Archive for the ‘Advent’ Category

Four Last Things


Over Advent, we have been pondering the “Four Last Things”-Death, Judgment Heaven and Hell.  I have been asked to post at least the sermon on Heaven which will be heard this morning, and Hell, which is next’ week’s topic.

I have never been keen on posting my sermon notes, as, frequently, the words come out in a very different form than the text. I learned years ago that if the Holy Spirit wants a different homily than the text I have prepared, I do best to go with His promptings. However, here is the written text for today, with no warranty express or implied.


(Given at St. Alban’s, Richmond, Virginia)


“Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

-St. Matthew 11:11


Here we are at last on Rose Sunday, the Third Sunday in Advent which used to be called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is the Latin word that means “rejoice,” but with the ending that makes it a command. So we are really being commanded to rejoice.

But, we human beings have a fairly ambiguous attitude towards life after death. There is the story of a fellow talking with a woman whose close relative had only recently died. Trying to be sympathetic, the man asked this lady, “What do you suppose has become of her? The woman replied, Oh I’m sure she’s enjoying everlasting bliss – but I wish you wouldn’t talk about such unpleasant things!”

You know, you have to be sure you really want to go to heaven. People who have not much cared for God in this life – why should they want to be closer to him in the next?

Certainly in heaven there will be God and I am certain the music of Bach.  Even this will cause trouble, because a lot of people will prefer Lady Ga Ga to Bach. If heaven means we all get rewarded with the things we love best, it looks as if heaven and hell will have to be the same place: for one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

There are so many difficulties here. In fact, it’s just about impossible to form a picture of heaven, because we are bound to think in terms of space and time. Heaven is not in time and it isn’t a place. It is beyond time and space: eternal. When we think of our lives, our being, we have to think of being somewhere and at a particular time. But truly when we die and leave this world, we leave space and time too. So being, life, existence in heaven must be very different from what they are down here.

Heaven won’t be like going to church all the time. There is a lovely hymn in the English Book Hymns Ancient & Modern where it says: “So, Lord, at length when Sacraments shall cease.”  Yes, even the Sacraments will come to an end.

As you know from your Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer (page 581), “A Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. So when we are in that eternal state of spiritual grace, we shall not require the outward and visible sign.”

When we speak of heaven, we are attempting to speak about our spiritual state of being beyond time and space.  So, all our language necessarily has to be metaphorical. We just can’t express supernatural realities directly in natural language.

Even Scripture itself is limited to soaring metaphors and the difficulties of expression of the most Divine in human words. We get incredible pictures of beasts with hundreds of eyes, angels and archangels, the Tree of Life and a stream flowing from the throne of God. The Bible is written in natural language, so not even the Bible can tell us completely what heaven is like and all of its glories.

There is another way of knowing. Think of this: if heaven is beyond time and space, if it is infinite, then there is a sense – though our language here is close to breaking down – in which we are there already. Or, if I may so put it, a sense in which we have been there. For if heaven is an eternal state, then to be there is to be there eternally.

We have intuitions of this truth-what the poet William Wordsworth called intimations of immortality:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home

Trailing clouds of glory.  Because God made this material world and because he was incarnate in it in his Son, we must expect the material world to contain something of the eternal world, heaven, God’s everlasting abode. This universe of ours is material, but it is not merely material.  As poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins put it:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God…. Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Remember Our Lord promised that the Holy Ghost would bring all things to your remembrance.

This experience is not just for poets. Beloved in Christ, let me  ask you to reflect on the fact that you and I, each one of us, knows it in ourselves. Imagine you are on a weekend out in the Shenandoah Valley—out in the country near to the mountains. You awake in the pale dawn light in a silent room. It is a high room with oak beams. You go downstairs and open the door. You feel the rush of the fragrant air and from as far as you can see into that mist and the dampness clinging to the fields, there comes the calling of birdsong.

You can barely make out the watery colors of the landscape can hardly be made out. The pale disc of the sun lies behind the racing clouds.

What do you feel?  Doesn’t this give you an exquisite sensation– something like joy, something like peace: but you can’t quite put it into words exactly.  Coming at you out of the beauty of the scene, there is something like recollection.  Such experiences I think are gifts of God sent for our encouragement; they are intimations of immortality.   They are the natural presences which both hide and reveal the eternal presence of God.

