IN a society where violence, intoxication and sexual licence are rampant, the Book of Common Prayer Epistle reading for today, the 1st Sunday in Advent, is powerfully relevant.
The set reading is from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in 1st century Rome, chapter 13, verses 8 to 14. Part of that passage was instrumental in the conversion of the hugely influential Christian theologian, Augustine of Hippo, in a garden in Milan in AD 386:
‘The night is far spent, the day is at hand; let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof’ (verses 12 to 14 – King James Version).
The Greek words rendered here as ‘chambering and wantonness’ are translated by the 20th century Revised Standard Version as ‘debauchery and licentiousness’. Paul, writing from Corinth in AD 57, a city that was itself a byword for sexual depravity, was thus warning his Christian readers against the common Roman practice of participating in orgies amongst other forms of pagan immorality.
What did Paul mean by the night which is far spent and the day which is at hand? The night metaphor refers to this present age of sin and death which has cast its shadow on the world since the Fall of mankind. But, Paul affirmed, the night will come to an end at Advent, the day when Christ returns at the end of human history.
Paul changed the metaphor when he urged the Roman Christians to ‘walk honestly as in the day’. The day here does not mean Advent but refers to the light of the Gospel which shines in the minds and hearts of Christian believers amidst the darkness of this present age.
Augustine described the role of today’s Epistle reading in his conversion in his spiritual autobiography, The Confessions. On a late summer’s day in the garden of his house in Milan, where he was teaching rhetoric, he had been reading Paul’s New Testament letters in the company of his friend Alypius but left off his reading because ‘a great storm broke within me, bringing with it a great deluge of tears . . . Somehow I flung myself beneath a fig-tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes, the sacrifice which is acceptable to you, my God . . . For I felt that I was still the captive of my sins’.
He then heard the ‘sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain “Take it and read, take it and read”. At this I looked up thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall’.
So, he hurried back to where Alypius was sitting, ‘for when I stood up to move away I had put down the book containing Paul’s Epistles. I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites. I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled’ (translated by R S Pine-Coffin, Penguin Classics, 1961).
The Collect for today resonates beautifully with the Epistle reading:
‘Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever.’