Advent 4: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’

St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome
St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome

According to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer lectionary, today’s Gospel reading is John 1:19-28. Out of mercy, here it is in the ESVUK (rather than BCP):

19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’, as the prophet Isaiah said.”

24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Another great passage involving St John the Baptist comes in John 3:30, when it is reported to the Forerunner that Jesus’ disciples are baptising more than he; his response: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’

The lives and teachings of God’s holy ones (‘saints’) serve as lessons, especially when the holy ones are prophets or apostles. Here, the last prophet of the Messiah (a prophet who, as St Augustine observes, was able not only to predict the Messiah but point at him with his own finger) provides us with an attitude that we, too, should adopt, not just in this Advent Season but all the time.

It is, admittedly, a difficult attitude to keep. ‘He must increase’ — oh, how we wish to increase! We want to get it our way, at work, at study, in social engagements with friends, in dealing with family, even in determining the meals for the week or entertainment at evening. We wish to increase, to choose exactly which courses we teach, to divest ourselves of administrative duties, to read only the books that are interesting, to get a big paycheque, to gain renown in our own field of work.

But he — He — must increase.

And when we consider His ethical teachings, as in the Sermon on the Mount, He (and thus His increase) is found in the good and progress of others. He is found in sharing the burdens of others. He is not found in getting my way. Indeed, getting my way is likely to get in His way.

And, like St John the Forerunner, we should point the way to the One ‘the strap of whose sandal [we are] not worthy to untie’. As I posted here in an Advent not long ago, ‘Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord’. Christ is still in the midst of us risen and ascended and reigning, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Jesus Christ came to seek and save the lost. John the Baptist points the Pharisees to Him.

Whom are we pointing to Him today?

(A worthy question, and I am myself unsure of my own answer. Nonetheless, a question more worthy than culture wars and fighting the war for ‘Christmas’.)

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Guerric of Igny on Advent

Our Advent Wreath in Toronto
Our Advent Wreath in Toronto

The liturgical church year is not a mechanical operation done merely out of ‘tradition’ or without thought. It is a means of spiritual growth for the community of faith, for that community is, in this time between Christ’s comings, bound in time and living in time with the rhythms of the solar year and the seasons and the history of Christ’s salvific activity at the time of His Incarnation and through His people in history.

It is salutary, therefore, to meditate upon its purpose. Here’s Guerric of Igny for Advent 3:

We are waiting now for the anniversary day of Christ’s birth, which we shall shortly see, God willing. Scripture requires, it seems to me, that our spirit should be so lifted up and transported with joy that it longs to run towards the approaching Christ; and, projecting itself into the future, it chafes at delays as it strains to see what is yet to come. I think myself that the many passages in Scripture exhorting us to hasten towards him refer not only to the second coming but also to the first. How so? Because just as, at his second coming, we shall run towards him with physical energy and joy, so do we hasten to Bethlehem with jubilant heart and spirit. You know that at the resurrection, having put on new bodies, according to the Apostle’s teaching we shall be caught up in the clouds to meet Christ in the air, and so we shall be with the Lord for ever. (1 Thess. 4:16) But even here there is no lack of clouds that will carry our spirits (provided they are not sluggish and earthbound) to higher things, and then we shall be with the Lord for half an hour. Unless I am mistaken, you know from experience what I am talking about, for sometimes when the clouds have thundered, that is when the voices of the prophets and apostles have rung out in the Church, your minds have been swept aloft as though borne on clouds, and on occasion been carried so far beyond that they have been favoured with some glimpse of the glory of the Lord. Then, if I am right, the truth of that word dawned clear for you, the word which God rains down from the cloud he daily appoints to bear us aloft: ‘The sacrifice of praise do me honour: there is the path by which I will show him the salvation of God.’ (Pss. 103:3, 49:23) -P. M. Matarasso, The Cistercian World, pp. 130-31.

