"Creator of the stars of night" is one of my absolutely favorite Advent hymns, and as I rediscovered it at Evening Prayer this week, I remembered why. Not only is it lovely poetry, the evocative imagery stimulating my imagination, but the theology is profound and powerful. There is a wonderful icon in my study that shows Jesus creating the stars, planets, and other celestial bodies, and when I first got it from a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Wisconsin, I thought, "what an odd image. It shows Jesus in the role of Creator of the Universe. Surely that can't be right." But, of course, it is. It shows Jesus as the Divine Logos, the preexistent Word, that was with the Creator in the very beginning of it all. If God is One, then Jesus participated in Creation, just as the Creator was with Jesus upon the hard wood of the Cross. The season of Advent emphasizes the coming of God into human history, an act which sets us free from sin and provides us with a new beginning, a fresh start. So, not only was Jesus with Creation at the formation of the universe, but he continues to be with it throughout all time to rescue and preserve it, as the hymn declares : "Thou, grieving at the bitter cry / Of all creation doomed to die, / Didst come to save a ruined race / With healing gifts of heavenly grace." Eucharistic Prayer A says it well, too. "When we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy sent Jesus Christ your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all." I've heard those words countless times, but only now am I connecting them with the hymn, the icon, and so many other carriers of the Christian theological tradition.
After spending all summer and fall in the season of Trinity-tide, we now glide into Advent, where the same Trinitarian theology is present. Advent does not anticipate the first coming of Christ in the form of this tiny baby, Jesus, in a manger; it acknowledges that Christ will be coming to us in a new way, in human flesh, "the Son of Man, yet Lord divine." However, Christ was always there, the Divine Word was always already present with Creation, but God's love has visited us in great humility, taking on human form, as the Advent 1 collect says. Even though Advent is not strictly speaking a penitential season, it is undoubtedly a contemplative one that calls us to conversion, to adopt a new way of living. Advent encourages us to do some deep soul-searching, to take stock of our lives, and to commit to reforming ourselves, so that we may be more like Jesus. Advent is one bookend of the story of human story of salvation, with the resurrection of Easter and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as the other, and so for this reason, our liturgical year is structured around these two seasons. "All praise, eternal Son, to thee, / Whose advent sets thy people free." If Jesus is coming to save a ruined race, then we must respond to that
invitation to salvation with something active and concrete. The collect
exhorts us to "cast away the works of darkness" and to "put upon us the
armour of light," which explains the inclusion of the theme of judgment
in Advent theology. If Jesus doesn't come to save us from ourselves,
from sin and death, then what was the point of it all? "To thee, O holy
One, we pray, / Our judge in that tremendous day, / Preserve us, while
we dwell below, / From every onslaught of the foe."
Might I suggest that we do a few extra things this Advent to evade the onslaughts of the foe? By making more time for contemplative prayer or spiritual direction, or volunteering to feed the homeless, or visiting the homebound and lonely, or showing greater respect for the natural environment, or comforting those who find the holiday season a sad time. That is how we prepare to receive Jesus, by putting on the armour of light, by renewed commitment to prayer, corporal works of mercy, and love for humanity and the rest of Creation.