Isaiah 63:16-17, 64:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Pondering the royal character of Jesus of Nazareth in recent weeks, it is fitting that we now reflect upon purple, the royal color. Jesus is our King. Purple is His color. A brief history of purple will help us to grasp of the sobriety and solemn character of the present season of Advent, which is our preparation for the coming of the King.
A King does not visit you. He does not knock on your door with his hat in his hand. His royal progress draws near, and an impressive figure appears in your dooryard who is His messenger. He tells you that have been summoned into God's presence. We may joke in our American and democratic swagger about going to see a royal figure, "So, how's it going King, and how's Queenie?" Or we may decide to re-invent God as being our "buddy" or "pal." I served a parish once named "PAL" (Parish of the Ascension of the Lord), whose priest had cleared the church of crucifixes. And every homily was virtually the same: Jesus is our buddy. But that is not how things are. As Isaiah reminds us this morning, a King's longtime absence can result in rules broken and habits becoming slovenly among His subjects.
When God summons us, when we are to draw near to Him, and aura of power overwhelming power surrounds us. We become aware immediately that even the universe bows to His will. Miracles may be seen. Lives are turned upside down. Divine beings may appear before you. And those who have encountered His messengers are told immediately "Fear not!" "Be not afraid!" For these are imposing figures. An angel does not resemble cupid or the putti found in Rococo art, but is, in fact, a magnificent and awe-inspiring creature. Yes, our God is the King of Love. Without question, His mercy is everlasting. But He is God, and drawing near to Him, even encountering His heralds and messengers, is an electrifying experience.
Repeatedly we learn, from Genesis through the New Testament, that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. It is a first step in understanding and an article of our faith. The word φοβοσ (phobos) appearing in Proverbs 9:10 — "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" — means respect or reverence but also a desire to withdraw. In his classic study of the Holy, Rudolf Otto writes that we are caught between two opposing forces: the mysterium tremendum, which fills us with dread and which bids us flee, and the mysterium fascinosum, which draws us in and which charms and fascinates. We have seen this principle at work in twentieth-century films. We pay money in order to experience this dimension of our souls, to sit in theaters whispering, "No! Don't go in there!" But hypnotic fascination draws us forward, and we do go in. Somehow making perilous journeys like this goes to the heart of the human person.
Approaching the Divine, of course, goes far, far beyond shallow fascination in horror and death. The mysterium tremendum leads us into mystery and paradox: For God is our Father, our Savior (Is 60:16), and our Redeemer (Is 63:16). He is our Provider (Ps 104:1) and Guide (Ps 73:24). Yet, awe, even dread, is always the first step in approaching Him. Why should this be? First, because His glory, famously, is blinding and overwhelming. Upon seeing God, Moses had to wear a veil because even the radiance of a face that had seen God was too much for others to bear. Second, His holiness, which is the highest state of the human creature, fills us with awe even as it reminds us of our own shortfallings. And this touches us deeply and personally. After all, He is the only One Who sees all and knows all. We prayed this morning, "Unto Thee all hearts are open, all desires known, and from Thee no secrets are hid" ... and then we immediately cry out, "Cleanse our hearts with the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit!" Isaiah famously said, "I am the presence of Holiness! I am lost!" And an angel in reply quickly touched his lips with a live coal. Even St. Peter, fumbling in the dark, said, "Depart from me Lord! For I am a sinful man!" realizing that he was near perfect Holiness. This is our first response, too, when drawing near to holiness. For we then see ourselves so clearly. Not only is it the external and objective but also the internal and subject that fills us with awe — seeing our uncertainties, fears, regrets, shames, and things left undone. It is at this point that the enigma of purple begins to open to us.
Growing up, I was told, coming into the church at Advent, that purple is the color of repentance and the color of mourning. But the history of this color does not bear this claim out. Upon seeing purple, the ancients would have thought, not grieving, but rare, exceedingly expensive, and therefore, royal. The dye for making this singular color was extracted and processed from a tiny snail taken from the Mediterranean — in fact, could be found only in a tinier gland within the snail, requiring many careful hands and many patient hours to produce the smallest quantities. Moses was required of God to place purple hangings within the Tent of Meeting. Alexander the Great wore purple when he granted imperial audiences to those who wished to approach the master of the ancient world. During Jesus time, A Roman general was permitted for one day to wear a purple toga embroidered in gold. on the occasion of a great military triumph. A magnificent spectacle was made ready in Rome with one man wearing purple. (Undoubtedly he had to return the toga at the end of the day.) Roman Senators wore togas having a single purple stripe. Even into the late Renaissance, purple was reserved for royalty. In Elizabethan England, during the late sixteenth century, purple was unlawful to be worn by anyone who was not of royal blood. The liturgical color for Lent and Advent during this period, and during previous centuries reaching back at least to Sarum in the twelfth century, was black. Merchant's wives, or even villagers, wearing purple in seasons of mourning? No, that would not have been possible. The association of purple with our own feelings of regret or sorrow is rooted in our psychological state at the moment we are summoned to approach purple. When we approach God, our lives come into a light and clarity and ... honesty that is unprecedented.
The meditation to which our lectionary readings call us this morning is precisely this inner state of honest self-assessment .... the present meaning and state of our lives. Underlying our readings today, and many other, similar readings in both Old and New Testaments, is a question: why should regret be nearly universal among humans. We begin this morning with Isaiah:
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one that calls upon thy name,
that bestirs himself to take hold of thee;
for thou hast hid thy face from us,
and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.
We find the same principle underlying our Gospel reading this morning. The master of the house has gone on a long journey and has left his servants in charge. The inevitable result, Jesus implies, is that the servants will become slack, for the master's presence alone ensures that everyone will behave as they ought to. Luke relates several parables having this theme including this one from chapter 12, verse 45: a "servant says to himself, 'My master is delayed in coming,' and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, ..." (Lu 12:45). St. Paul admonishes the faithful to be watchful against a thief in the night warning that the world is a place of peril and where people get drunk at night and slothful (1 Thess 5:2-8). Watchfulness, the Apostle concludes, is our only safe remedy.
The world of itself is dark and chaotic. Before the first tick of Creation's clock until the Fullness of Time and the arrival of God, the world depicted in the Sacred Scriptures is, of its own primal nature, dangerous and ungovernable like the raging sea in the dark of the darkest night. It is only the arrival of the Sovereign Lord — the Emperor Who intervened so long ago in this increate darkness and declared, "Let there be light!" and the King of Whom St. John wrote: "In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
Here and now, as we enter the darkest season of the year,
this great King approaches with His wonderful light,
His royal progress can be heard at a distance,
bestirring the night,
alarming the armies of darkness,
giving comfort to all who have watched for Him and longed for His arrival.
A great star burns above in the cold night
bidding all who see it to kneel in trembling reverence,
and finally in relief.
For the King of the Universe draws near, and mountains bow down at His presence.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.