A Liturgical Note
Users of the Anglican Breviary will have noted that the Proper of the Season begins with a “liturgical note” about the keynote of Advent and how it is has been (successfully) obscured by the Prayer Book collects:
Originally the keynote of the Advent liturgy was to be found in its Collects, most of which used the phrase: Stir up: and implied action in preparation for Christ’s kingdom.
The Anglican Breviary, p. C1.
The Anglican Breviary opts to restore the “stir up” or preparation theme by altering the Antiphons on Magnificat for the first three Saturdays of Advent by including a paraphrase of the traditional collects. The first traditional collect is from Advent I:
Stir up thy might, we beseech thee, O Lord, and come; that we, who are ever threatened by the peril of our sins, may be worthy to be rescued by thy protection, and saved by thy deliverance.
The collect addresses God to “stir up thy might” which is to say to come into action in His might (strength). His strength prepared the Lord is asked to “come” (Advent derives from Adventus = coming) to our aid. What is the nature of our need to which we are asking the Lord to come and help? We are “ever threatened by the peril of our sins” that is we are like Dante in Canto I of the Divine Comedy lost in the dark woods of a sinful life and are unable to escape the darkness in which we find ourselves. The coming of the Lord is to be of such a nature that we become “worthy” of protection, saving, and deliverance (a triple emphasis on the fact that we are in need of redemption). We become worthy not by any action on our own part but by the salvific action of God. He has “stirred up His might” to accomplish our redemption beginning with Him being born of a woman and ending in His Passion-Resurrection. “Saved by thy deliverance” is of course a reference to precisely that cosmos-saving reality of the life-death-resurrection of Jesus Christ. The “stirring up” of God’s might is what we see in the Old Testament. We see humankind fall into sin and we see how God prepares a way out of the death-spin humanity and thereby the whole cosmos find itself in by means of Covenant.
The first liturgical reading of Scripture came from Romans 13:
BRETHREN: It is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.
I Vespers of Advent I, Anglican Breviary, p. C1.
Salvation is nearer – not here yet, but close and getting closer. There is a strong emphasis on an attitude of anticipation and hence on preparation. The Lord is on the move, God is approaching, He is not waiting any longer, He is nearer every time we perk our heads up to look if we can see Him at the horizon yet … He is nearer than when we believed in the very Garden in which we fell. In that garden the Lord had told us clearly what we were to expect as far the results of sin are concerned: struggle, strife, hard work, and death. In fact the world is so darkened by death that the process of child birth will be very hard and painful. Death does not welcome new life into this world which it seeks to maintain in its grip. Death resists life, from birth to the last breath. And yet a promise of a salvation to come was given us (Gen. 3, 15). Driven from the Garden, away from the Tree of Life, away from the presence of God, humankind now waits and in the face of hardship prepares for the salvation to come. It was first believed in the very Garden in which we fell and is now closer than it was when we (first) believed. No longer in the Garden we are yet closer to God’s fulfillment of His promise. Humanity must anticipate the coming of the Lord the Savior. The entire journey of faith presented in the Old Testament is that preparation. In this sense the Old Testament is itself an Advent Season (a time of preparation).
At the end of our Advent preparations we celebrate Christmas – Christ’s Mass – the Nativity or birth of Jesus Christ who is both God and man. God is born and lives as a human Person. The sin-sick human nature receives divine dignity. Fallen flesh is united to God and begins its journey to transfiguration, to salvation, resurrection. This glorious redemption is the answer to our prayer that God would stir up His might. It is that which we now anticipate and prepare for. Advent is the period to turn to God, to exercise repentance, so that when God’s action reaches us it will be to our salvation. The Lord is coming (Adventus) we had better be ready. Even now. Especially now. For the Lord is once again coming to us. He has come once, and is going to come again a second time. That too we should prepare for so that we will not be taken by surprise (I Thess. 5). That is (at least traditionally) the theme, the keynote, of Advent.
It is not that the Prayer Book collects do not have a theme of their own, but the theme they present is different. The Collect for Advent I refers more to Christmas – the Nativity of the Lord – than it does to Advent:
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.
The time of the Lord’s visitation, rather obviously, begins with His birth or Christmas. Advent is the seasonal time of preparation for that visitation. In other words Advent is the time before the time in which Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility. The Prayer Book Collect starts the season on the wrong foot. What is worse, is that the Season of Advent continues to be misinformed by the continued repetition of this Collect throughout the whole Season of Advent. Everyday after the collect of the day the Collect of Advent I is repeated.
The Prayer Book Collect does not have the strong sense of anticipation and preparation that we have seen in the traditional Collect above. What we have is a call to “put away the works of darkness” and “to put on the armor of faith” because at this time the Son of God (Jesus Christ) is among us (visiting) “in great humility” (born in a stable, sleeping in a feeding trough in somebody’s back-yard barn is indeed rather humble). There is a sense of anticipating the future coming of the Lord though. But unlike the traditional Collect the Prayer Book Collect does not unite the theme of two comings as one Advent. Rather, the Prayer Book presumes the historical setting of Jesus’ birth 2000 years ago (for which we cannot wait since it has already happened) but we anticipate the Second Coming which has not yet occurred. The Prayer Book Collect does not “function liturgically” (including and simultaneously transcending time) but linearly. There is a certain rationalism to the Prayer Book Collect which does not plague the traditional Collect. It has been noted (by Alcuin Reed OSB) that the Reformation was (among other things) an anti-liturgical movement (see his “Organic Development of the Liturgy”) and it shows in the inability of – in this case Thomas Cranmer – to combine linearity and circularity so that it becomes available for the Christian as an entry point of life in Christ. In the old Collect the coming of Jesus Christ is both future and present. In a sense, even the Second coming is made accessible via the Sacraments where Christ comes to us, judges and forgives us (Penance), and already lives in and with us (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist etc.). Each time we go to Church we have to prepare to meet the One Who is to Come (Jesus Christ) so that when we sacramentally meet we may receive salvation.