Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us 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 for ever. Amen
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the new church year. And the prayer – or collect – is the one written for today by Thomas Cranmer and found in the Book of Common Prayer.
Advent wasn’t a season I was even aware of growing up in a churchgoing family. We were Baptists – my father became a minister when I was six – and we observed Christmas in church of course, if slightly awkwardly. The unease about observing special days and seasons held many Protestants back from observing Christmas at all, and if that was long gone by the 1960s, Christmas was usually an occasion for a combined churches service.
But Advent didn’t feature at all. And I’m sure that we were not unusual in that. Going rather further back, histories of the church year record that Advent was a late liturgical development even for the catholic church – Epiphany and Christmas were there first.
My vague awareness of Advent probably dates to going to the occasional Advent lessons and carols service as a young adult. But it has only been in the last few years that I’ve really become attuned to Advent as much more than just “warming up for Christmas” – as so much of December is in the wider society. It acquired additional resonance for us as our youngest child was baptized, at five weeks, on the first Sunday of Advent.
Of course, Advent does foreshadow Christmas, as Lent foreshadows Easter. Traditionally it was a time of penitent preparation – not as austere as Lent, but nonetheless a chance to reflect liturgically and in our private devotion, on the Jesus who came once (the incarnation), but also on the Jesus who comes to each of us now by the Holy Spirit, and on the Jesus who will one day come to be our judge and king. The four last things – heaven, hell, death and judgement – were traditional themes of Advent. These days, not so much. The ideas are still there perhaps in the hymns and readings, for churches of a more traditional bent. But that focus pre-supposes the seriousness of sin, and too much of modern Christianity does not seem to. Check the doctrinal statements and it will mostly be there, of course, but listen to the sermons – and too many of the modern songs – and it is largely absent. Church can’t make men and women holy in this life, but it can keep them on a path that leads to salvation, through confession, repentance, and time for amendment of life. Living in the shadow of our mortality, and of the coming judgement, helps keep us humble before our Maker.
We don’t party during Lent: we save the celebration for Easter. Perhaps it would be a good discipline to try to adopt the same approach to Christmas – save the Christmas carols and Christmas food for the season of Christmas and enter more deeply into the rich resources of Scripture and hymnody that lead us through the weeks of Advent. For those with myriad end-of-year functions, perhaps it isn’t easy. The great Southern Hemisphere summer shutdown from 24 December doesn’t help either. But we can try – and our churches can help us – to build a detachment between those functions, and the Christian season of Christmas. Both Advent and Christmas are great seasons and we diminish both if we cram them into a single season.
I’ve just acquired Waiting on the Word the new book by Malcolm Guite, the British poet and chaplain of Girton College. In this collection there is poem, and a reflection for each day of Advent, and for the seasons fo Christmas and Epiphany. For today, the first Sunday of Advent, Guite chose this poem by Christina Rossetti, Advent Sunday
BEHOLD, the Bridegroom cometh: go ye out
With lighted lamps and garlands round about
To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.
It may be at the midnight, black as pitch,
Earth shall cast up her poor, cast up her rich.
It may be at the crowing of the cock
Earth shall upheave her depth, uproot her rock.
For lo, the Bridegroom fetcheth home the Bride:
His Hands are Hands she knows, she knows His Side.
Like pure Rebekah at the appointed place,
Veiled, she unveils her face to meet His Face.
Like great Queen Esther in her triumphing,
She triumphs in the Presence of her King.
His Eyes are as a Dove’s, and she’s Dove-eyed;
He knows His lovely mirror, sister, Bride.
He speaks with Dove-voice of exceeding love,
And she with love-voice of an answering Dove.
Behold, the Bridegroom cometh: go we out
With lamps ablaze and garlands round about
To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.
The vividness of the imagery struck home powerfully. Who knows when the bridegroom will come for his bride, but may this season of Advent be one of preparation, so that when he comes we will be ready, and his triumph will be ours.
In a similar vein, but different imagery, are the first and last verses from Charles Wesley’s wonderful hymn, that I’m sure will be sung at the Advent carol service I attend this evening.
Lo! He comes with clouds descending, Once for favored sinners slain; Thousand thousand saints attending, Swell the triumph of His train: Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! God appears on earth to reign.
Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee, High on Thine eternal throne; Savior, take the power and glory, Claim the kingdom for Thine own; O come quickly! O come quickly! O come quickly! Everlasting God, come down!