13 December 2015

Advent words and Christmas
thoughts from Samuel Johnson

John Myatt’s mural on a wall in Bird Street, Lichfield, commemorating Samuel Johnson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent or Gaudete Sunday [13 December 2015]. In Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning, at the proclamation of the Gospel in the Sung Eucharist, we lit the pink or third candle on the Advent Wreath, and recalled Saint John the Baptist.

Because 13 December falls on a Sunday this year, many cathedrals, churches and college chapels are unlikely to have remembered Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), who is remembered on this day in Common Worship and the Calendar of the Church of England.

Samuel Johnson’s birthplace in Breadmarket Street, Lichfield, now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Johnson, who was born in Lichfield on 18 September 1709, is best known as a writer, diarist, literary editor and the compiler of the first English dictionary. He stopped going to church at the age of eight, but he was strongly influenced a few years later by reading William Law’s A serious call to a devout and holy life. For the rest of his life, Samuel Johnson remained a devout High Church Anglican.

In his Dictionary, first published in 1755, Samuel Johnson offers a definition of Advent in these words: “The name of one of the holy seasons, signifying the coming; that is, the coming of our Saviour: which is made the subject of our devotion during the four weeks before Christmas.”

Surprisingly then, although Johnson observed holy days with great care, he seldom mentions the Christmas season in his private journals. Although he writes regularly and carefully about his observance of Lent and Easter, he makes few references of Advent, Christmas or Epiphany.

One of his few references to Advent is found in his diary on 27 November 1775, when he made the following entry:

Nov. 27. Advent Sunday. I considered that this day, being the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, was a proper time for a new course of life. I began to read the Greek Testament regularly at one hundred and sixty verses every Sunday. This day I began the Acts.

James Boswell, in his biography of Samuel Johnson, recalls a conversation in 1776 with Johnson about Quakers and their rejection of sacraments such as Baptism and the celebration of Church feasts, including Christmas. Boswell quotes Johnson as saying:

The Church does not superstitiously observe days, merely as days, but as memorials of important facts. Christmas might be kept as well upon one day of the year as another; but there should be a stated day for commemorating the birth of our Saviour, because there is danger that what may be done on any day, will be neglected.

Samuel Johnson’s statue in the Market Square in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On his last visit to church in Advent 1784, the walk strained Samuel Johnson. However, while there he wrote a prayer for his friends, the Thrale family:

To thy fatherly protection, O Lord, I commend this family. Bless, guide, and defend them, that they may pass through this world, as finally to enjoy in thy presence everlasting happiness, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

In his last prayer, before receiving Holy Communion on 5 December 1784 and eight days before he died, Samuel Johnson prayed:

Almighty and most merciful Father, I am now, as to human eyes it seems, about to commemorate, for the last time, the death of thy Son Jesus Christ our Saviour and Redeemer. Grant, O Lord, that my whole hope and confidence may be in his merits, and his mercy; enforce and accept my imperfect repentance; make this commemoration available to the confirmation of my faith, the establishment of my hope, and the enlargement of my charity; and make the death of thy Son Jesus Christ effectual to my redemption. Have mercy on me, and pardon the multitude of my offences. Bless my friends; have mercy upon all men. Support me, by the grace of thy Holy Spirit, in the days of weakness, and at the hour of death; and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

As he lay dying, Samuel Johnson’s final words were: “Iam Moriturus” (“I who am about to die”). He fell into a coma and died quietly at 7 p.m. on this day, 13 December 1784. He was buried in Westminster Abbey a week later.

Samuel Johnson’s life and work are celebrated in a stained glass window in Southwark Cathedral, and he is named in the calendar of the Church of England as a modern Anglican saint on this day, 13 December.

Wise words from Dr Samuel Johnson in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Waiting in Advent 2015 with
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (15)

The chapel and the entrance to the Hospital of Saint John the Baptist on Saint John Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

This morning [13 December 2015], we wake to the Third Sunday of Advent, and this morning we light the third candle on the Advent Wreath, the pink or rose candle representing Saint John the Baptist. The Gospel reading (Luke 3: 7-18) gives Saint Luke’s account of the ministry of Saint John the Baptist and his expctations and hopes for the arrival of Christ.

This Sunday takes the name ‘Gaudete Sunday’ from the Latin word Gaude, “Rejoice,” the first word in the traditional introit for this morning:

Rejoice in the Lord always.
Again I say, rejoice;
let your forbearance be known to all,
for the Lord is near at hand;
have no anxiety about anything,
but in all things, by prayer and supplication,
with thanksgiving,
let your requests be known to God.

The spirit of the Liturgy all through Advent is one of expectation and preparation for the Christmas feast, as well as for the second coming of Christ. But on Gaudete Sunday, the penitential exercises suitable to the spirit of Advent are suspended, symbolising that joy and gladness in the promised redemption that should never be absent from our hearts.

On the middle or third Sunday of Advent – corresponding to Laetare or Mid-Lent Sunday – the organ and flowers, which had been forbidden during the rest of the season, were permitted once again. Rose-coloured vestments were allowed instead of purple, the deacon and sub-deacon reassumed the dalmatic and tunicle, and cardinals wore rose-colour instead of purple.

Gaudete Sunday is also marked by a new Invitatory: the Church no longer invites us to prepare to greet “the Lord who is to come,” but calls us to worship and hail with joy “the Lord who is now nigh and close at hand” – a theme that is reflected in the Collect and Post-Communion Prayer for this day in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland, along with recalling Saint John the Baptist, another tradition of Gaudete Sunday.

I am working my way through my own Advent Calendar this season, and I invite you to join me each morning for a few, brief moments in reflecting on the meaning of Advent through the words of the great German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).

Reflecting on the significance of Saint John the Baptist in the season of Advent, Bonhoeffer once wrote:

“The message of Advent becomes a disturbing penitential sermon for us and this is as it must be. Before Jesus stands John the Baptist, before Christmas stands Advent. It is only through repentance that we come to the fulfilment of Christmas” (Bonhoeffer, DBW 10:588).

Father Irenaeus, a monk in the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi Natrun, shows the crypt of Saint John the Baptist below the northern wall of the monastery church in the Western Desert of Egypt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Readings (Revised Common Lectionary): Zephaniah 3: 14-20; The Canticle ‘Song of Isaiah’ or Psalm 146: 4-10; Philippians 4: 4-7; Luke 3: 7-18.

The Collect of the Third Sunday of Advent:

O Lord Jesus Christ,
who at your first coming sent your messenger
to prepare your way before you:
Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries
may likewise so prepare and make ready your way
by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
that at your second coming to judge the world
we may be found an acceptable people in your sight;
for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end.

The Advent Collect:

Almighty God,
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.

Post-Communion Payer:

we give you thanks for these heavenly gifts.
Kindle us with the fire of your Spirit
that when Christ comes again
we may shine as lights before his face;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s reflection.

Continued tomorrow.

The Advent Wreath in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin ... the pink or rose candle represents Saint John the Baptist and is lit this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)