Second Sunday in Advent
by John Keble
And when these things begin to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. St. Luke xxi. 28.
Not till the freezing blast is still,
Till freely leaps the sparkling rill,
And gales sweep soft from summer skies,
As o’er a sleeping infant’s eyes
A mother’s kiss; ere calls like these,
No sunny gleam awakes the trees,
Nor dare the tender flowerets show
Their bosoms to th’ uncertain glow.
Why then, in sad and wintry time,
Her heavens all dark with doubt and crime,
Why lifts the Church her drooping head,
As though her evil hour were fled?
Is she less wise than leaves of spring,
Or birds that cower with folded wing?
What sees she in this lowering sky
To tempt her meditative eye?
She has a charm, a word of fire,
A pledge of love that cannot tire;
By tempests, earthquakes, and by wars,
By rushing waves and falling stars,
By every sign her Lord foretold,
She sees the world is waxing old,
And through that last and direst storm
Descries by faith her Saviour’s form.
Not surer does each tender gem,
Set in the fig-tree’s polish’d stem,
Foreshow the summer season bland,
Than these dread signs Thy mighty hand:
But, oh, frail hearts, and spirits dark!
The season’s flight unwarn’d we mark,
But miss the Judge behind the door,
For all the light of sacred lore:
Yet is He there; beneath our eaves
Each sound His wakeful ear receives:
Hush, idle words, and thoughts of ill,
Your Lord is listening: peace, be still.
Christ watches by a Christian’s hearth,
Be silent, “vain deluding mirth,”
Till in thine alter’d voice be known
Somewhat of Resignation’s tone.
But chiefly ye should lift your gaze
Above the world’s uncertain haze,
And look with calm unwavering eye
On the bright fields beyond the sky,
Ye, who your Lord’s commission bear
His way of mercy to prepare:
Angels He calls ye: be your strife
To lead on earth an Angel’s life.
Think not of rest; though dreams be sweet,
Start up, and ply your heavenward feet.
Is not God’s oath upon your head,
Ne’er to sink back on slothful bed,
Never again your loins untie,
Nor let your torches waste and die,
Till, when the shadows thickest fall,
Ye hear your Master’s midnight call?
John Keble’s “Second Sunday in Advent” serves as both a reassurance and a call to action for a Church that is waiting in a sleeping, darkening world. He shows the interaction of the natural world and the embodied Church, painting a vivid picture of the state of the world in winter waiting for spring.
Keble makes his point poignantly because of the contrast between the natural world that is awaiting the coming of spring and the Church that is celebrating new life in the middle of winter when everything else is dormant. He celebrates the beauty of the sleeping natural world and the eventual spring that will come. This language is typically used to describe the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. What Keble does in “Second Sunday in Advent” is celebrate the rhythms of the natural world while reminding us that the Church’s year cycles differently than the world around her.
The epigraph that Keble starts with is from Luke 21. This text describes the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. This seems like a strange choice for an Advent poem, one that speaks of hope and celebration. Advent, of course, has always been a season of waiting for the second coming of Christ. But, should this be celebrated?
In Luke, Keble’s distinction between the natural world and the Church is transformed into a distinction between the Church and the world of people around her. Unlike the passage in Luke, “Second Sunday in Advent” is not a rejection or a distancing from the world, but rather a recognition of difference. The Church is part of the world, but must look beyond it, especially in times like Advent, which serves as a season of expectant waiting.
Keble draws his quote from the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday in Advent in the Book of Common Prayer. The Epistle in the Book of Common Prayer for the Second Sunday is from Romans, and in its own way is a recognition of differences and the Church’s ability to bring those things together. Romans 15:4-13 is in part a prayer for union, the hope that all members of the Church will be “like-minded towards another, according to Christ Jesus: that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God.” Before the passage concludes with a prayer for hope and peace, Paul writes: “And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles, in him shall the Gentiles trust.” While the Church is in some ways separate from the world, in that she is directed towards other things, she is also a unifying force that brings people together.
It is the hopeful waiting of Advent that Keble expresses so well that best describes this state of the Church as a strange dichotomy of things: a participant in the world that looks for more, a life that marks us out as separate because of the way it is able to bring us together. Keble calls us to remember that even in times of waiting, whether hopeful or confused, we must: “Hush, idle words, and thoughts of ill, / Your Lord is listening: peace, be still.”
Keble recognizes the pull towards confusion that comes from feeling as if you have a foot in two worlds, especially during a season of waiting and reflection like Advent. He reminds us that this waiting is not a time for passivity and inaction, but attentive listening for Christ’s voice even as we experience confusion and doubt. Even during the times “when the shadows thickest fall,” we have the duty and reassurance of listening to Christ’s voice, even at its quietest and most subtle.
For the Church, for the most faithful Christian, there are times of darkness and doubt. “Second Sunday in Advent” reminds us that these times occur more easily when we feel that our faith makes us out of step with the world around us, whether that is a liturgical season that is at odds with the changes in weather or a belief or practice that makes us feel separate from the culture around us. Keble teaches us that a retreat during times like this is not a pulling back from the things that trouble and confuse us, but a re-centering on the things that hold us steady and make it possible for us to reach out to others.
The Second Sunday in Advent exists in its own unique sort of limbo—the first Sunday brings with it the excitement of the change in liturgical seasons, the third Sunday is specially marked out as a joyful moment in the midst of waiting, and the fourth Sunday sometimes feels like a deep breath before the quick plunge into the excitement of Christmas. The Second Sunday, in some ways, is a moment of preparation and waiting that is not a shift from one thing to another, is not notable in its own right. It is this very unremarkableness that sets it apart as a time for quiet reflection and preparation for moving forward with calm purpose.