Dec 2, 2011

Posted by in Literary Apologetics | 1 Comment

Advent Reflections 1: Tension – Christina Rossetti’s “Sunday Before Advent”

During Advent we experience the tension between Right Now and Not Yet. We look forward to celebrating the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, an event in history, but we also look forward to a future event, the Second Coming of our Lord in glory, to judge the living and the dead.

Our Lord tells us to be watchful: “But know this, if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:43-44)

As that great Anglican poet and priest, John Donne, asked, “What if this present were the world’s last night?” One day there will be a Last Day. It will be either the world’s Last Day, as Christ returns in glory to judge the living and the dead, or our own personal Last Day, but either way, there will be an end, and we will stand before the Lord in judgment. The season of Advent invites us to prepare ourselves for that final day.

 

“Sunday Before Advent”

– Christina Rossetti

The end of all things is at hand. We all
Stand in the balance trembling as we stand;
Or if not trembling, tottering to a fall.
The end of all things is at hand.

O hearts of men, covet the unending land!
O hearts of men, covet the musical,
Sweet, never-ending waters of that strand!

While Earth shows poor, a slippery rolling ball,
And Hell looms vast, a gulf unplumbed, unspanned,
And Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small,
The end of all things is at hand.

Advent and Christmas Poetry 1 - Nativity Icon

15th c Russian icon, from http://campus.belmont.edu/honors/FestalIcons/FestalIcons.html

“The end of all things is at hand. We all / Stand in the balance trembling as we stand; / Or if not trembling, tottering to a fall.” This very night could be our last night; and if not today, then one day. In the terrible light of that knowledge, if we are not trembling, in awe before Christ our God, then we shall surely be tottering, about to fall – for if we are not grounded in the knowledge of who God is, then how can we stand firm?

“O hearts of men, covet the unending land!” We live surrounded by the impermanent. The things of this world will pass away; do we long for the permanent, the eternal, or do we struggle to cling to the transient things of this world?

“Hell looms vast, a gulf unplumbed, unspanned.” To prefer the self to the Author of that self is a choice open to any and all of us. Hell is real; it is the No in response to God’s gracious Yes of the Incarnation. Advent is the season not just of anticipation but also of penitence. What sins do I cling to, what is there in my heart that stands between me and God?

“Heaven flings wide her gates” – because, while the end of all things is at hand, we should hear the echo of Jesus’ words to the disciples as He sent them out to preach the good news: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 10:7). Indeed, the Kingdom is at hand – it is here, now, if only we will enter.

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  1. I love how heaven here is portrayed as not indifferent to humankind’s entrance. Rather she “flings wide her gates” to those who come! There is an exuberance and thrill in that line that equally counters the heaviness of The Day.

    Thank you for posting this.

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