Advent: the readings at Mass


The Season of Advent is more than a month away, yet there are some things about this Season in the Anglican Missal & Breviary I want to start blogging about ahead of time. I want to start out with some of the readings at Mass. In another post I will also dwell on the Collects for Advent, both the BCP Collects and the traditional Catholic Collects. I hope to get what I want to say said before Advent is upon us. I am not sure I will succeed because I will also be packing to move to yet another country for work. This time the United Kingdom. Prayers are appreciated.

Pope Leo, Advent & Christmas

The first references that have been found concerning Advent occur in the sermons for December of St. Leo the Great. From is sermons it is evident that there are two observances in December that are not further related:

When the Saviour would instruct His disciples about the Advent of God’s Kingdom and the end of the world’s times, and teach His whole Church, in the person of the Apostles, He said, Take heed lest haply your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness, and care of this life Luke 21:34 . And assuredly, dearly beloved, we acknowledge that this precept applies more especially to us, to whom undoubtedly the day denounced is near, even though hidden. For the advent of which it behooves every man to prepare himself, lest it find him given over to gluttony, or entangled in cares of this life.

St. Leo the Great, Sermon 19.

This sermon was preached before the season of Advent was even known in Rome. It is therefore not possible that the Pope is here referring to that season. Pope Leo is here preaching during the end of both the civil and the agricultural year both of which concluded in December. The sermon is eschatological. The most ancient layer of the very rich Advent season is therefore the “end-times” as it were. Advent in Pope Leo’s sermon does not – originally – refer to a preparation for the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. What we have here is the “consummation of the civil and agricultural year” and therefore a reflection by the great pontiff on the “consummation of all of history” in the coming (advent) of the Kingdom of God!

Another December celebration, not agricultural nor related to the civil year, is Christmas. The first time we find its observance on December 25th is in 4th century Rome. Thomas J. Talley goes through the evidence for us (Origins of the Liturgical Year, Part Two, Chapter 3) and concludes that we may conclude that: “From 336, then, we may say that at Rome the nativity of Christ on December 25 marked the beginning of the liturgical year (p. 85).” There are two distinct celebrations in December during Pope Leo’s time: a) on the one hand we have the eschatological celebration of the Kingdom of God, and b) the celebration of the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The occasion of the Pope’s preaching is not a preparation for the feast of the Nativity but it is to be understood in its own right as a moment of sober (liturgical) reflection and preparation for the consummation of all history in the coming (advent) of the Kingdom of God.

The Comes of Wurzbourg

At some point in the 6th century an unknown person composed a book of pericopes for use at Mass. The December Ember Days here receive their traditional readings which continue to be in use among us today some 1500 yrs later. The readings are as follows:

  • Ember Wednesday in December/Advent: Isaiah 2.2-5, 7.10-15; Luke 1.26-38.
  • Ember Friday in December/Advent: Isaiah 11.1-5; Luke 1.39-47.
  • Ember Saturday in December/Advent: Isaiah 19.20-22, 35.1-7, 40.9-11, 42.1-9, 45.1-11; 2 Thessalonians 2.1-8; Luke 3.1-6.

People’s Anglican Missal, p. A7-15.

The prophecies (Epistles) tell us about the coming (advent) of Jesus Christ and the Gospel Lessons provide us readings concerning the Annunciation, Visitation, and John the Baptist and Forerunner of Our Lord. As Lauren Pristas remarks an “admirably complete mini-catechesis on the Lord’s Nativity (The Collects of the Roman Missals of 1962 and 2002, location 965, Kindle edition).”

The 1928 (American) Book of Common Prayer provides a different Collect, Epistle, and Gospel for the Ember Days and they are the same for all four season. The emphasis is on the priestly ministry of preaching the Gospel. The Ember Days have traditionally been favoured times for ordinations which is why we find propers for these days in the Prayer Book focused on ministry. More on the Ember Days in the Prayer Book later.

Pope St. Gregory the Great’s Reforms

During this great pontiff’s papacy Advent had 4 Sundays. Gospel lessons are assigned to three Sundays and Epistles are assigned to all four of them. Gregory’s lectionary for the Mass Epistles is as follows:

  • I Sunday in Advent: Romans 13.11-14.
  • II Sunday in Advent: Romans 15.4-13
  • III Sunday in Advent: 1 Corinthians 4.1-5.
  • IV Sunday in Advent: Philippians 4.4-7.

Gregory keeps four of the five pericopes which were provided previously in the Comes of Wurbourg for these Sundays (see Pristas). The themes (moral exhortation & eschatology) contained in the Comes of Wurtzbourg are preserved intact in these reforms. The sermons of St. Gregory the Great show which pericopes were read for the Gospel on these Sundays in Advent. These are:

  • I Sunday in Advent: Luke 21.25-33
  • II Sunday in Advent: Matthew 11.2-10
  • III Sunday in Advent: John 1.19-28

The first Gospel concerns eschatology, the second Gospel has John bearing witness to Christ, and in the third Gospel pericope it is Christ who testifies about John (the Baptist).  These readings combined (Epistle & Gospel) are a remarkably natural fit for the full Advent season such as we know it today. In the Sarum Missal the first Sunday of Advent does not have the pericope assigned to it by Pope St. Gregory but instead reads about the entry into Jerusalem by Jesus (Matthew 21.1-9). The theme for the first Sunday in Advent according to the Sarum Missal is therefore not so much eschatology as fulfillment of prophecy concerning the coming (advent) of Jesus Christ (as King!). The Gospel does not so much refer to the coming of Jesus in the Nativity as it refers to Him as the arrival of the new David entering Jerusalem to begin His reign. The events that followed soon after this entry – as we all know – is that Christ does indeed reign but “from the tree (Vexilla Regis produent, Hymn for Passiontide, AB, p. A42).”

It was also this Pope that reformed the prayers of this season. The first collect for the first Sunday in Advent was not quite composed by St. Gregory as it was given its final form by him:

Excita, quaesumus, Domine, potenciam tuam, et veni ut ab imminentibus peccatorum nostrorum periculis, te mereamur protegente eripi, te liberante salvari.

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 counted worthy by thy protection, and saved by thy deliverance.

The first line of this prayer “Stir up thy might, we beseech thee, O Lord, and come” was taken from a pre-Gelasian Advent prayer:

Excita, quaesumus, Domine, potenciam tuam et ueni …

Rouse, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy power and come …

Thiis opening line has several possible conclusions:

.. et quod aecclesiae tuae usque in finem saecculi promisisti, clementer operare.

… and graciously work unto the end of the ages that which thou hast promised to thy church.

… ut hii qui in tua pietate confidunt, ab omni cicius aduersitatebus liberentur.

… that those who trust in thy mercy may more quickly be freed from every adverity.

… ut tua propiciacione saluemur.

… that we may be saved by thy mercy.

The latter portion of the collect for I Advent comes from a December Ember Day prayer from the same document:

Subueniat nobis, domine, misericordia tua, et ab inminentibus peccatorum nostrorum periculis te mereamur uenienti saluari.

May thy mercy assist us, O Lord, and from the imminent dangers of our sins may we be able to be saved by thy coming.

St. Gregory adds to and replaces words and phrases from the original and the result is a prayer steeped in the soteriological thought of this great Pope.

Gregory Wassen +

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About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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