A Prayer Book Advent

Midwinter spring is its own season 
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown, 
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic. 
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire, 
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches, 
In windless cold that is the heart's heat ...

T.S. Eliot, 'Little Gidding'

We are now in the dark days before Christmas, yet "when the short day is brightest", shot through with Advent hope, "now in the time of this mortal life".  A Prayer Book Advent is characterised by a dignified simplicity, holding before us the "frost and fire" of the Advent proclamation, a proclamation which cleanses and refines.

The Sundays of Advent

The lessons and services therefore for the four first Sundays in her liturgical year propose to our meditations the two-fold Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ - Bishop Horne, quoted in Mant's Notes.

The Collect, Epistle, and Gospel for each Sunday draw us into that cleansing, refining encounter with the One who "shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead".  In the collect of the Second Sunday, we see how this encounter occurs through the Church's reading of Scripture; the Third Sunday (reflecting the Embertide theme of this week) associates it with the ministry of the "stewards of thy mysteries"; the Fourth Sunday sets forth our need of the Lord's Advent as "through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us".

The Epistle readings provide an rigorous focus on the Advent of the Lord.  That for the First Sunday exhorts us that "the day is at hand"; the Second Sunday draws on the ancient Advent theme of "the root of Jesse", the One who "shall rise to reign over the Gentiles"; the Third Sunday proclaims that the Lord who comes "will bring to light the hidden things of darkness"; the Fourth Sunday declares "the Lord is at hand".

The Gospel readings are no less rigorous.  There is a counter-intuitive quality to Cranmer's choice of Matthew 21:1ff - the Lord's welcome into the Jerusalem at the beginning of the Passion - rather than the traditional Lucan apocalypse.  It is, however, a richly challenging text, both directing our joy towards the Lord's coming (His first Advent and the last Advent), while also challenging the Church through the comparison with the Jerusalem crowd, singing praises, yet tolerating a "den of thieves", and being complicit in His crucifixion.  This latter theme both stresses the penitence to which Advent calls us in light of the last judgement, while also setting out the challenge of the first half of the liturgical year, as the Church journey's towards the Passion, and we are confronted with the truth that we are the crowd, fickle and ultimately faithless.

On the Second Sunday, the traditional Lucan apocalypse finds its place.  In addition to imagery which disconcertingly exposes and sears our corporate and individual pretensions, there is also a double-meaning to "for your redemption draweth nigh".  This calls the Church to live in Advent hope, while also preparing us for the celebration of salvific nature of "the mystery of thy holy Incarnation ... thy holy Nativity".

The Gospels of the Third and Fourth Sundays address the Advent of the Lord in terms of the ministry of John the Baptist.  In both cases we perceive how the Lord's Advent challenges and refutes our expectations, overturning our assumptions, calling us to "hear and see" aright.  This is necessary for both the first and the final Advent.  The Baptist's words towards the conclusion of the Gospel on the Fourth Sunday also gather up the season's sober call to penitence: speaking of the Messiah, the Baptist says "whom ye know not".

In her Advent book In the Bleak Midwinter, Rachel Mann refers to "the rigorous power of Advent".  Such "rigorous power" is embodied in the Prayer Book tradition's Collects, Epistles, and Gospels for the season, drawing us into the "frost and fire" of the Advent of the Lord.


Cranmer's majestic Advent collect, of course, marks this season in the Prayer Book tradition, prayed after the appointed collect "every day ... until Christmas Eve". Daily at Mattins and Evensong, and at each celebration of the Holy Communion, the "frost and fire" of Advent here shapes the Church's prayer, again and again bringing us before what the Apostle describes as "the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ".

The heart of the collect is the reference to the Creed's "he shall come to judge the quick and the dead":

when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty to judge both the quick and the dead.

The Advent collect thus provides a daily meditation throughout the season on this article of the Faith, an article which sits very uneasily with much contemporary preaching and liturgy.  Such preaching and liturgy is often shaped by those theologies of the 60s which sought to 'secularise' and thus immanentize the Advent of the Lord .  This, of course, emphasises the significance and relevance of the collect: it sets before us that which contemporary theology, preaching, and liturgy often fails to do, even at a time when cultural dissatisfaction with the prevailing order is obvious and palpable, when the need for judgement to refine, restore, and re-order has cultural resonance.

