Christ in Majesty ... John Piper’s window in the Chapel of the Hospital of Saint John Without the Barrs, Lichfield ... Advent is a time preparation for the coming of Christ in Majesty
The Lord be with you,
And also with you
O Come O Come Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, 135), Part 1:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear:
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, thou Wisdom from above,
who ord’rest all things through thy love;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go:Refrain
O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
in ancient times once gave the law
in cloud, and majesty, and awe:Refrain
O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave:Refrain
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.Amen
Matthew 21: 1-11 (the Church of Ireland Lectionary reading for Morning Prayer).
A time of preparation:
It is very difficult to prepare for Christmas when Santa has already arrived in every shopping centre, when the Christmas lights are already strung across the Main Street in every town and village, and many of our parish choirs are already singing Christmas Carols. Indeed, it is hard to distinguish between Advent and Lent when you find Cadbury’s crème eggs are already on sale.
But even in the Church we often manage to confuse Advent and Lent, probably because they are both seasons of preparation when we change the liturgical colour from Green to Purple or Violet.
The word Advent, from the Latin word adventus, means “coming.” That Latin word is simply a translation of the Greek word παρουσία (parousía), used for the Second Coming of Christ.
This season is a reminder of the original waiting for the coming of the Messiah. But more especially it is a reminder of our waiting for Christ at his the Second Coming. This season, which began yesterday, the First Sunday of Advent [28 November], is the season when the Church marks a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ, not just as a cuddly child in Christmas crib, but his coming in glory and as king.
Throughout the next four weeks, our readings, collects, post-communion prayers and the other seasonal provisions in our liturgies try to focus us – yes on Christ’s incarnation, but more particularly (if less successfully) to focus us – on Christ’s coming judgment and reign.
Because of that, the “Four Last Things” – Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell – have been traditional themes for Advent meditation. The characteristic emphasis in Advent, therefore, is expectation, rather than penitence.
Purple is not a penitential colour ... it is a rich, royal imperial colour, originally derived from a very rare source. Πορφύρα (porphyra), the rare purple dye from Tyre, could command its weight in silver and was manufactured in classical antiquity from a mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail. As a seller of purple, Lydia was a wealthy woman of independent means. And as Judith Herrin points out in her beautiful book on the powerful woman of Byzantium, Women in Purple, a child born to a reigning emperor was πορφυρογέννητος (porphyrogénitos), “born in the purple.”
So, we change our liturgical colour in Advent to purple to signify we are preparing for the coming of Christ as the King of Kings, the ruler of all, in all his royal, imperial, majesty, splendour and glory.
Although comparisons are too often made with Lent, Advent is a time of preparation rather than a time of penitence, Lent too is a time of preparation for the completion of Christ’s majestic task, seen in his passion, death, burial and Resurrection. It was a time too, in the Early Church, of preparation for baptism, which required penitence and repentance and μετάνοια (metánoia), conversion, turning round to face Christ.
Today’s office parties, Christmas lunches, early Santas, hastily-planned carol services, and bringing the last posting day forward to the week before Advent, make it difficult to sustain this sense of being alert and watchful. Yet, can’t you remember with glee and warmth the child-like waiting and watching you experienced during the build-up for Christmas? In the cold and dark of winter, can you remember that warm glow you felt as you anticipated such a wonderful festival?
In recent times, the most common, popular observance of Advent is the use of the Advent Calendar, with one door being opened in the calendar, or one new candle being lit, on the Advent Wreath each day or each week leading up to Christmas Eve.
So I’d like to suggest seven customs that we can use in the Church to help restore and built-up that sense of anticipation, of watching and waiting, to cheerfully inviting people into a time and space for praying in joyful anticipation:
● the Advent Calendar;
● the Advent Wreath;
● the Jess Tree;
● Christingle services;
● good old Saint Nicholas;
● the Advent Prose;
● Advent carols;
The Advent Calendar
As children, many of us have watched the progression of Advent through the doors of an Advent calendar. You know what an Advent calendar is: it allows us to count or celebrate the days of Advent, and to build up an anticipation of Christmas. Today, most Advent calendars are made for children. But why can’t they be for adults too?
Advent Calendars do not have to be filled with chocolates and sweets. You can make a simple one in your parish, using a large rectangular card, cutting out the right number of windows, so that one can be opened each day during Advent, revealing an image, a poem, a Scripture text or part of a story related to the Nativity.
