Advent as preparation ... for Christmas Communion?

One significant aspect of Caroline Divine Mark Frank's Advent sermons is the emphasis on Advent as a season of preparation for receiving the Sacrament at Christmas.  "The days of holy Advent", he says in his sermon for Advent I, "is one of the ways prescribed by the Church for our better coming to the Feast". A sense of the focus in the next sermons is given when he points to Advent setting before us the One who has come in the Incarnation, will come in Judgement, and "He that cometh still ... in His sacraments".

In the sermon for Advent II, this is made explicit with reference to Christmas Communion.  Advent provides "great days of preparation":

It is not many more days ... to the coming of His flesh and blood in the Holy Sacrament unto us. We are expecting and hoping for it, and it is fit we should be preparing for it.

The same language of preparation is found in the sermon for Advent IV, "a fit preparation, thought by the Church".  Echoing the words of the Epistle of the day, Frank states:

He is nigh us ... in the sacraments; so near in baptism as to touch and wash us; especially so near in the blessed Sacrament of His Body and Blood as to be almost touched by us. There He is truly, really, miraculously present with us, and united to us.

This sacramental teaching has particular significance as the feast of Christmas draws close:

The Lord is at hand in the blessed Sacrament; and that is also now at hand, but a week between us and it. And moderation of all kinds is but a due preparation to it, some special act of it to be done against it ... At the holy Sacrament He is so near at hand, that He is at the Table with us.

It is, then, a significant theme in Frank's Advent preaching - that the season is given to prepare us to receive the Holy Sacrament on Christmas Day.  And so, in a Christmas Day sermon, Frank highlights that for which Advent is preparation:

He is now ready by and by to give Himself to eat; you may see Him wrapped ready in the swaddling clothes of His blessed sacrament; you may behold Him laid upon the altar as in his manger. Do but make room for Him, and we will bring Him forth, and you will look upon him, and handle Him, and feed upon Him ... It is a day of mysteries: it is a mysterious business we are about; Christ wrapped up, Christ in the sacrament, Christ in a mystery; let us be content to let it go so, believe, admire and adore it.

The context for Frank's approach to Advent is set by the rubric in the BCP 1559 Communion rite:

And note that every Parishioner shall communicate, at the leaste thre tymes in the yere, of whiche Easter to be one.

While Christmas is not explicitly mentioned in the rubric, John Morrill refers to "the established pattern of holy communion ... on the three great feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whit".  Even after Parliament in 1646 banned the observance of the feasts and the BCP, Morrill notes that in 1650 43% of parishes retained the pattern.  Christmas Communion was, therefore, a practice deeply embedded in the life of parishes in the reformed ecclesia Anglicana.

Long before 1833, the undesirability of such infrequent administration of the Holy Communion was commonly emphasised by old High Church tradition.  Monthly celebration, with 'early Sacrament' on other Sundays, was frequently urged and - as F.R. Bolton demonstrated - was a reality in, for example, 18th century Dublin.  So, no, a return to 17th century norms of infrequent administration of Holy Communion is not being recommended.

That said, however, Frank's understanding of Advent as a season of preparation for Christmas Communion has pastoral merit.  One of the profound weaknesses of the Parish Communion movement has been the undermining of any meaningful sense of preparing to receive the Sacrament - "to examine themselves", in the words of the Catechism.  In the words of Michael Ramsey:

The awe in the individual's approach to Holy Communion, which characterized both the Tractarians and the Evangelicals of old, stands in contrast to the ease with which our congregations come tripping to the altar week by week.

To Ramsey's reference to "the Tractarians and the Evangelicals of old" we might add the Old High Church tradition.  It is here that Frank's approach to Advent is worth consideration.  Perhaps for Advent - and this might also have relevance in Lent - thought could be given to restoring Mattins as the main Sunday liturgy (Frank refers in his Advent I sermon to "our Te Deum and Benedictus"), distinguishing the season as a time of preparation for receiving the Holy Sacrament at Christmas, with this being a focus of teaching.

Alongside Mattins as the main Sunday liturgy, of course, the Eucharist would be celebrated earlier on Sunday mornings or on Sunday evenings.  This would allow those for whom weekly reception of the Sacrament is an integral part of their discipleship to do so.  However, we also need to recognise with Ramsay that more infrequent reception is "something which has an honourable place in Christian history". Experience of this spirituality in Advent (and, perhaps, Lent) might assist in restoring some of the virtues and disciplines lost by the Parish Communion movement.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful theologian and preacher with us. I am truly astounded that these remarkable teachers go completely ignored and unknown anymore by most of the Church. As I was reading his Advent I sermon, I had a strange thought. What if the branches and palms in the old Gospel for Advent I are also evoked by the boughs and garlands of evergreen that mark Advent and Christmas?

    1. It is a sad reflection on contemporary Anglicanism that many of the theological 'greats' within our own tradition are overlooked.

      Your point about Advent greenery and the Gospel of Advent I is a fascinating thought which hadn't occurred to me. On reflection, it would seem difficult not make some association.


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