By Stewart Clem

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

These are the best-known words of Lancelot Andrews, the 17th-century Anglican theologian and English bishop. The knowledge of these words, however, comes from their use by T.S. Eliot, who once wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Eliot seems to have been consistent in his application of this principle: The opening lines of “Journey of the Magi” are lifted directly, without attribution, from one of Andrewes’s Christmas sermons.

Andrewes is undoubtedly one of the great masters of the English language. He oversaw the translation of the Authorized Version of the Bible (the King James Version), and his renditions of memorable passages such as Psalm 23 have led many writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, to refer to him as the greatest writer in English. He was a lover of words, and his texts are filled with allegory, etymology, and wordplay. He mastered other languages, as well. His Preces Privatae (Private Prayers), still in print in English translations, were originally composed in Latin and Greek, because he thought certain ideas could only be expressed in those languages.

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Along with his prayers, Andrewes’s sermons are some of the greatest treasures of the Anglican tradition. Yet, as Eliot observes, “The sermons of Andrewes are not easy reading.” That is an understatement. Andrewes’s sermons are some of the most intellectually demanding theological treatises I’ve ever read. Every time I read one of his sermons, I am in awe that his words were uttered from a pulpit.

Of course, Andrewes was no ordinary preacher, and his was no ordinary congregation. For example, his sermons on the Nativity, preached between 1605 and 1624, were addressed primarily to King James I, who, in addition to being a monarch, was a learned theologian. This fact partially accounts for the peculiar style and substance of these sermons.

While it would be absurd for any preacher today to emulate Andrewes’s style, or to preach sermons that demand so much from listeners, there are many aspects of his approach to the text that remain worthy of imitation. For one, his attention to the words of Scripture reflects the mind of a preacher who has spent just as much time meditating on the text as he has spent attempting to exposit it. We see this especially in his zeal for particular words and phrases. As Eliot writes, “Andrewes takes a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning that we should never have supposed any word to possess.”

Andrewes’s attentiveness to the words of Scripture doesn’t stem from a neurotic focus on the “original” manuscripts in Hebrew and Greek. He’s just as interested in what the Latin or English translation of the text might reveal to us. This resonates with an analogy I once heard expressed by the Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis, who explained to her students that reading the Bible in the original languages instead of in a translation is like the difference between walking past a beautiful garden versus driving past it on the highway.

The point is to spend time with the biblical text, to pore over it and let its words reverberate in our hearts and minds. This isn’t to deny that knowledge of Hebrew and Greek can give us access to unique insights about the meaning of Scripture — it certainly can. But Andrewes’s sermons serve as a reminder that the Bible can often surprise us simply by letting it speak to us in its own register. To do this requires a combination of patience, imagination, and openness to the Holy Spirit.

In a Christmas sermon from 1619, Andrewes reflects on the meaning of Galatians 4:4, “When the fulness of time was come, God sent His Son, made of a woman, made under the Law.” It’s remarkable how much of the sermon he dedicates to that little phrase, “the fulness of time.” He notes that St. Paul could have simply written, “When the time had come.” But he didn’t. There is something profound about the “fulness” of time, and Andrewes takes the opportunity to probe its depths.

Andrewes observes that fulness is a particular kind of measurement. Something is full “when it hath as much as it can hold.” The fulness of time does not come at once, but “fills first a quarter, and then half, till at last it come to the brim.” During the time of Moses and the Prophets, the measure was not yet full; “filled perhaps to a certain degree, but not full to the brim.”

This reflection culminates in the declaration: “And That He sent when ‘He sent His Son,’ a fuller than Who He could not send, nor time could not receive. Therefore with the sending Him when that was, time was at the top, that was the quando venit [when he comes], then it was plenitudo temporis [the fulness of time] indeed.”

If he had stopped there, Andrewes’s reflection would be a neat way to express the idea that Christ’s Incarnation occurred “when the fulness of time was come.” But he’s just getting started. He reminds his hearers that God will send his Son again, and this, too, will be at the fulness of time: “But that, the fulness of eternity, when time shall be run out and his glass empty, et tempus non erit amplius [and time will be no more] (Rev. 10:6), which is at his next sending.”

Andrewes draws upon the meaning of the phrase “the fulness of time” to help us better understand the double meaning of Advent. This double meaning, eloquently articulated in our own day by preachers like Fleming Rutledge in her collection of sermons, makes Advent a difficult season to observe and even more difficult to preach. The double meaning of Advent is that we are waiting to greet Christ in the manger and waiting to meet him when he comes to judge the world, as we sing in the Advent hymn: “Lo! He comes with clouds descending, once for ev’ry sinner slain; thousand, thousand saints attending swell the triumph of his train.”

As Andrewes would remind us, there is a fulness of time that overflows, past the brim and into eternity, and this is what we await when we observe Advent. “And then,” he writes, “the measure shall be so full as it cannot enter into us, we cannot hold it. We must enter into it.” All in the fulness of time.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is assistant professor of moral theology and director of the Ashley-O’Rourke Center for Health Ministry Leadership at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Missouri.

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