Advent Ember Days

The Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the 13th December (Saint Lucy's Day), are the Advent Ember Days. With prayer, fasting, and abstinence, we enter into Winter.  The coldest and shortest days, the longest and darkest nights await us.  The agrarian wisdom of the Ember Days, the sense of dependence which they embody, also has an immediate relevance even in more urban contexts.  It is the days of winter which put greatest strain on public services and in which travel is most dangerous.  There is, therefore, a wisdom in, through prayer, fasting, and abstinence, seeking God's blessing for the season that lies before us.

The Advent Ember Days also, however, enable us to receive Winter as gift from the One who orders the seasons.  The jolt of abstinence can shake us out of the delusion that we are not dependent on the rest, slower pace, and domestic comfort that Winter can bring.  Similarly, the abstinence of these Ember Days is a call to see things afresh, to behold to the sparse beauty of Winter, of landscapes covered with frost, leafless trees, late afternoon sunsets.

There is a link here with Advent, echoed in Rowan Williams's poem 'Advent Calendar'.  The poem sees icons of the Advent in the "alien, sword-set beauty" of frost and "the bursting red" Winter sunset.  By marking the arrival of Winter, and through abstinence, the Advent Ember days orient us towards the gift and beauty of Winter, enabling us to behold such icons.

O Sapientia

In the 1662 Kalendar, 16th December is O Sapientia, the first of the Advent antiphons.  Of course, the antiphons are not included in the daily office for Advent, part of the "multitude of Responds [and] Verses" excluded by Cranmer to enable a restoration of attentiveness to Scripture in the Daily Office.  The inclusion of O Sapientia in the Kalendar as a Black Letter Day, however, marks time: it signifies that on this day we enter into deep Advent.

Also of significance is the retention of the old Sarum date for the beginning of the Advent antiphons, rather than the 17th, as elsewhere in the pre-Reformation Latin West.  It is a reminder that our praying of the Office during Advent stands in continuity with the communities which did likewise over the centuries before the Reformation, and that Prayer Book Office is shaped by the landscape in which the ecclesia Anglicana was situated, where it was called to pray and praise.

Such particularity grounds the Advent hope.  The hope of the Lord's Advent is no abstraction, but a proclamation which addresses flesh-and-blood communities, physical and material places, cultures and societies.  The retention of the 16th December for O Sapientia points to how in place and time - not in an ethereal, other-worldly state - we receive the Advent proclamation.

Needless to say, the inclusion of O Sapientia also indicates that these ancient texts can inform the Church's Advent prayer, leading to John Mason Neale's hymn which has become a significant part of how many Anglican cathedrals and parishes begin observance of the season with the Advent Procession.

Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

This Black Letter Day on 8th December quite beautifully encapsulates classical Anglican Marian piety.  The fact that there is no liturgical provision for the observance reflects the humility of the Maiden.  There are no grandiose doctrinal claims.  We are not deflected from a focus on the Advent of the Lord.  Quietly we recollect the quiet grace which prepared Mary, from the outset of her earthly life, to be the God-bearer.  Her silence in Scripture until the Annunciation is thus echoed in the liturgy, a quiet and faithful waiting which speaks too of how we should observe Advent, our focus reflecting that of the Daughter of Sion, waiting upon Adonai "to confirm the promises made unto the fathers" (from the Epistle for the Second Sunday of Advent).

Saint Thomas the Apostle

In late Advent, in the final days before Christmas, the Prayer Book celebrates the feast of Saint Thomas.  On the shortest day of the year, with Thomas we turn to towards "the Sun of righteousness arise[n] with healing in his wings".  This rich iconography of nature is entirely lost when the feast is celebrated in summer, torn asunder from its traditional date when the northern hemisphere is in deepest darkness, in most need of the advent of the light.  The confession of Saint Thomas, heard in the Gospel of the day - "My Lord and my God" - becomes the Church's Advent confession before the One who "shall come again in his glorious Majesty", and a preparation for our coming before the Crib, beholding the Word made flesh.

So it is "with frost and fire" that Advent comes upon us.  The sparse nature of the liturgical provision for the season in the Prayer Book tradition - no Proper Preface, no seasonal antiphons or canticles, no Advent Wreath prayers - echoes the winter landscape and thus with vigorous, uninterrupted voice the liturgy calls us into deep hope.  We are not overwhelmed or distracted by additional material and numerous themes.  Rather, like the winter landscape, we are brought to realise our entire dependence on the Lord's Advent for life and light.

And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier, 
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire 
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul's sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time 
But not in time's covenant.

(The first painting is Henry Alexander, 'Snow Scene through a Winter Window', 1870.  The second is Charles Burchfield, 'Winter Sun', 1915.)


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