Shortly after my mom passed away, I was wandering around my parent’s house one afternoon, just after lunch.  I went upstairs into the front bedroom. It was very quiet, and her things were still there.   I noticed the sunlight on the dressing table, and I had a warm, reassuring sense of presence again.  I didn’t want to leave the bedroom. As Fr. Hopkins said, it was the sense of deep down things. A reality beyond appearances.

Beloved in Christ, God leaves his footprints and fingerprints all over the place. Why do we know that music is not just melody, rhythm and harmony – but there’s something hanging around in there that excites us, that thrills us or even makes us cry? You know the feeling of these encounters. It’s one like this: “Your hair’s standing up on end, shivers going down your spine, a lump coming into your throat, even tears running down your eyes.”  It’s called an appoggiatura, from the Italian word “to lean.” And while it’s tough to define, it’s not unlike a grace note, a note in many forms of music that is ornamental yet produces beauty.

We may react like this to the Bach Double Violin Concerto. The slow movement of Schubert’s String Quintet in C – where Schubert almost stops the music altogether. The utterly sublime music of Purcell and the words from the 1662 Prayer Book that go with it: Thou knowest Lord, the secrets of our hearts: shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer.

Human beings have a need to express what is beyond them. We are possessed of a deep sense of the mysterious. This is why we developed all the arts including poetry and music. So look at one of the most famous and earliest experiences of the divine mystery; Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple when he saw the Lord high and lifted up. Isaiah’s response is to utter a few words in a certain rhythm:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.

          And out of this little utterance the Church developed the most ecstatic prayer in the Mass:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth: pleni sunt coeli, et terra Gloria tua

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts: heaven and earth are full of thy glory.

And these few words in a certain rhythm have captivated the great composers for centuries.

Miraculously in such works we find that what we thought inexpressible is expressed. And we understand through being overwhelmed – exactly as Isaiah was overwhelmed in his original vision. You remember his response:

Woe is me, for I am undone

We find these intimations of the eternal world everywhere. In just a line of music: sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. Or, we may find it in the voice of the hidden waterfall or the laughter of children in the yard or that feeling when you love really someone.

The presence of God is subtle. The reality of eternity is half hidden and half revealed.  Remember the couple on their way to Emmaus on the first Easter Day?  Their eyes were holden that they should not know him. Until later: He took bread and blessed it and brake and gave to them…and he was known of them in breaking of bread.

In all these ways, God seeks to reassure us and show us the reality of heaven, half hidden, half revealed in the things of this earth. As usual, St Augustine puts it better than anyone:

But, what do I love, when I love Thee? Not the prettiness of a body, not the graceful rhythm, not the brightness of light (that friend of these eyes), not the sweet melodies of songs in every style, not the fragrance of flowers and ointments and spices, not manna and honey, not limbs which can be grasped in fleshly embraces – these I do not love, when I love my God. Yet I do love something like a light, a voice, a fragrance, food, embrace of my inner man, wherein for my soul a light shines, and place does not encompass it, where there is a sound which time does not sweep away, where there is a fragrance which the breeze does not disperse, where there is a flavor which eating does not diminish, and where there is a clinging which satiety does not disentwine. This is what I love, when I love my God.

Then we find ourselves in Heaven.

Let us pray (John Donne),

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; in the habitations of thy glory and dominion, world without end. Amen.


The Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls


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A prayer today from the Carmina Gadelica, which is a treasure trove of ancient Christian hymns and prayers from throughout the British Isles.

JESU, Thou Son of Mary,

Have mercy upon us,


Jesu, Thou Son of Mary,

Make peace with us,


Oh, with us and for us

Where we shall longest be,


Be about the morning of our course,

Be about the closing of our life, 


Be at the dawning of our life,

And oh! at the dark’ning of our day,


Be for us and with us,

Merciful God of all,


Consecrate us

Condition and lot,

Thou King of kings,

Thou God of all,


Consecrate us

Rights and means,

Thou King of kings,

Thou God of all,


Consecrate us

Heart and body,

Thou King of kings,

Thou God of all,


Each heart and body,

Each day to Thyself,

Each night accordingly,

Thou King of kings,

Thou God of all,


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Shortly after coming to St. Alban’s nearly seven years ago, I built a small chapel in an unused classroom on the far side of the building.  Over the years it has been used as a penance chapel as it has our confessional, as well as a tabernacle for the Reserved Sacrament (Altar of Repose) during Holy Week.  Otherwise, it has gone largely unnoticed.

