Collect for the 4th Sunday of Advent

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

        This last collect prayer of the Advent season has, like the others, quite ancient roots.  It dates at least as far back as the 8th Century.  However, it is new to the Episcopal Church with its inclusion as the collect for the 4th Sunday of Advent in the 1979 Prayerbook.  It’s an interesting choice, I think – because after the joy of the Third Sunday, it reminds us well that our Advent preparations are not yet over.                                                               

As we get closer and closer to Christmas day – the secular world becomes more and more focused on preparing for the celebratory aspects of this season – yet, in Church we are reminded that we also need to be preparing our hearts – our lives – for coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  In this prayer, we ask God to purify us in God’s daily visitation in our lives.     

 Purify – it sounds so nice.  Of course, it means to make things pure – to clean things up.  That still sounds rather pleasant.  We might think of water purification that ensures that we have safe and clean water to drink and use in our daily lives.  That seems easy enough.                                                                                

But we can also define purification as the process of removing contaminants, which sounds like it might be a little more harsh. The typical Biblical analogy is that of gold being refined or purified.  The most ancient way to do this is to put gold pieces that have been mined into a crucible that can withstand high heat. The gold then melts at about 2000 degrees, leaving the impurities floating on top.  Purification, like this sounds like a much more daunting task.

It is the fire motif – this burning away of impurities that this collect brings to mind for me.  And it seems as apt as any analogy to the work of this holy season.  The Catholic priest and writer Edward Hays, said in his Old Hermit’s Almanac, “Advent, like its cousin Lent, is a season for prayer and reformation of our hearts. Since it comes at winter time, fire is a fitting sign to help us celebrate Advent…If Christ is to come more fully into our lives this Christmas, if God is to become really incarnate for us, then fire will have to be present in our prayer. Our worship and devotion will have to stoke the kind of fire in our souls that can truly change our hearts. Ours is a great responsibility not to waste this Advent time.”

The prophet Malachi also used this analogy writing around the 5th Century BCE when he wrote, “But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire. And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.”  These verses may be familiar to us as the composer G.F. Handel included them in his wonderful oratorio – The Messiah.  Malachi was speaking against the people of God who had continuously violated their covenant with God – worshipping other gods and ignoring God’s call to care for the needs of the most vulnerable among them – the widows, the orphans, the foreigners. As a result – they were in need of purification – of purging in fire to remove those things that were keeping them from really living as God’s covenanted people.  

In these last days of Advent – in our lives going forward – what needs to be burned away to make our hearts a more noble and fitting home for Christ?  What are the idols that are taking away our attention from our relationship with God? What are we doing to heed God’s call to take care of the needs of the poor and vulnerable?  Let us examine well our conscience and find those places that need purification in our lives.  And then, let us invite God into our hearts each and every day – so that God’s searing love – may change our hearts and melt away all that keeps us from loving God and our siblings in the world.  Then, we will be truly ready to greet our Lord at his coming at Christmas and at the End of Time.  Amen.

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