"When the Church's heart pours itself forth": the power of a Prayer Book Advent

You will not, I trust, have "forgotten Jerusalem" or allowed yourself to think little or lightly of your privileges and responsibilities as a member of the Catholic Church: nor have neglected dear old Common Prayer when alone, and particularly during this Advent month, when the Church's heart pours itself forth in a diviner eloquence than at almost any other time. When Lessons, Epistles and Gospels are all publishing alike the most awful and the most glorious of all the predictions that concern the approaching end, and the final glory of the Church as the favoured of the Lord.

From a letter by Edward White Benson (then 19) to his sister, Christmas 1848.

What perhaps immediately catches attention in this extract is the description of the Prayer Book provision for Advent: "when the Church's heart pours itself forth in a diviner eloquence than at almost any other time".  It is important to note that this description dates from before the introduction in the later 19th century of any ritual practices considered to be an 'enrichment' of the season.  Indeed, he is writing before even the introduction of liturgical colours. 

Contrasted with early 21st century Anglican liturgy, the Prayer Book provision for Advent is incredibly sparse.  Without seasonal provision, proper prefaces, or additional devotions, and with O Sapientia only a Black Letter Day, Advent in the Prayer Book tradition is without the characteristics contemporary liturgies conventionally assume to be integral to marking out a season.

Benson's comment, however, might alert us to precisely the need for such sparse liturgical characteristics as a means of ensuring that the Advent proclamation is not obscured by distractions.  It allows for a rigorous focus on the robustly eschatological collects and readings.  These, year by year, give meaning and shape to Advent in a way often lost when too many themes and devotions seek to crowd a short season.  Here is "the Church's heart" poured forth in eschatological hope.

Something similar can be be seen in Keble's 'Second Sunday in Advent':

Why then, in sad and wintry time, 
Her heavens all dark with doubt and crime, 
Why lifts the Church her drooping head, 
As though her evil hour were fled? 
Is she less wise than leaves of spring, 
Or birds that cower with folded wing? 
What sees she in this lowering sky 
To tempt her meditative eye?

She has a charm, a word of fire ...

As with Benson, Keble is writing before the addition to the Prayer Book liturgy of other devotions and ceremonies.  And yet he identifies a Prayer Book Advent with the Church lifting "her drooping head".  He sees in the Prayer Book observance of the season "a word of fire", that 'divine eloquence' described by Benson.

The observations of Keble and Benson might make us reflect on the power of the dignified simplicity of a Prayer Book Advent "in sad and wintry time" (a reference not only, of course, to the December landscape).  The robust and rigorous eschatological focus of a Prayer Book Advent is now certainly no less necessary than when Keble (in 'Advent Sunday') described "A fouler vision yet; an age of light, Light without love".


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