Several weeks ago, Fr. Seraphim came from St. Simeon’s skete in Kentucky to lead our pre-Advent retreat for the diocese here at St. Alban’s.  He brought to us the powerful teachings of the Remnant Rosary. Information about this teaching, which is at once a devotion, meditation and spiritual discipline, can be found on the pages of the  Nazareth House Apostolate, of which the skete is the physical part.  It is a must visit site, and I urge all who follow the like to carefully read all of the pages and then make a generous contribution to this extraordinary work of Christ.

Now, that I have gotten the advertisement past, I want to note that a number of the retreat participants already have adopted the Remnant Rosary into their spiritual practice.  It is not easy at first to do so, but nothing that really builds one up is.  Surely, the prayers of the beads are not hard to learn, but the difficulty comes in their convicting nature.  In this upcoming season of Advent, the enormity of the Incarnation is not easy to face if taken seriously, and the Remnant Rosary calls those who sincerely pray it squarely into the sheer power of the event and of the race that Jesus would run for us-a race that led up Calvary to the Cross and beyond the grave.

So it was, over these last two weeks, I sort of “fiddled about” with the beads that Fr. Seraphim had given me and the small booklet that accompanied them.  One can “breeze” through a regular Rosary in a way that can become quite wrote and perfunctory. (One should not, of course, but familiarity can result in laxity.)  However, the Remnant Rosary invites the person that prays it into a deeply personal entry in to the Holy Mysteries.  One is called to internalize the Mysteries and to “take in” Jesus in a way that is quite profound-Eucharistic in a very meaningful way.  It is that sort of intimacy, I believe many people are uncomfortable with even though Christ invites us into that level of relationship.  One need only to examine how many people receive the Sacrament in a perfunctory manner to get my point here. (Here, I invite you to think about the “receive and run” folks who don’t even wait for the Benediction to head for the parking lot.  If, however, this describes you, stop it!)

So, after Matins, I felt sufficiently prepared to take on and engage the Remnant Rosary, and, for some reason, was drawn to the little chapel for a first attempt.  If you already pray the Rosary, the Mysteries are familiar.  The depth of the meditations, though, are not.  Taken seriously, this combination of prayer and meditation moves one swiftly from chronos (actual time) to kairos, (God time), just as the Remnant Rosary book notes.  To borrow from Fr. Seraphim, “Ultimately [this] Rosary has no goal, only depth.  The mysteries are a shoreless ocean, we are a wave ant the Rosary is the current rooted in the depths….Here we ‘see the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep’ (Ps. 107:24).”

As I prayed the Joyful Mysteries, I happened to glance at the icon of Supreme Humility and that sense of depth cane home with incredible force.  It is a sense that the shadow of the Cross hangs across the Christmas crib, and both bind Heaven and earth together in the life of Christ.  Advent heralds Good Friday which, in torn, anticipates the Resurrection, all bound up in the life of the Master expressed throughout in Supreme Humility.

This Advent, I would invite you either to “try out” Remnant Rosary or to pray the familiar Rosary with a new attention to its depth.  Include short meditations on each bead, rather than breeze through the devoting to rest satisfied in the fact that you simply have “gotten through” another set of Mysteries.  Personalize each bead, and take in the enormity of each event.  Any worry of time spent (which should not be a concern in prayer) will simply disappear when you let down your spiritual net into the depths for a draught.  And always keep before you the vision of the Supreme Humility that has redeemed the world.



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On the Sunday Next Before Advent, we began a new Sunday study I have tentatively called “Approaching the Incarnation.” Amid the incredible noise of the commercial “holiday season”, we do well to step back into the quiet of a darkened hillside and contemplate the enormity of the coming Feast of the Incarnation. As God breaks into the world, we should be humbled and brought to our knees by his very purpose in doing so.

In On the Incarnation, our main Advent study text, St. Athanasius succinctly gives us the real news of Advent: “The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men. For one who wanted to make a display the thing would have been just to appear and dazzle the beholders. But for Him Who came to heal and to teach the way was not merely to dwell here, but to put Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him”  What a powerful thing to contemplate this Advent!  Our Lord came to put Himself at our disposal as the ones who need him most.

