The XXV. Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 27 C

In most of the Western Church, shaped by the Roman Rite, the Advent season officially begins four Sundays before Christmas. The popular approach sees the season as a preparation for Christmas, though a look at the lectionaries shows that relatively little attention is paid to the coming celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord at Sunday Mass (the situation is somewhat different when it comes to weekday and Ember Day Masses and the Daily Office). In fact in this season several strata of time and meaning – prophecy concerning the Messiah, the Nativity itself, the inauguration of Christ’s adult ministry prefaced by that of St John the Baptist, Christ’s coming to us repeatedly in grace, and the Parousia (‘Second Coming’) are collapsed into one, making for a rich and complicated time – and at least one of these layers begins well before Advent.

From All Saints / All Souls (1–2 November) forward, in fact, the attention of the Church is naturally focused upon the Last Things. The last two Responsories at Matins of All Saints are particularly relevant:

Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning,
and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord,
when he will return from the wedding.
v Watch therefore,
    for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.

At midnight there was a cry made:
Behold! the Bridegroom cometh! go ye out to meet him!
v Trim your lamps, O ye wise virgins.

( It should be noted that these would originally have been sung in the middle of the night, and that in the very early Church, which apparently kept an all-night Vigil on Saturday night/Sunday morning [see Ac 20.7–12] – a practice echoed, though perhaps with not absolute continuity, in the Office of Matins, originally named Vigils – the return of the Lord was expected at midnight.)

The emphasis on the Last Things is particularly strong on Proper 27, which is used on the Sunday closest to 9 November – that is, very soon after All Saints’ Day – and especially in Year C (this year) of the three-year lectionary cycle. On this day we read

Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’
     Lk 20.34–38

– the last verse of which is often quoted as authority for the doctrine of the communion of saints and for the practice of both prayers for the departed and the invocation of the saints.

Corollary to remembering and praying for the departed and celebrating the lives of the saints is the examination of our own lives, asking whether we have followed the examples of Christ and his saints, fulfilled our own baptismal vows, practiced the discernment of the image of Christ here and now so that we may recognize it as light and life when we behold it unveiled:

O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days; that, when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered unto our fathers, having the testimony of a good conscience; in the communion of the Catholic Church; in the confidence of a certain faith; in the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope; in favor with thee our God; and in perfect charity with the world. All which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.
     Additional Prayer, Burial of the Dead [bcp 489],
     formerly at Visitation of the Sick,
     based upon a prayer in Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying

The fine Collect now assigned to Proper 27* also speaks to the need to prepare ourselves:

O God, whose blessed Son was manifested that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant us, we beseech thee, that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves even as he is pure; that, when he shall appear again with power and great glory, we may be made like unto him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where with thee, O Father, and thee, O Holy Ghost, he liveth and reigneth ever, one God, world without end.

And how do we ‘purify ourselves as he is pure’, so that we may be ‘in favor with... God; and in perfect charity with the world’? The Preface for later Lent – the other great season of preparation – tells us that the Lord ‘bid[s his] faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast; that, fervent in prayer and in works of mercy, and renewed by [his] Word and Sacraments, they may come to the fullness of grace which [he has] prepared for those who love [him]’, and at the beginning of that season we are exhorted to self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting, self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. We may think of these as Lenten disciplines, but really they are meant as habits (if intensified at certain times) of the Christian life throughout the year, and this pre-Advent season in which we think on our mortality and our preparedness to meet our Maker, at the end of our lives or at the end of all things, is a good time to review and renew our habits, and to pray, in the words of Form I of the Prayers of the People at the Holy Eucharist, ‘that we may end our lives in faith and hope, without suffering and without reproach.’

*  This Collect was written (by John Cosin?) for the 1662 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, originally for the VI. Sunday after the Epiphany (hence the word ‘manifested’), when the passage from I John which it quotes was read. In the older lectionary systems, some of the propers for later Sundays after the Epiphany – those that did not occur when Easter fell relatively earlier in the year – were transferred to Sundays at the end of the year to fill in after the appointed propers had run out: thus this proper, often as not, was used around this time of year. These older lectionaries retain various such hints of even earlier patterns in which (as is still the case in the Ambrosian Rite used at Milan) Advent was longer than four weeks – a pattern that has been deliberately strengthened in the modern lectionary systems.