Project Canterbury

Seasons Tracts No. 1


By Harold Riley

London: The Church Union Church Literature Association, no date.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2008

The Church Year

THE Church's year begins, not (as the civil year does) on the first of January, but with Advent Sunday. On that day Christians begin to consider again the story of the life of Christ, and to follow it through until the climax of Whit-Sunday, after which the rest of the year is given over to a consideration of the words and deeds of Christ in his ministry. Advent speaks to us especially of the "coming" (Latin, "Adventus") of our Lord. It has a double reference, for it is concerned both with preparation for his first Coming in his Birth at Bethlehem, which we celebrate at Christmas time and also with preparation for his second Coming at the end of the world to judge all mankind.

The Coming of Christ

The first Advent of our Lord was in his Incarnation, and in his Birth at Bethlehem. It was the divine response to the longing of the Chosen People for the coming of a Saviour. They called him the Anointed, which in effect meant the King, since their kings, like our own, were anointed with oil. In the Jewish language, the word for "Anointed" was "Messiah"; in the Greek language it was "Christ." When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary on Lady Day, he told her that her Son should "reign over the house of Jacob for ever," and that of his kingdom there should be no end (St. Luke i. 33). He was to come as the Lord's Messiah, although his Birth was in poverty, and his childhood in an obscure village.

The second Coming of our Lord will be in glory. No man knows, or can know, when it will be (St. Mark xiii. 32). But Christians are bidden to watch for it (St. Mark xiii. 35-7). The acts of the Messiah have begun with his earthly life; they are continued through the operation of the Holy Spirit in the Church; they will come to their triumphant climax at his final Advent.

[3] Expectation is therefore the key-note of this season; it is an expectation that fits naturally into the Christian Year as it prepares us for the observance of Christmas. It reminds us of the long preparation that God himself made in the world before in the fulness of time "God sent forth his Son, born of a woman" (Gal. iv. 4). It teaches us of the importance of expectant hope in the Christian life.

The Advent Season

Advent consists of the four Sundays before Christmas, and the weeks beginning with them, up to Christmas Eve. During this season the vestments of the priest, and the hangings of the altar, are of the sombre purple of penitence, except that on the third Sunday rose-pink is sometimes used, as a mark of our rejoicing as we hasten on to the coming of him who is so close at hand (Philipp. iv. 5). We cannot here go through all the details of the services during these weeks, but will deal with certain salient points.

The Prayer-Book directs that the Collect for the first Sunday should be used daily during Advent, after that for the day. In it we pray that we may "put away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light" (cf. Rom. xiii. 12, part of the Epistle for Advent I), now in this life in which Christ came in his first Advent in humility, so that we may rise to the life immortal when he comes in his second Advent in "his glorious majesty." It would be a suitable thing for Church-people to say this collect in their daily private prayers throughout this season.

The First Sunday

On the first Sunday, the Epistle (Rom. xiii. 8-14) resumes the theme of the Collect. It ends with the words (verses 13 and 14) that had so powerful an effect on St. Augustine of Hippo, who hearing a child's voice saying "Take up and read," picked up St. Paul's Epistles and lighted on these words, and [3/4] saw in a flash what held him back from conversion. In the Gospel (St. Matt. xxi. 1-13) we have the account of our Lord's entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; it is specially significant on this day because of the words "Behold, thy King cometh unto thee" (xxi. 5), and of the people's welcome "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord." On Advent Sunday we may also well take into account the words of the last verse, "My house shall be called the house of prayer," and resolve in the coming year to have recourse more to the Church for our own prayers.

The Second Sunday

On the second Sunday, together with the theme of our Lord's coming, we have that of the sacred Scriptures put before us. The Collect teaches us to pray to God who has "caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning" that we may so study them as to "embrace and even hold fast the blessed hope" that has come to us through them. It is a prayer that we may profitably use before our Bible-reading through the year. The Epistle (again from St. Paul's letter to the Romans, xv. 4-13) is the source of some of the ideas of the Collect; it also speaks of the promises of the Old Testament that the Gentiles should share in the privileges of Israel, and rejoice with God's people. The coming of Christ has been a blessing, not to the Jews only but to the whole world. The Gospel (St. Luke xxi. 25-33) speaks of the "signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars" that will precede the coming of the Son of Man. In this passage, our Lord tells us that when he comes to us, even in the midst of adversity, with him "our redemption draweth nigh." The exact meaning of the words of our Lord is not easy to see; how much refers to the fulfilment of our Lord's purposes in the first century, and how much is concerned with his final Advent it is not always easy to recognize, but however and whenever he comes to [4/5] us, he comes indeed as the source of redemption. Finally we return to the subject of the holy Scriptures, in our Lord's own saying, "Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away."