The saint goes on to say that the result is that,  “The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension – above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.”  Will we spend another Advent season oblivious to that total penetration of the world by the knowledge of God, and, instead, squander these weeks with the mundane, the banal or the material?

Truly, Advent is a time to understand that we have an Incarnate, living Jesus.  Truly, ours is a “…Savior [who] is working mightily among men, every day He is invisibly persuading numbers of people all over the world, …to accept His faith and be obedient to His teaching. Can anyone, in face of this, still doubt that He has risen and lives, or rather that He is Himself the Life? Does a dead man prick the consciences of men, so that they throw all the traditions of their fathers to the winds and bow down before the teaching of Christ?”

So, today, in addition to the Angelus, let us offer a Prayer of Thanks for the Incarnation

Jesus, You came to earth from heaven to take on flesh and dwell among us. You became the supreme example of God in the flesh, pouring out Your grace upon grace. In Your humanness You were victorious in the raging battle against the spiritual forces of evil when faced with temptations and trials common to all people. We stand in glorious victory as we follow Your example and hold to Your unchanging truths. We come alongside those who are grieving loss and enduring heartache in the midst of this glorious season, for it is in keeping with the season of giving, that we give ourselves in faithful prayer toward these in grief. It is in the loving name of Jesus that we pray. Amen. 

Texts for St. Alban’s Advent Study: Main-On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius; Supplemental-Living Jesus, Luke Timothy Johnson.


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thomasbelievingAt daily Matins here at St. Alban’s, we customarily sing a hymn from The Hymnal Noted edited by The Rev. John Mason Neale and The Rev. Thomas Helmore.   Reprinted by the Lancelot Andrewes Press, this is a gem that brings a richness to the daily office particularly on saints’ days.  This is certainly the case on this Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle and as we enter the last days of Advent.  If you are used to chanting your offices, these hymns should not prove difficult.  However, even if you are a beginner, these should be easy to get your arms around with just a little practice.

Apart from the music adding a joyful noise to the office, the words of these hymns give a theological shape to morning and evening prayer, as well as bit of poetry.  So, even if you are alone or are not yet ready to sing, there is a real benefit to including just the words to your prayers.  If you’d like to know more or to practice, St. Alban’s is having a music and choir festival on January 23rd beginning at 8:00 am.  There is no charge, but folks may wish to place a love offering in the basket to help us cover costs for what promises to be a wonderful day.   Now, for this morning’s hymn, number 65, Veni, veni, Emmanuel. (note some of the different words).

1. Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel
And loose Thy captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear;
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Is born for thee, O Israel!

2. O Rod of Jesse’s stem, arise,
And free us from our enemies,
And set us loose from Satan’s chains,
And from the pit with all its pains!
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Is born for thee, O Israel!

3. Thou, the true East, draw nigh, draw nigh,
To give us comfort from on high!
And drive away the shades of night,
And pierce the clouds, and bring us light!
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Is born for thee, O Israel!

4. Key of the House of David, come!
Reopen Thou our heavenly home!
Make safe the way that we must go,
And close the path that leads below.
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Is born for thee, O Israel!

5. Ruler and Lord, draw nigh, draw nigh!
Who to Thy flock in Sinai
Didst give, of ancient times, Thy Law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Is born for thee, O Israel!


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Today, I’d like to share a sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent by Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023).

“There will be signs in the sun and the moon and the stars, etc.” This gospel says and makes clear that many portents must occur widely in the world, both in the heavenly stars and in earthly movements, before the judgment comes that is common to us all. And certainly, just as a flood came once before because of sin, so also a fire will come over mankind because of sin, and it is now coming very quickly. And therefore there are many and varied evil events occuring widely among people, and it is all because of sin. And yet more evils and afflictions will come, as the book says, than ever happened before anywhere in the world; that is, when Antichrist rages and terrifies all the world, and that is now coming very quickly. And therefore it is always the longer the worse in the world, as we ourselves know very well.

And it is also clear and to be seen within ourselves that we obey our Lord too weakly, and that we are too disbelieving of God’s might and his mercy, and that we anger him more often than we need to, and also that we keep good faith among ourselves too weakly in front of God and the world. And therefore many evil events injure and afflict us harshly, and foreigners and strangers severely oppress us, just as Christ clearly said must happen in his gospel. He said, “Nation will rise up against nation, etc.” That is in English, “nations will rise up,” he said, and become opposed, and strive violently and contend among themselves because of the injustice that has become too widespread among people on earth.”

