Christ Church New Haven whose greetings I bring and from which came the first Rector of the Advent, William Croswell—was prompted by a remarkable renewal in Christian faith and life, whose first stirrings we call the Oxford Movement. People coming to a Church like the Advent sometimes get the impression that certain elements of ritual, or primarily aesthetic changes, drove the founders. This is not so, however.
They acted to constitute a community of worship here in order to observe the teaching of the Book of Common Prayer, and to provide forms of worship that reflected what they read therein. Where much of Boston Episcopal piety in the mid-nineteenth century seemed so low and loose that it was at risk of sliding into the Charles, the Advent had daily services, apparently for the first time in Boston since the seventeenth century. And they did believe that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist was worthy of regular reception, careful preparation, and other forms of devotion, including but not limited to appropriate furnishings for the Church—provision of which, modest as they were by today’s standards (including the cross enclosed now in the reredos of All Saints’ Chapel here) led to a protracted conflict with the then bishop. Here ever since Christians have earnestly believed in and sought Christ’s coming again and again, in the celebration of the Eucharist.
Another of the characteristics of Churches like this one was that they were “free,” that is, that they did not have rented pews marked off for the prosperous while persons of lesser degree were relegated to galleries or standing room at the back. The characteristic of Anglican catholicism to which this commitment points is as essential as the more obviously sacramental one. The liturgy of the Church is an image of the reign of God, where all are welcomed without regard to social station or wealth; and to participate in this banquet where all partake equally is to be equipped for service of all when we go from here. Christ is truly coming to us still, in those who have the deepest need in our local and global communities. Frank Weston Bishop of Zanzibar famously put it this way to a startled Anglo-Catholic congress in London in 1925:
“…you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.”
So Christ’s coming is adverted to in those ominous headlines of recent weeks; not however as clues to encourage esoteric speculation about the future, but as hints to where he may now be found coming as a new tide of human need rises, across the Mediterranean and elsewhere.
What of Bernard and his three Advents? “The intermediate coming” he said “is a kind of path by which we travel from the first to the final.” Bernard’s point is actually very simple: Christ comes now, again and again, if we but allow ourselves to see him. And while these modes of presence, the eucharistic and social, are or should be pre-eminent in the tradition of this place, there are others which belong to the inner paths of all our hearts. If we long for his coming, he is already close; if we listen for it, we will hear it. As Jesus said, there are “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth”; there always are signs of his coming, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
These comings we long for, even though they may change us; we seek the signs, but here they are, before us, beside us, under this roof and out in the streets and under the sky. Even so, come Lord Jesus.