Adventus

Two days ago Advent began. Many ministers will have noted from their pulpits that the English word Advent comes from the Latin aduentus, which means ‘arrival’. Although my minister did not do this, when he said that the Kingdom of God has come, is coming, and will come, I couldn’t help but write down in my notebook:

ADVENTUS

As soon as I’d written Adventus, I thought about the Emperor in the late Roman world (un-coincidentally, the title of a course I’m teaching this semester) and the Adventus ceremony that surrounded his arrival in a city. This event was known well enough that it is used analogically by St Athanasius in On the Incarnation of the Word (as observed by S. MacCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity), one of this season’s popular Patristic texts:

And like as when a great king has entered into some large city and taken up his abode in one of the houses there, such city is at all events held worthy of high honour, nor does any enemy or bandit any longer descend upon it and subject it; but, on the contrary, it is thought entitled to all care, because of the king’s having taken up his residence in a single house there: so, too, has it been with the Monarch of all. 4. For now that He has come to our realm, and taken up his abode in one body among His peers, henceforth the whole conspiracy of the enemy against mankind is checked, and the corruption of death which before was prevailing against them is done away. For the race of men had gone to ruin, had not the Lord and Saviour of all, the Son of God, come among us to meet the end of death. (Ch. 2, 9)

The imperial Adventus was a big deal, and people knew what to do when the emperor came to town. It was the sort of event that people would remember for years, and use as a peg to mark other events. It was especially important in Rome, the imperial city, the mother of Empire. There, after arriving, he would meet the Senate, give a speech to the crowd, distribute largesse. He would also hear speeches. The speechmaking was a way to negotiate the emperor’s relationship with the City (or a city) and its leading men. He would then spend some time sightseeing, and move into his quarters on the Palatine.

One of the most documented Adventus ceremonies was that of Constantius II (son of Constantine, r. 337-361) in 357. Here’s a meaty passage from the historian Ammianus Marcellinus:

1. While these events were so being arranged in the Orient and in Gaul as circumstances demanded, Constantius, as if the temple of Janus had been closed and all his enemies overthrown, was eager to visit Rome and, after the death of Magnentius to celebrate without a title a triumph over Roman blood. …

4. So soon, then, to pass over what was dispursed in preparation, <on 28th April> in the second Prefecture of Orfitus he passed through Ocriculi, elated with his great honours and escorted by formidable troops; he was conducted as if in battle array and everyone’s eyes were riveted upon him with fixed gaze. 5. And when he was nearing the city, as he beheld with calm countenance the dutiful attendance of the senate and the august likenesses of their patrician ancestry, he thought, not like Cineas, the famous envoy of Pyrrhus, that a throng of kings was assembled together, but that the sanctuary of the whole world was present before him. 6. And when he turned from them to the populace, he was amazed to see in what crowds men of every type had flocked from all quarters to Rome. And as if he were planning to overawe the Euphrates or the Rhine with a show of arms, while the standards preceded him on each side, he himself sat alone upon a golden chariot in the resplendent blaze of shimmering precious stones, whose mingled glitter seemed to form a sort of shifting light. 7. And behind the manifold others that preceded him he was surrounded by dragons, woven out of purple thread and bound to the golden and jewelled tops of spears, with wide mouths open to the breeze and hence hissing as if roused by anger, and leaving their tails winding in the wind. 8. And there marched on either side twin lines of infantrymen with shields and crests gleaming with glittering rays, clad in shining mail; and scattered among them were the full-armoured cavalry (whom they call clibanarii), all masked, furnished with protecting breastplates and girt with iron belts, so that you might have supposed them statues polished by the hand of Praxiteles, not men. Thin circles of iron plates, fitted to the curves of their bodies, completely covered their limbs; so that whichever way they had to move their limbs, their garment fitted, so skilfully were the joinings made.

5. Accordingly, being saluted as Augustus with favouring shouts, while hills and shores thundered out the roar, he never stirred, but showed himself as calm and imperturbable as he was commonly seen in his provinces. 10. For he both stooped low when passing through lofty gates, and as if his neck were in a vice, he kept the gaze of his eyes straight ahead, and turned his face neither to right nor to left, but, like a figurine of a man, neither did he nod when the wheel jolted nor was he ever seen to spit, or to wipe or rub his face or nose, or move his hands about. 11. And although this was affectation on his part, yet these and various other features of his more intimate life were tokens of no slight endurance, granted to him alone, as was given to be understood. 12. Furthermore, that during the entire period of his reign he neither took up anyone to sit beside him in his chariot, nor admitted any private person to be his colleague in the insignia of the consulship, as other anointed princes did, and many like habits which in his pride of lofty conceit he observed as though they were most just laws, I pass by, remembering that I set them down when they occurred.

