Saturday, November 29, 2008

Anglican insights on Advent

The collect for Advent Sunday

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 ever. Amen.

Today begins the liturgical season of Advent. I love Advent. I think it's one of those seasons in which Anglicans can give gifts to the rest of the Body of Christ. Cranmer's collects for the Sundays are particularly wonderful, the emphasis of each Sunday in the season (from the collects and designated Scripture readings) is slightly different, and the season as a whole has a special meaning that even non-liturgical Protestants could really profit from, without in the process compromising any of their theological views.

But first I need to clear out of the way a certain rather unfortunate high church tendency, which I encountered just a bit when first being introduced to Anglicanism. This is the tendency to overemphasize the statement, "Advent is a penitential season." I have to say that to those new to Anglicanism, and even to old hands like me, such an overemphasis has all the winsomeness of the Grinch. And it's theologically misguided, too. Joy in the anticipation of Christmas isn't some sort of frivolous modern invention. There is no Good Friday at the end of Advent. However awed and hence, in a sense, solemn we may feel when thinking of meeting our Lord face to face (on which see more below), it simply is in the nature of the case a happy and exciting thing to look forward both to the festival of his first coming and to the reality of his second coming. I hate the fact that all the stores start playing Christmas carols--sometimes really awful ones--before Thanksgiving as much as anybody does. But one can hardly imagine Scrooge's nephew waiting to wish his uncle a Merry Christmas until he was sure the sun had gone down on Christmas Eve!

Now that I have that off my chest, I want to talk about the distinctive nature of Advent. Before I was familiar with the Book of Common Prayer and with the Advent hymns in the 1940 hymnal, I would have assumed that the word "Advent" was just another word for "the time before Christmas." I had no idea that it had a distinctive character as a liturgical season. Certainly, one major part of Advent is meditating on the mystery of the Incarnation. "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us." It's a good idea to get a head start on that during these four weeks--what all Christians call "remembering the real meaning of Christmas."

The second emphasis of Advent, and I think part of the truer (and gentler) meaning of "Advent is a penitential season" is simply that we want to go into the celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord with, as the Prayer Book says, "a conscience void of offense toward God and man." When you are going to have a party, you clean your house. The Apostle Paul tells us to let no root of bitterness spring up among us, and the Lord Jesus Christ tells us to forgive if we would be forgiven. Advent is a good time to get all our ducks in a row as far as our relationship with God and men. If we have been nurturing a sin, we should root it out. If we have grudges, we should toss them. That way, Christmas can come to us with great joy, without our having reservations. As the carol says, "Let every heart prepare him room."

The third emphasis of Advent, and the one that takes non-liturgical Christians the most by surprise, is the emphasis on Jesus' second coming. That's why the season is called what it's called--"Advent," meaning "coming," referring to both comings of Christ. You can see the emphasis in the wonderful collect given above. The Apostle John explicitly says that we should abide in Jesus so that when he appears we will not be ashamed before him at his coming. I've encountered a surprising amount of resistance to the plain sense of this verse among some evangelicals. But you really can't get away from it. It says in so many words that it is possible for us to be ashamed when Jesus comes. What exactly is going to happen then, Scripture doesn't tell us. But it's pretty clear that John is saying we don't want to be in that position. Here, I really think that there can be a rapprochement between Anglicans and "lower" Protestants. The Baptist tradition in which I was raised placed tremendous emphasis upon the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. And Jesus himself did the same, constantly telling his disciples to be ready. Parable after parable makes the point. Now, here is a season of twenty-four days or so in which we are supposed to meditate on that. I found this rather exciting when I first became an Anglican--a sort of point of intersection between one tradition and another.

The last thing I want to discuss is not a separate significance of Advent but just simply the existence of Advent hymns. I never had any idea before I became an Anglican that there were Advent hymns as opposed to Christmas carols. Very few of the hymns for Advent in the Anglican hymnal occur in Baptist hymnals, though some of them do. But one that everyone knows (though it has a different rhythm as Baptists sing it) is "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." But everyone thinks it is a Christmas carol. If you think about it, though, you realize that it is very different from, say, "Joy to the World." A Christmas carol is saying that Jesus has come. An Advent carol is saying "Maranatha"--Even so come, Lord Jesus! And that is, of course, part of what "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is doing. It's also mingling the first and second comings by mentally putting us in the place of people before Jesus' first coming--"Make straight the way that leads on high/And close the path to misery." It mentally recreates that longing for deliverance and redemption which is the very spirit of Advent.

There are many other absolutely wonderful Advent hymns that should be more widely known and sung in all churches, hymns that all "mere Christians" can sing without reservation. Here's one: "The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns." (This page has multiple tunes. I like the seond of them, an American tune known as "Morning Song.") Note the repeated contrast between the first and second comings and the emphasis on light and the rising of the sun.

The King shall come when morning dawns
and light triumphant breaks;
when beauty gilds the eastern hills
and life to joy awakes.

Not, as of old, a little child,
to bear and fight and die,
but crowned with glory like the sun
that lights the morning sky.

The King shall come when morning dawns
and earth's dark night is past;
O haste the rising of that morn,
the day that e'er shall last;

And let the endless bliss begin,
by weary saints foretold,
when right shall triumph over wrong,
and truth shall be extolled.

The King shall come when morning dawns
and light and beauty brings:
Hail, Christ the Lord! Thy people pray,
come quickly, King of kings.

And then there is one of my personal favorites, the glorious hymn "O Very God of Very God," about which I have written here.

I hope to keep up blogging about the liturgical season each week during Advent. That's a hope, not a promise. But I encourage anyone who is not familiar with either the Prayer Book collects or the hymns to consider using them and consider celebrating Advent in a special way as distinct from Christmas. It will enrich your Christian walk.


Anonymous said...

Good post, Lydia. The BCP collects are indeed beautiful. However, I think the danger at present is that the penitential aspect of Advent is neglected, if not forgotten, among the vast majority of Christians (including Catholics). Here's a history of Advent practice and discipline that you might enjoy:

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, Jeff.

Catholics _definitely_ should use the Advent collects in their personal devotions. I believe the collects in the Catholic liturgy are quite a bit different, because the Advent collects are mostly original with Cranmer rather than being (as so many BCP collects are) translations. I don't have time to go look up and verify that. But if it's true, the Anglican Advent collects constitute a real addition to the collect repertoire, as it were, of the Catholic believer, which I think is great.

I can see why you say that about the elimination of the penitential aspect of Advent. Not being a huge fan of penitential seasons myself and being rather inclined to advocate what would doubtless sound to you like a watered down version of the penitential aspect of Advent, I'm not too bothered by what you describe, except insofar as what it means is that Advent is becoming totally flaky and losing all distinctive character. I enjoyed the historical essay and find it interesting that the fasting and such in Advent seems to have been coming and going for hundreds of years and even the popes in some centuries long ago knew better than to try to revive it too much. I dunno--I tend to think that this fact may arise from the sheer fact that it really is, underneath, a happy and joyful time, and you can't repress that.

But the shallowness of the "season" in our own culture is very greatly to be deplored. What I wish is that at least many Christians would see it as a _thoughtful_ season and a time to get one's spiritual house in order and would revive and embrace the emphasis upon preparation for the Second Coming. That would be enriching in itself.

Lydia McGrew said...

And welcome back, Jeff.

Prof Emeritus said...

Just discovered this. Wonderful.