Who is this who comes? Advent is about our awakening to Truth, at once ever present and yet ever coming towards us. As such it belongs to the philosophical insight that truth is primary and prior to us and to all our intellectual endeavours. Truth belongs to the Absolute Good which is God. It is ever coming towards us, we might say, in terms of our awareness (or lack thereof). It is high time to be awakened out of sleep, Paul tells us. Wachet auf, as Bach’s cantata so powerfully reminds us.
The readings in Chapel this week serve to prepare the School for the great pageant of God’s Word coming to us in the remarkable service of Nine Lessons and Carols. We may not be able to have congregational singing, but we can be part of the great pageant of God’s Word coming to us and awakening us to what is greater than ourselves. Perhaps that is the great lesson for our day and the counter to all of the narcissisms and self-obsessions that surround us.
The reading from Matthew about Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem is not only read on Palm Sunday but on the First Sunday in Advent and has been for centuries upon centuries. It is a strong reminder to us about the serious nature of God’s turning to us and our turning to God. It signals at once a sense of joy and wonder but as well a sense of judgment. In short, we are being called to account about matters intellectual and ethical. In the 16th century, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer extended the reading to include what immediately follows in Matthew’s account, namely, the disturbing story of Christ’s anger in his cleansing of the temple of “all them that bought and sold therein”, a misuse of the sacred, of the things of God. We read as well from Psalm 85 which captures the twofold emphasis in the Gospel reading: the idea of God turning us and of his anger ceasing from us, on the one hand, and the idea of God turning us again and quickening or enlivening us so that “thy people may rejoice in thee”.
The anger of God? What does that mean? As the exegetical traditions understood, this is simply about how God speaks to us in human ways for the sake of our understanding. For us anger is usually a destructive and dangerous emotion though there is room for the phenomenon of righteous anger, such as in Juvenalian satire used by Voltaire to awaken us to the various forms of injustice in our world and day which cannot be ignored. In a deeper sense, God’s anger or wrath is the love of his own truth and righteousness against all that denies it.
The story of Christ’s cleansing of the temple is about the anger of Christ with respect to violating the holy places and dishonouring the idea of things held sacred. Buying and selling are about a perversion of the Holy by making it subject to the economic, to the forms of material exchange. It is profane. The word refers to what is before or outside and separate from the Holy. Yet here it is within the Holy. As such it speaks directly to our world and day where the political and the ethical are subordinated and determined by market principles in the pursuit of profit. Even Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, knew that the market was not everything and that it was embedded in a moral universe. This is a big question for our world and day and one which is highlighted for us here. Christ’s anger - God’s anger made visible in Christ - seeks the casting out of what stands in the way of Truth and Goodness which are objective and universal principles which underlie all of ordinary pursuits. The cleansing is a kind of purification of our desires so that we can pursue what should be truly desired, something which is everlasting and true.
This throws us back to the sense of joy and wonder about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in the shouts of “Hosanna”, shouts which we know only too well will quickly turn to the cries o “crucify”. Such are the contradictions and the darkness of human hearts. “Cast off the works of darkness,” Paul bids us in another reading this week, again about the ethical, and “put on the armour of light”. Love, he says, does no harm and is the fulfilling of the Law. Once again, we see the formative power of the ancient traditions of ethical thinking even in our modern secular world. Immanuel Kant’s duty ethics or deontology is grounded in the concept of do no harm. In the philosophical and religious understanding, the point seen through the cleansing of the temple is not just about doing no harm; it is about seeking the good for all.
As such the great lessons of the Advent Christmas services open us out to the powerful visions of the Good, of harmony and care, of peace and joy that stand in stark contrast to the fears and worries, and the darkness and confusions, the sins and follies of our age. There is no need to enumerate them. My hope and prayer is that our student readers and musicians will get some sense of the significance of being part of something that is greater than themselves and that they will in some way or another begin to be awakened to the Truth which is greater than ourselves. The simple point is that we do not possess the Truth; the Truth possesses us.
“Who is this?” The city asks. It marks the beginning of a great cascade of questions that adorn the Advent season. Ultimately, what we seek or desire is intimately connected to the Truth and Goodness of God. In the Christian understanding that Truth, at once ever present and yet ever coming to us, is concentrated wonderfully in the birth of Christ, in the holy nativity of the Word made flesh who is God’s Son and Word. We attend in the quiet darkness of nature’s year to the light of Truth coming in mind, in Word, in judgement, and in the intimacy and wonder of the Word made flesh.
My hope and prayer, too, is that the students in ‘distance learning’ and parents and friends will be able to participate in these services through the Facebook link to the live-streaming and recording of these services. Blessings on all.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy