On Cranmer’s Advent Collects (i)

The Reformation really happened … also in England

I will admit that I have always (and especially) disliked Cranmer’s second collect for Advent. I dislike (and disapprove) of almost all of his liturgical creativity. Cranmer’s creativity is steeped in Protestantism and leans in a mostly anti-catholic direction. The “Lord’s Supper” is not a simplified version of the Sarum Use Mass but its replacement. Morning and Evening Prayer are not the consolidation of multiple offices into one, but the abolishment of the traditional Divine Office. This is abundantly clear from even the most cursory comparison of the Mass and Office as they were before the Book of Common Prayer with how they are present in the Book of Common Prayer. They are different and their difference is intentional. Cranmer introduced the differences for the purpose of furthering (continental) Reformation thought in a liturgical form. As Anglo Catholics we really must stop perpetuating the fantasy that Cranmer’s is a conservative and catholic reform. 

That said – there are ways to incorporate some of Cranmer’s creations into the traditional liturgy without sacrificing orthodoxy and without doing too much harm to the liturgy. First among those ways are the English (Knott) Missal with its companion the English Office. A second, but no less worthy, way is found in the Anglican Missal and its companion the Anglican Breviary.

This is so because there is, in some sense, a genuine conservative element to Cranmer’s reform liturgy. He continues to see a use for liturgy. This in itself is remarkable. Most Protestants do not see much use in liturgy and are far more radical in their dealings with it. Cranmer retained significant elements of pre-Reformation liturgical language and custom. Not because his was a Catholic intent after all, but because to Cranmer’s mind the old elements could be used to serve a Protestant purpose. This conservative instinct created the ambiguity in the Book of Common Prayer, exploited by Catholic leaning Anglicans such as Bp. Stephen Gardiner all the way to present day Anglo Catholics, which allows it a catholic use and interpretation.

Advent Collects

The second Advent Collect as given in the BCP is basically a listing of Protestant talking points about the Bible But, does it have to be so? Not necessarily.  No-one can accuse the editors/translators of the Anglican Missal & Breviary of a defect in their orthodoxy or Catholic faith and practice. But the Prayer Book collects are all there. It is worth paying closer attention to what is going on in the Anglican Breviary (and Missal). I will consider the collects, the very ones Cranmer gave us, below:

Collect for Advent I:
“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.”

As might be expected of a Protestant, Thomas Cranmer pays close attention to the Scripture readings of the Advent Sundays. Such antithesis as “cast away” vs. “put on,” “works of darkness” vs. “armour of light,” “in the time of this mortal life” vs. “in the last day,” etc. have a very scriptural ring to them. The “time” and “came to visit” are not necessarily references to the Advent Season. More likely “time” is to be understood as “now” giving the “casting away” and “putting on” a great urgency. The “visit” is God Incarnate offering salvation as described in Jesus’ Gospel ministry. This also serves to put pressure on us now to not reject His message as it was by the Jews in the first century. The “now” is the “now” mentioned in the Epistle reading for the First Sunday in Advent:

EPISTLE. Romans 13:8-14
8 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.
9 For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
11 And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.
12 The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.
13 Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying.
14 But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.

That Cranmer’s collect has roots in the Epistle reading is not, and cannot be, in dispute. It could very well be argued that the ancient collect is better (which is what I am inclined to do) but it could never be argued that Cranmer’s collect is not sufficiently scriptural. It is this scriptural nature of the collect which allows it a catholic interpretation because, of course, Scripture is Catholic rather than Protestant.

Before there was ever a season of Advent there was the end of the civil and agricultural year in December. This became a natural point for the contemporaries of St. Leo the Great (and Leo himself) to muse upon the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. So they did, and Advent is characterized (among other things) by eschatological expectation. We still see this in the Homily contained in the Anglican Breviary for the First Sunday in Advent which was preached around this time of the year by St. Leo. The collect Cranmer created beautifully picks up on this ancient theme of Advent. It also sits very well with the Epistle and Gospel readings at Mass and even the propers of the Divine Office itself. Perhaps unaware of it himself Cranmer left the door open for a catholic appropriation of – at least some – of his work. Viewed from this angle this collect presents no problem. It admonishes – like the Epistle – to prepare for the coming King. Cranmer’s collect for the First Sunday could, therefore, be interpreted as an Advent collect in a Catholic sense.

The Collect for Advent II

“Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: grant we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them; that, by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in [thy Son] our Saviour Jesus Christ.”

As with the first collect above, so with this collect we are considering here. The collect is clearly rooted in the Epistle reading of the Sunday. It also sits rather well with some of the other propers of the Office and Mass of this Second Sunday in Advent. “To earth descending, Word sublime” sings the Matins Hymn for Advent (Anglican Breviary, A12). “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience, and comfort of the Scriptures, might have hope” (Rom. 15, 4) we hear at Lauds and again at the Mass! It is from the Holy Bible that we learn about the stem of Jesse, and the Branch of blossom growing from it … A prophetic “sign” of the blessed Virgin Mary (stem) and her Son (Branch of blossom) as St. Jerome points out (Anglican Breviary, p. C13). But there is more.

The Bible is not simply a book written by people. It is also “words of God.” When we take up the words of the Missal and the Breviary, the Psalms, prophecies, hymns, antiphons etc. they are not simply words we are directing at each other. The words are directed at God. What is, even more, the words of the liturgy are “given” to us by God – they are part of an ongoing “conversation” between Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Scripture does not merely “speak” to us from God it allows us to “speak back” to God. We are inserted into the divine conversation (relationship) which characterizes Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The Bible is the “Word of the Word-of-God” and the Word-of-God is the Second Person of the Trinity in whom we are taken up via the (Incarnate) Word. The Scriptures do not simply make God present to us, but makes us present to God! The point of the collect could be described as learning to use Scripture as a preparation for the coming (Advent) of the Lord Jesus Christ. Particularly his Second Coming which is the central theme of the collect for the First Sunday in Advent. Viewed from this perspective these two collects go well together and the second is a natural follow-up to the first.

To be concluded …

Fr. Gregory Wassen


One thought on “On Cranmer’s Advent Collects (i)

  1. One of the happy coincidences of Bayard Hale Jones’ 1943 Lectionary is that in it the second reading for the first even of the second sunday (I hope I got all those first’s and second’s right.” is from the Revelation, with the little book that is sweet in the mouth and bitter in the belly.

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