By Stewart Clem
No, Target: we do not agree that Christmas begins on November 1. You must be thinking of All Saints’ Day. Christmas begins after first vespers on December 24.
People have been complaining for as long as I can remember that the Christmas season starts too early. It seems to begin earlier every year. I’m grateful that our Anglican tradition preserves the season of Advent, which begins on November 29 this year, as well as the traditional twelve days of Christmas. It’s important to set aside time so that we can adequately prepare our hearts to meet the coming Christ. (Side note: I will not judge you for listening to Christmas music at any time of year.)
I couldn’t help but notice that the collect appointed for this week in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer seems very Advent-ish:
O God, whose blessed Son was manifested that he might
destroy the works of the devil and make us children of
God and heirs of eternal life: Grant us, we beseech thee, that,
having this hope, we may purify ourselves even as he is pure;
that, when he shall appear again with power and great glory,
we may be made like unto him in his eternal and glorious
kingdom; where with thee, O Father, and thee, O Holy Ghost,
he liveth and reigneth ever, one God, world without end. Amen.” (p. 184)
Advent is about waiting to meet Christ, and although we typically associate Advent with Christ’s Nativity (his first advent), it’s also about waiting to meet Christ when he returns to judge the world (his second advent).
As Fleming Rutledge reminds us, “In the medieval period, the Scripture readings for Advent were well established, and they were oriented only secondarily to the birth (first coming) of Christ; the primary emphasis was his second coming on the final day of the Lord. Because the church in modern times has turned away from the proclamation of the second coming, an intentional effort must be made to reinstate it” (Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ, p. 5).
But why are we being encouraged to think about this right now, at this time of year? Is the prayer book getting ahead of itself? Advent doesn’t start for another three weeks.
This particular collect was composed for the 1662 revision of the prayer book used by the Church of England. It was probably written by John Cosin, Bishop of Durham. While it was originally designated for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (which had no appointed propers at that time), many Anglican liturgists and preachers have noted that the collect, along with the corresponding epistle reading from 1 John 3:1-9, is rich with Advent themes. This was the rationale for moving it to the third Sunday before Advent in the current American prayer book.
“Well, the third Sunday before Advent still isn’t Advent,” one might reasonably object. But we should remember that the Church has an older tradition of observing Advent for seven weeks. After the four-week season of Advent became standard in the Western church, the Sundays before this season became known as pre-Advent. The season of pre-Advent is implicitly recognized in the Revised Common Lectionary, where the readings for last three Sundays of the church year (Propers 27, 28, and 29) are thematically organized around the second coming of Christ.
The fact that this collect is assigned for this week is a remnant of that older tradition. The collect is inviting us to prepare our hearts even now. It’s a recognition that we are waiting for something.
While it may seem counterintuitive, waiting is even more important than preparing. “An exclusive emphasis on Advent as a season of preparation risks putting human endeavor in the spotlight for all four weeks of the season,” Rutledge argues. “All the Advent preparation in the world would not be enough unless God were favorably disposed to us in the first place.” Christians are called, first and foremost, to wait and to long for God’s decisive action.
We’re waiting for a lot of things right now. While the U.S. presidential election has finally concluded, we are still waiting. We are waiting to see if our divisions will continue to deepen or if we will begin to heal. We are waiting for the pandemic to end. We are waiting to see when things will finally be back to normal — and waiting to see what “normal” is going to mean from now on.
But as Christians, we know that our lives are defined by waiting. We are waiting for something far bigger — and better — than normal. We are waiting for something that is even better than Christmas. We are waiting for God to finish the work that was begun on the cross, to “destroy the works of the devil.” We are waiting for Christ to “appear again with power and great glory” so that “we may be made like unto him in his eternal and glorious kingdom.”
The Christian life is an Advent life. And so we wait.
The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is assistant professor of moral theology and director of the Ashley-O’Rourke Center for Health Ministry Leadership at Aquinas Institute of Theology and priest associate at the Church of St. Michael & St. George (St. Louis, Missouri).