Beloved people, this earth was clean at its creation, but we have since greatly fouled and defiled it with our sins. And our misdeeds also constantly accuse us, because we do not want to hold God’s law as we should, nor to grant to God what we should. Nor do we give tithes as is required of us, nor distribute alms as we need to, but in every way all that we should do in God’s grace lessens. And therefore much of creation also oppresses and strives against us, just as it is written: “the world will fight for God against insensible men.” That is in English, all the world strives greatly against proud people who will not obey God, because of their sins. Heaven strives against us when it sternly sends us storms that greatly injure cattle and land.

The earth strives against us when it withholds earthly fruits and sends us too many weeds. It is also written that the sun will grow dark before the world ends and the moon will darken and the stars fall because of the people’s sins, and that will be when Antichrist rages that it will be like as if it were so. It is said that the sun will grow dark; that is, when God will not reveal in Antichrist’s time his strength and his power as he often did before. Then it will be like as if the sun had grown dark. And the moon, it says, will darken. That is, that God’s saints will not perform any miracles then as they often did before. And the stars, it says, will fall from heaven. That is, that liars and false Christians will quickly fall from correct belief and eagerly bow down to Antichrist and honor his helpers with all their might. And then there will be the greatest terror that ever was, and the most widespread persecution in the world. Then kinsmen will not protect kinsmen any more than strangers.

And about that terrifying time Matthew the evangelist truly said thus: “In those days there will be such tribulations as have never been from the beginning of the world or afterwards.” That is in English, that such misery and affliction will then be in the world such as never before was nor ever again will be. And quickly afterwards all the hosts of heaven will be roused through divine might; and earthdwellers will be raised from death to the judgment. Then the one who before would not believe the truth will know that Christ in his majesty will repay each person for his earlier deeds.

Woe to the one who earlier earned the torments of hell! There are eternal flames grimly flickering and there is eternal horror; there is groaning and lamentation and perpetual wailing; there is each and every terror and a crowd of all the devils. Woe to the one who must dwell there in torment! It would be better for him if he had never become a man than that he come to this. For there is no one living who may tell of all the horrors that he must endure, he who falls entirely into that torment. And it is worst of all that no end at all will ever come for him in the world.

Alas, beloved people, let us do what is needful for us, protect ourselves earnestly against that terror and help ourselves while we may and might, lest we die when we least expect to. But let us love God above all other things and work his will as earnestly as we can: then he will repay us as will be most pleasing to us when we have the best need. To him be praise and glory in all the world, world without end, amen.

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A Christmas Meditation

“For to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

In due time the birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ was sublimely announced. It has been heralded since. Never before or since have celestial beings assembled on earth as bearers of good news. And the devout and godly people have rejoiced in the good tidings in all subsequent ages.

The silence of the centuries is broken.. As the glory of God covered the lowly shepherds with supernatural splendor, and the angel of the Lord proclaimed “good news of Great joy.” The angel promptly calmed the fear of the shepherds by declaring: “Today, in the town of David, a Saviour is born to you, Who is Christ the Lord.” Indeed this was great news. The Word was made flesh. The promised Messiah is here. God’s ancient and repeated promise is at long last fulfilled. All human hopes and expectations find their greatest blessings.

Now that Emmanuel (God with us) is among men, no less than a multitude of the heavenly host can lead in the sublime praises of God’s glory and acclaimed peace among men of good will. The seraphic choir proclaims that the Nativity of Christ brings great glory to God Who in His wisdom, holiness, mercy and justice so loved the world “as to give His only begotten Son.” And in accepting Him and in obeying Him, peace and good will among men will everywhere prevail.

This was the Christmas message then. It is the Christmas message today. Hearts of devout men, women and children everywhere, like those of the humble shepherds, will respond to the message of God. No one is out of the range of the angelic chant, unless one chooses not to hear. The message, full of music for mankind, is for the ears of all who desire to hear it. Angels come with good tidings to the truly devout—to those whose hearts are open to love.

By Fr. J. Kiembara, Orthodox Christmas Lent (Advent) Meditations, (1978)

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