6. So then he entered Rome, the home of empire and of all virtues (imperii uirtutumque omnium larem), and when he had come to the Rostra, the most renowned forum of ancient dominion, he stood amazed; and on every side on which his eyes rested he was dazzled by the array of marvellous sights. He addressed the nobles in the senate-house and the populace from the tribunal, and being welcomed to the palace with manifold attentions, he enjoyed a longed-for pleasure; and on several occasions, when holding equestrian games, he took delight in the sallies of the commons, who were neither presumptuous nor heedless of their old-time freedom, while he himself also respectfully observed the due mean. 14. For he did not (as in the case of other cities) permit the contests to be terminated at his own discretion but left them (as the custom is) to various chances. Then, as he surveyed the sections of the city and its suburbs, lying within the summits of the seven hills, along their slopes, or on level ground, he thought that whatever first met his gaze towered above all the rest: the sanctuaries of Tarpeian Jove so far surpassing as things divine excel those of earth; the baths built up to the measure of provinces; the huge bulk of the amphitheatre, strengthened by its framework of Tiburtine stone, to whose top human eyesight barely ascends; the Pantheon like a rounded city-district, vaulted over in lofty beauty; and the exalted peaks which rise with platforms which can be climbed, bearing the likenesses of former emperors; the temple of the City, the Forum of Peace, the theatre of Pompey, the Odeum, the Stadium and amongst these the other glories of the eternal city.

15. But when he came to the Forum of Trajan, a construction unique under the heavens, as we believe, and admirable even in the unanimous opinion of the Gods, he stood fast in amazement, turning his attention to the gigantic complex about him, beggaring description and never again to be attempted by mortal men. Therefore abandoning all hope of attempting anything like it, he said that he would and could copy Trajan’s steed alone, which stands in the middle of the vestibule carrying the emperor himself. 16. To this prince Hormisdas, who was standing near him, and whose departure from Persia I have described above, replied with native wit: ‘First, Sire,’ said he, ‘command a similar stable to be built, if you can; let the steed which you propose to create range as widely as this which we see.’ When Hormisdas was asked directly what he thought of Rome, he said that he took comfort in this fact alone, that he had learned that even there men were mortal. 17. So then, when the emperor had viewed many objects with awe and amazement, he complained of Fame as either incapable or spiteful, because while always exaggerating everything, in describing what there is in Rome, she becomes shabby. And after long deliberation what he should do there, he determined to add to the adornments of the city by erecting in the Circus Maximus an obelisk, the provenance and figure of which I shall describe in the proper place. (Res Gestae 16.10, tr. J.C. Rolfe, lightly adapted by G. Kelly)

This blog has now run on too long! So I won’t give you my commentary on the above. However, here’s an image of the gem-encrusted Emperor Constantius II in his glory:

Constantius in the Chronograph of 354
Constantius in the Chronograph of 354

And another image of him in the Missorium of Kerch:

Missorium of Kerch
Missorium of Kerch

It is, of course, a contrast to the Nativity of Christ. ‘Once in royal David’s city / stood a lowly cattle shed / where a mother laid her baby / in a manger for his bed’; and, further, ‘with the poor and weak and lowly / lived on earth our Saviour holy’. However, he did have the chorus of the heavenly army, as Constantius had his earthly army in glittering array.

However, as my minister said on Sunday, the Kingdom of God has come, is coming, and will come. In Advent we look not only back to that first Adventus but also ahead to the second:

And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. 12 His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. 13 And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.

16 And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.

17 And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together unto the supper of the great God; 18 That ye may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great.

19 And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. 20 And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. 21 And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh. (Rev. 19:11-21 KJV)

Not the happiest image Christianity has to offer — but what it does remind us is that justice will be served. And, as Miroslav Volf argues in Exclusion and Embrace, Revelation’s Rider on the White Horse means that we do not need to execute judgement here, for judgement will be rendered in the fulfillment of all things, by the returning King. Just a few Late Antique thoughts as we begin this Advent(us) season.

Advent 4, Sarum: Raise up Thy power and come!

Walters Ms. W.34, Carrow Psalter (fol. 178r)

And so comes the final week of Advent. On Thursday, the season will climax and close with the arrival of Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity. Following the Use of Sarum, this Sunday’s collect is:

O Lord, raise up, we pray Thee, Thy power, and come, and with great might succour us; that whereas through our sins we are sore let and hindered, Thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us. Who livest …

This is what the Advent longing is about — the coming of the Lord. There is a straining and a wrestling in it. A struggle. We feel the ache of life without Emmanuel (God-with-us) in Advent. This year, I have found this particularly true not only reflecting upon these Sarum collects with their crying out for God to give us his aid and be ever-present to us in time of need and in the face of sin, but also in my daily readings.