The Advent Calendar has its origins among German Lutherans, and may have been a family practice in German-speaking places from the 17th century on. From perhaps the beginning of the 19th century, many German families counted down the 24 days of Advent physically: at first, this meant simply drawing a chalk line on the door each day from 1 December. Some families had more elaborate ways to mark each day – lighting a new candle or hanging a little religious picture on the wall.
The first known Advent Calendar was handmade in 1851, the first printed Advent calendar was produced in Hamburg in 1902 or 1903, and the first commercially produced Advent Calendar, produced in Munich in 1908, had 24 little coloured pictures that could be affixed to a piece of cardboard.
The custom spread from Germany after World War II. Over the last few days, I have placed in the sacristy an Advent Calendar produced by USPG (Anglicans in World Mission) with a mission theme. You might like to find inspiration from this for prayers and intercessions over the next few weeks.
The Advent Wreath
The Advent Wreath in Christ Church Cathedral ... the first purple candle, lit yesterday, recalls the Patriarchs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
This morning we lit the first of the candles on our Advent Wreath. Traditionally, a new candle is lit in church each week, followed by a Bible reading or selected prayers. Some say the circle symbolizes the eternal cycle of the seasons while the evergreens and lit candles signify the persistence of life in the midst of winter.
The Advent wreath is said to have been the idea of Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808-1881), a German pastor and a pioneer in urban mission work among the poor in Hamburg. In December 1838, he made a large wooden ring from an old cartwheel, with 19 small red and four large white candles. A new small candle was lit each weekday in Advent, and a large white candle was lit On Sundays. The custom spread in Germany and evolved into the smaller wreath with four or five candles. The custom spread to Britain in the 19th century, and to North America in 1930s, so that it has global appeal today.
In most Anglican churches today, there are three purple candle and one pink candle in a ring, with a white or gold candle in the centre.
The purple candles reflect the liturgical colour of the season, while pink marks the Third Sunday of Advent, when that colour change briefly to pink.
There are many traditions about the meaning or theme of each candle. But Common Worship and Times and Seasons suggest these five themes:
Advent 1: The Patriarchs (Purple);
Advent 2: The Prophets (Purple);
Advent 3 John the Baptist (Pink);
Advent 4: The Virgin Mary (Purple);
Christmas Day: The Christ (White or Gold).
Each of those Sundays then reminds us of those who prepared for the coming of Christ. ‘The Patriarchs’ can naturally focus on Abraham, our Father in faith, and David, the ancestor in whose city the Christ Child was born. ‘The Prophets’ invites us to reflect on the way Christ’s coming was foretold. And then we recall John the Baptist, who proclaimed him as Saviour; and the Virgin Mary, who bore him in her womb and gave birth to him.
The pink candle on the Third Sunday comes from the mediaeval tradition of adopting a splash of colour on this Sunday, Gaudate Sunday or ‘Rose Sunday,’ reflecting the traditions surrounding Laetare Sunday (Refreshment Sunday), the Fourth Sunday of Lent.
In others traditions, the first candle is called the prophet’s candle and is meant to signify the hope of Christ’s coming. The second is called the Bethlehem candle in honour of the city of Christ’s birth. The third candle is the shepherds’ candle. The final candle is the angels’ candle, symbolising the angelic proclamation of joy at Christ’s birth.
In either case, the accumulation of light is an expression of the growing anticipation of the birth of Christ, the light of the world. The circular wreath represents God’s eternity and unity. Evergreens are a symbol of enduring life.
A number of carols have been written for use with the short liturgy as the Advent candles are lit. A common format is to add an extra verse each week, relating to the symbolism of that week’s candle.
The Jesse Tree
The West End windows in Christ Church Cathedral are another way of illustrating the Jesse Tree (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
This is the first time we have had a Jesse Tree in this chapel, I think, but it is a popular teaching aid in many Anglican parishes, although the earliest example probably dates from the 11th century.
The Tree of Jesse depicts the Ancestors of Christ in a tree that rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David. The earliest example dates from the 11th century. But it is also inspired by that passage from Isaiah, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” (Isaiah 11: 1), which is quoted in next Sunday’s lectionary readings.