The Third Sunday

The third Sunday, sometimes called "Gaudete Sunday" from the Latin of the first word of the Introit (the opening chant of the Mass) "Rejoice in the Lord alway," is, as we have noticed, regarded as a day of joyful expectation, as we reach halfway through Advent, and "the Lord is at hand." On this day we think especially of the preparation for our Lord in the ministry of St. John Baptist, and pray for the clergy, that they may also prepare men's hearts for their Saviour. So in the words of the Collect we ask for this very thing, so that our Lord's "second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people" in his sight. In the Epistle (1 Cor. iv. 1-5), St. Paul speaks of those who are "ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God," whose first duty is to be faithful. He brings us again to the realization of the Advent, by warning Christians against hasty judgment: when our Lord comes, he "will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts." In the Gospel (St. Matt. xi. 2-10), we have our Lord's own witness to the greatness of the Baptist and his work. From his prison, John sent to our Lord, asking "Art thou he that should come," and after showing how he himself fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament (see Isaiah lxi. 1 ff), Jesus asks the multitudes about John, and declares that he is more than a Prophet; he is the messenger before the face of the Lord, himself fulfilling part of the expectation of Israel (see Malachi iii. 1.).

During this week there come the Ember Days, set apart for prayer and fasting before the ordinations to the sacred ministry. The three days are the [5/6] Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; on them devout Christians will pray, not only for those to be ordained at this time, but also for all those in sacred Orders. The words of the Epistle and Gospel for the previous Sunday will come home to them with special force as they do so.

The Fourth Sunday

So we come to the fourth and last Sunday in Advent. All is, as it were, set for the raising of the curtain on the drama of redemption. In the Introit we sing the words of Isaiah "Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open and bring forth salvation" (Isa. xlv.), for the Incarnation is the meeting of heaven and earth. The Son of God, the righteous One, is to come down from heaven; but he is also the Son of Man, the crown of the visible creation, brought forth on earth to be our Saviour. In the Collect is a final prayer that God will raise up his power and come among us. There is a note of haste to-day; we want our Lord "speedily" to help us, just as day by day we say "O God, make speed to save us; O Lord, make haste to help us." The Epistle (Philipp. iv. 4-7) reminds us again that "the Lord is at hand," that we need to be anxious ("careful," that is "full of cares") for nothing, but should trust in prayer, since, through Christ, God's peace will keep us. In the Gospel (St. John i. 19-28) we have again the Baptist's witness to our Lord, and his call to us to "make straight the way of the Lord." So John as it were retires from the scene, having pointed us to his Master: "He it is who coming after me is preferred before me." Prophets have spoken; the Forerunner has prepared the way; now we should look to him whom they proclaimed, to Christ "coming in the name of the Lord."

On this Sunday, the remembrance of Mary the Mother of our Lord is very near to us. In the Offertory sentence we repeat the Angel's words, [6/7] "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee," and in the Communion-verse, as in a last word of preparation and promise, we recall the words of Isaiah vii. 14, "Behold, a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel."

The Advent Antiphons

In the Kalendar of the Prayer-book, under December 16 are to be found the words "O Sapientia." The last days of Advent are given a special solemnity by having assigned to them special Antiphons (or Anthems), which are sung before and after the Magnificat at Evensong. They all begin in a similar way with the word "O," and are therefore popularly known as "the Great O's." In these Antiphons (to be found in the English Hymnal, No. 734), we address our Lord day by day by some of the titles of the holy Scriptures. The first Antiphon ("O Sapientia," that is, "O Wisdom") calls him by an Old Testament title that prepared the way for the understanding that he is the Word of God, through whom the world was made. So each day we address him by a special title: Adonai (the Hebrew word for "Lord"); Root of Jesse; Key of David; Day-spring; King of the nations; Emmanuel; and plead with him to come and deliver and enlighten us. Only those who attend Evensong daily hear these Antiphons sung, but they are very well-known in another form, since they have been used as the basis of what is perhaps the most popular of Advent hymns, "O come, O come, Emmanuel" (English Hymnal, No. 8).

The Message of Advent

There are two great lessons that ought to be impressed on our minds during Advent--that of hope, as we look forward to the celebration of our Lord's first coming, as our Saviour; and that of responsibility, as we think of his second Coming to [7/8] be our Judge. Through long ages, Israel looked forward in hope for the coming of the Messiah; in the days before the first Christmas, Mary looked forward in longing for the Birth of her Son. In Advent, we put ourselves as it were in those days, and look forward ourselves to that Birth, as though it were yet to be, as we also look forward with joy to receiving our Lord in his eucharistic presence in our Christmas Communions.

Apart from the Incarnation, and the knowledge of our Lord, we should be indeed "without hope in this present world," but the Coming of Christ, and our knowledge of God's character and purpose gained from him, themselves create new responsibilities for us. In the day of judgment, we must give account of the use we have made of the talents of which we have been made stewards, and none of them is greater than the gift of the knowledge of God in Christ. We must indeed therefore "walk soberly, as in the day."

The two Advents are however not unrelated; as the first was "for us men and for our salvation" and yet constituted a judgment on all human life, so the second is for our judgment, and yet will be the coming of our merciful Redeemer. The Christian is not without awe before the Babe of Bethlehem, nor without confidence before the Judge of quick and dead. At the beginning of the Christian year, he begins again to ponder on the great things God has done for him in the past, and to resolve to use the time that God gives him now in accordance with the will of his Creator, in fulfilment of the purposes of his Redeemer, and as living under the eye of his final Judge.

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