Although I don’t pray Vigils, I started reading the lessons for Vigils from Benedictine Daily Prayer partway through Advent this year. The Old Testament lesson was usually from Isaiah, and usually about the dread day of the Lord’s coming, or a weighty pronouncement about judgement. The New Testament lesson was usually from the epistles, usually more cheery, about Christ’s fulfilment of the Old and future coming in glory.

When you read such Bible passages regularly, combined with the average sorrows of daily life and the great burden of a world torn by strife, the Advent ache for a Saviour becomes much more pronounced. You feel with the liturgist the request for the Lord to succour us with His great might!

But it’s not mere, run-of-the-mill suffering the Sarum points us to. It is about the suffering we inflict on ourselves — through our sins we are sore let and hindered. St John Cassian, joining the Stoic ethical tradition, argues that the only evil inflicted upon you is the evil that you yourself commit. When someone else wrongs you, if you do not sin, no evil has been done to you; that person has done evil to himself.

The phrase ‘through our sins we are sore let and hindered’ is Englishing the Latin, ‘nostra peccata prepediunt’, ‘our sins shackle/bind/entangle/fetter’. I like ‘fetter’, myself.

And is not the bondage of the will, this human shackling to our sins, precisely what Jesus came to unloose? As the angel said to Joseph, ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ (Mt 1:21; NKJV)

To turn from Sarum to Cranmer (who sourced the Litany from ancient texts; below is Canada’s BCP, 1962):

From all evil and mischief, from sin, from the crafts and assaults of the devil; from thy wrath, and from everlasting condemnation,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From all uncleanness in thought, word, and deed; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil,
Good Lord, deliver us.

By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation,
Good Lord, deliver us.

Deliver us, O Lord.

Advent 3, Sarum: Give ear to our prayers

First, the Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent from The Sarum Missal in English:

Lord, we beseech Thee, give ear to our prayers, and by Thy gracious visitation lighten the darkness of our hearts. Who livest …

This collect is barely a collect. Barely there at all, really. Usually, a collect has a description of one of God’s divine attributes or mighty deeds, ‘O Lord, who ….’, followed by the entreaty. These Sarum collects do not always follow that traditional pattern. The requests, however, are very traditional. Give ear to our prayers. Lighten the darkness of our hearts.

And there is a request for God’s ‘gracious visitation’ as that which lightens the darkness. The immediacy and immanency of God are remembered when we are confronted with our own darkness and feel far from Him. Although we are faithless, He will be faithful.

But this week doesn’t end with a Sunday collect. Since at least the days of St Leo the Great (pope 440-461), the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the Third Week in Advent have been days set aside for solemn prayer and fasting. In English we call them the Ember Days.

Yesterday, I did a little to observe the Ember Day by going to Morning Prayer. Hopefully I will do something tomorrow as well; I’m notorious for thinking I’ll observe a feast or fast and then failing, though!

Thus, the Sarum Collect for Wednesday is:

Grant, we beseech Thee, Almighty God, that the approaching solemnity of our redemption may both afford us succour in this present life, and abundantly bestow on us the rewards of eternal happiness. Through the same…

There’s a lot that could be meditated upon in this collect, but I’ll leave that to you. Be aware that ‘happiness’ translates ‘beatitudo’…

Tomorrow’s collect from the Use of Sarum is yet another ‘Stir up’ prayer:

Stir up, O Lord, we beseech Thee, Thy power, and come; that they who trust in Thy lovingkindness may speedily be delivered from all adversity. Who livest…

And Saturday’s deals once more with the visitation of the Lord:

O God, Who seest that we are afflicted by our own wickedness, mercifully grant that by Thy visitation we may be comforted. Who livest…

And so go the collects for the Ember Days of Advent according to the Use of Sarum. I hope that they may be of use to you in your prayer life this week as we prepare for Christmas, which comes a week from tomorrow!

Advent 2, Sarum: More stirring up!

St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome
St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome (9th-c)

The Collect for Advent 2 according the Use of Sarum, like that for Advent 1 and the Sunday Next Before Advent (as discussed a week ago), is also a ‘Stir up’ collect:

Stir up, O Lord, our hearts to prepare the way of Thy Only Begotten: that by His coming we may be counted worthy to serve Thee with purified hearts. Who livest …

And, like a week ago, there is emphasis on God counting us worthy. I won’t repeat my mullings on that count here. Instead, two other thoughts.