The lineage of Jesus is traced by two Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke. Saint Matthew’s Gospel opens with the words: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” With this beginning, Matthew makes clear Jesus’ whole lineage: he is of God’s chosen people, by his descent from Abraham, and he is the “shoot of Jesse” by his descent from Jesse’s son, King David. Saint Luke describes the “generations of Christ,” beginning with Jesus himself and tracing backwards through his “earthly father” Joseph back to Adam (see Luke 3).
The figures in a Jesse Tree are drawn from the genealogies in the Gospels, although usually showing only a selection. In many churches, the traditional Jesse Tree is decorated over the course of Advent with symbols representing stories leading up to the Incarnation – for example, a burning bush for Moses, a ram for Isaac or a crown for David.
The Moravian custom of a Christingle service was introduced to these islands in the late 20th century, and resources are available through the Children’s Society (in the Church of England). Christinlge services may take place before or after Christmas, but they are a good resource for Advent.
The Advent Prose
In Advent, we often sing the Advent Prose or the Advent Antiphons, an antiphonal plainsong. The “Late Advent Weekdays,” 17 to 24 December, mark the singing of the Great Advent “O Antiphons.”
These are the antiphons for the canticle Magnificat at Evensong, Evening Prayer or Vespers day and mark the forthcoming birth of the Messiah. They form the basis for each verse of the popular Advent hymn, O come, O come, Emmanuel.
These antiphons, all beginning with “O ...,” were sung before and after the Canticle Magnificat at Vespers from 17 to 24 December, the seven days before Christmas.
They are addressed to God, calling on him to come as teacher and deliverer, and woven through with scriptural titles and images describing God’s saving work in Christ. This tradition was developed in the Sarum Rite in mediaeval England, and was reflected in the Book of Common Prayer, where the Anglican Reformers retained the title O Sapientia (‘O Wisdom’) as the designation for 16 December.
It is from this tradition that we have derived one of the best-known Advent carols, O Come O Come Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, 135), which we are signing this morning.
But there are other special Advent carols and hymns for this season. See Irish Church Hymnal, Nos 119 to 145.
Finally, it is worth reminding ourselves that Saint Nicholas is commemorated not on 25 December but on 6 December.
Saint Nicholas was such a favourite saint in mediaeval Ireland that many our principal ports and towns have large churches named after him, including Carrickfergus, Dundalk, Dublin, Galway, Cork and Adare.
He is an important figure, not because of the roly-poly figure hijacked by Coca-Cola and advertising.
His willingness to travel, even when his own life was at risk, makes him a role model for the church in mission.
As Bishop Nicholas of Myra he was a key defender of Trinitarian dogma at the Council of Nicaea (325).
The stories of his bringing the victims of murder back to life is a reminder that Christmas is without meaning unless it is related to and connected with Good Friday and Easter Day, that the significance of the Incarnation is to be found in our Redemption and the Resurrection.
As a bishop who was the protector of vulnerable children and teenagers to point of risking his own place in society, he is an important challenge to some of the ways the whole church has handled some recent difficulties; as the free-giver of gifts, without expecting anything in return he is a reminder that God’s love is given freely and unconditionally at the Incarnation in his Son, Christ Jesus ... and what better sermon could we preach in the Season of Advent.
Three questions for our time of reflection:
1, Are you ready for the coming of Christ?
2, Is this a time of preparation or celebration for you, your parish?
3, Is Christmas more important than Easter in your parish?
Some resources and reading:
Gordon Giles, O Come, Emmanuel: Reflections on music and readings for Advent and Christmas (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2005).
William Marshall, O Come Emmanuel: a devotional study of the Advent antiphons (Dublin: Columba/APCK, 1993).
Dorothy McRae-McMahon, Liturgies for High Days (London: SPCK, 2006).
Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating Christ’s Appearing: Advent to Candlemas (London: SPCK, 2008; Alcuin Liturgy Guides 5).
Times and Seasons: Services and Prayers for the Church of England (London: Church House Publishing, 2006).
In the bleak mid-winter
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.
(Christina Rosetti, 1830-1893, see Irish Church Hymnal, No. 162)
O Come O Come Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, 135), Part 2:
O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery: Refrain
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight: Refrain
O come, Desire of nations, bring,
all peoples to their Saviour King;
thou Corner-stone, who makest one,
complete in us thy work begun: Refrain
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear: Refrain
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture, on Monday 29 November 2010, was part of the Spirituality programme with MTh students.