Through Advent to Christmas in the BCP Lectionary
(By Desmond Scotchmer, past National Chairman of the PBSC)
Advent is an exciting time. The collects and lections for Advent in the Book of Common Prayer mirror that excitement: they breathe anticipation in almost every phrase, every sentence. These readings lay out before us the central mysteries of our religion: the Coming of our Lord, Judgement, Atonement, Redemption, and His Coming again in Glory. Appropriately, for this is the beginning of a new Christian Year.
Throughout the BCP Advent readings there are words of motion, of movement, of excitement, of anticipation. The loss of these magnificent readings from most Anglican churches over the past twenty years is enough to make the saints weep! Together they make for a thorough meditation upon the full sweep of Christian theology: a meditation that is comprehensive, profound – and exciting.
To hear these readings is to realize the importance of a specialized liturgical language. For it is not everyday news that these collects and readings bring. The words of the BCP, magnificent, arresting, full of power and vigour, bring to our attention just how important are the tidings they bear. The words cry aloud for us to pay attention, to look out, to look up, to prepare: for the King of Kings is coming!
The BCP Collect for the Sunday before Advent sets the stage, exhorting us: “Stir up, we beseech the, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people…”. Forget those cosy, patronizing sermons made by far too many Anglican preachers about reminders to start stirring up the ingredients for the Christmas pudding. There is nothing cosy about these words! The thing to be stirred up is our wills, our souls, grown slovenly and complacent. They cry out: “Come amongst us Lord Jesus! He is coming! Prepare!” “Behold” rings out the Lesson: “The days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a king shall reign and prosper…and this is the name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.” Wow! That should make us all sit up!
The First Sunday in Advent carries on this note of high seriousness. These are portentous times, and portentous language (in the original meaning of the word: ‘solemn’, ‘marvellous’, ‘relating to an omen’) is really the only language that can bear the import of such a serious message: “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…” The vigorous rhythms of the lines, the power of the words, are like a blast of cold, fresh air after long confinement in an overheated room: the unexpected placing of the word “now” gives an added jolt.
“The night is far spent,” warns the Apostle Paul; “the day is at hand; let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light…But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ…”
The readings for the second Sunday reveal the characteristic Anglican emphasis on Scripture, to emphasize its significance in the relationship between God, revealed as Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and Man. The collect is one of the most famous, and, one used to be able to say, the most beloved of all collects – but, alas! so much has been lost in the past generation by both our church and our culture. It is vintage Cranmer: robust, powerful, exhibiting a profound metaphysic, playing well to the ear, implanting well in the memory. “Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them”. Lovely, meaty words! They stop you, make you think about what’s being said. To hear and read: the means by which the Word enters our souls; to mark: to attend to what is said, to master its intent and meaning; to learn; to commit to memory, to the mind, and then inwardly digest, with the soul as well as the mind, the spiritual Word, to be nourished by it, to ingest it into the very tissue of the soul. It’s a remarkable passage, a remarkable progression.
The epistle sets forth the Bible’s own assessment of the importance of Scripture: it is the very medium through which, with patience, we might have hope and consolation. The Gospel reading is remarkable for Our Lord’s prophecy: “There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring, men’s heart’s failing them for fear…for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then they shall see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.”
It reminds us that Scripture records not only the things that have been, the past deeds in the tale of God’s redemption of Man, but also the things to come. We are looking not merely forward to the Christmas which is coming, nor merely backwards to the first Christmas, but to the day when He will come with power and awe and might once more to judge the world.
The collect for the Third Sunday is, once again, packed full with words of movement, of action, of anticipation: “O Lord Jesus Christ who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee: Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight…”
These themes are carried through to the Advent Ember Days (the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in the third week of Advent), with the splendid quotation from the Prophet Micah: “And it shall come to pass that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow unto it. And many nations shall come, and say, Come and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD and to the house of the God of Jacob, and he shall teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths, for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem….”
Again, so many words of motion, and such arresting words of motion : “the people shall flow unto it, “come”, and again, “Come”, “and we shall walk in his paths”. Even the laws of the Lord are given dynamism and motion “the law shall go forth of Zion”. But in this passage the element of height, of upwardness is introduced: not only are we going forward, but upwards: see, here in this short moment in the third week of Advent, dizzy, almost with anticipation of the great Event of Christmas, we look upwards, to behold a glimpse of the glory of the habitation of the Lord, from where the very Son of God descended to us.
These themes are carried forward into the Collect for the Fourth Sunday in Advent: “Raise up we beseech thee, thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us; that, whereas, through our sins and wickedness , we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us , thy bountiful mercy may speedily help and deliver us…” Note that it is our sins which hold us back, and which prevent us from running the race, which enervate us and weaken us…it is God’s mighty power that, we pray, will speedily help and deliver us.
And even so, we are off once more, running the race, as it were, to the great Day itself, when we commemorate that unimaginable act of God, the High and Holy One that inhabiteth all eternity, who has condescended to be born amongst us, of a humble virgin, with a simple labourer who works with his hands, as a stepfather.
For Christmas Day the Prayer Book gives us the astounding facts, sets them out bare, unadorned, as anthems to be said or sung at Holy Communion, or instead of the Venite at Morning Prayer. In our 1959-62 Canadian BCP they stand on page 104, before the Collect: “Behold a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” “In this was manifested the love of God towards us, because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world that we might live through him.” The Collect for Christmas Day reminds us that through the Incarnation God has taken our nature upon Him, by being born of a pure virgin, and prays that we may be regenerate and made children of the Father by adoption and grace.
This is followed by the momentous opening passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews, containing as it does echoes of the beginning of the Book of Genesis and the opening of the Gospel of St John: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom he made the worlds; who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
Here it is, set out before us: a sustained meditation upon the central mystery, the very essence of our religion, in all its incomprehensible, radiant, heartbreaking glory. It is a succession of images which are not mere images but concise theological statements about Christ, the very Son of the Living God: “by whom he [God the Father] made the worlds”, “being the brightness of his glory”, “appointed heir of all things”, “the express image of his person,” “upholding all things by the word of his power”, “when he had purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” It is an altogether extraordinary passage, taking us, as it were, on a tour through the Creation, the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Ascension. It leads right into the Gospel reading which concludes our cycle of Advent readings: the opening of St. John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
These two readings, mystical, radiant with the glory of the Incarnation, are the summit of our journey through Advent, the climax of all our expectation. They are like, almost, the Cross at the summit of the Imperial State Crown of the Crown Jewels, the crowning glory, dazzling with light. And yet they are – well – theology. (I have never been able to begin to understand those who find the Book of Common Prayer stodgy or old-fashioned, outmoded, or dull. These passages are – quite simply – glorious.) I can remember clearly the impact that these passages had on me as a first-year university student, when I was starting to attend church seriously. They made me pay attention. More importantly – and I didn’t realize it at the time – they were teaching me solid, Scriptural doctrine, in a way that was intensely exciting, that gave life and force and meaning. The prayer life of the Anglican Church of Canada is greatly impoverished by its replacement by the inferior cycle offered by the BAS: for instance, the BAS collect for Christmas makes no reference to the Virgin Birth, nor to our need to be regenerate and made children of the Father by adoption and grace; and the two great meditations on the meaning of the Incarnation from Hebrews and St John’s Gospel are reduced to “optional readings”.
To those of you fortunate enough to attend a church where they use the BCP lectionary, listen attentively to these glorious passages. And to those of you who aren’t that fortunate, pick up your Prayer Book, and read these passages week by week, as this wondrous season moves us forward to the great festival of Christmas.
(From the PBSC Newsletter, Christmas 2005)