First, in contemporary Christianity, Advent 2 is the week of St John the Baptist, as I happily proclaimed on Sunday. In the Revised Common Lectionary, we read from Luke 3, with the Baptist proclaiming, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord!’ In the Roman lectionary, they read from Matthew 11, where Jesus asks the crowd what they went to see when they went to John the Baptist — a reed shaken in the wind?

As it turns out, neither of these passages is the one in the Sarum Missal — instead, we find there Jesus’ apocalyptic proclamations of Luke 21.

Second, I like the emphasis on ‘purified hearts’. Advent was originally a solemn time of preparation, similar to Lent, if not quite as hard-core. Indeed, the Orthodox think of it as Lent (whereas what we call ‘Lent’ they call ‘Great Lent’). This union of purification and preparation is why both seasons traditionally have the same liturgical colour.

As St Paul says in Romans, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Yet God calls us, broken though we are, to serve Him. Let us strive to do so with purified hearts, let us beseech the Lord to purify us.

Advent 1, Sarum: ‘Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord’

Given my recent series about the sources for early mediaeval liturgy,1 I thought it would be appropriate to do some Advent blogging about these prayers. However, I discovered last night that the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries do not have collects for Advent. Sarum Use, however, does. And the Sarum Collect for Advent 1 is familiar yet foreign to Prayer Book Anglicans:2

Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy power, and come, that we may be accounted worthy to be rescued by Thy protection; from the threatening dangers of our sins to be set free by Thy deliverance. Through Jesus Christ our Lord…

Because of ‘Stir up, we bessech Thee, O Lord,’ we automatically think of the Collect for the Sunday Next Before Advent (aka ‘Stir-up Sunday’ —  the day the Christmas puddings are made). However, in Sarum Use, that Collect is for Trinity 24, just like in the BCP:

Sir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of Thy lovingkindess be more plenteously rewarded. Through Jesus Christ our Lord…

Two differences exist between this collect after the Use of Sarum and Cranmer’s version in the BCP: 1. ‘of Thy lovingkindess’ becomes ‘of thee’ in the Prayer Book, and 2. ‘more plenteously’ is simply ‘plenteously’. I admit to having no theories as to why the former change was mode. The latter seems to be made to make the sentiment more Protestant. That is, we are hoping to be plenteously rewarded, full stop. No ‘more plenteously’, since our good works do not change the acting of God’s grace and lovingkindess upon us. This, at least, is my theory. Feel free to disagree/offer your own.

I like the connection between Trinity 24 and Advent 1 in Sarum. The final Sunday in the Church Year is thus intimately linked with the first. Endings are united with beginnings. We are asking the Lord to stir up for us. In Trinity 24, it is our own wills we want Him to stir up. As the Prayer Book collect for Trinity 19 says, ‘forasmuch as without [God] we are not able to please [God].’ So we ask Him to stir up our wills that we may do the good works he requires of us.

In Advent 1, we are beseeching God to stir Himself up. We are asking Him to come, seeking His Advent in the here and now (this is, in some ways of thinking, e.g. St Bernard of Clairvaux, the second coming, whereas Christ at the Final Judgement is the Third). I have no doubt this is precisely the sort of prayer that Reformers were wary of; observe its lack of presence in the BCP! The prayer asks ‘that we may be accounted worthy’, and the oft-repeated refrain of the Reformation is that our worthiness has nothing to do with it. To many ears, this sounds like a diminution of grace.

But perhaps it is not.

I mean, we are asking to be ‘accounted’ worthy. Not to be worthy. If anyone is aware of his own unworthiness, it is the mediaeval Christian. Read St Thomas a Kempis if you don’t believe me. We are not worthy, but God can account us worthy, see us as worthy. This is entirely His own free gift. This is grace.

And what do we want, having been account as worthy by God? His deliverance. We want to be rescued from our sins.

At the beginning of this holy season of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity, we are asking God to deliver us from our sins, to make us holy. A good place to start, don’t you think?


1.  Ancient and Early Medieval Prayer 1: An Invitation; 2: Why; 3: Sources
2. Taken from The Sarum Missal in English from 1868, I don’t know who translated it!