Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Second Sunday in Advent, part I

Among the glories of our beloved Prayer Book are those short pithy prayers which we know as the “Collect for the Day.” Every Sunday and Holy Day of the year has its own Collect, Epistle and Gospel; these are known as “the propers” of the particular day. These are very ancient. They mostly antedate the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Many of these “propers” go right back to the early centuries of the Church.

But upon occasion Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who compiled the first edition of our Prayer Book in 1549, wrote an original Collect. This is the case with the slightly unusual Collects we have on the first two Sundays of Advent. These two special prayers are among the most striking and moving petitions of all devotional literature.

The Collect for Advent I plays on a subtle contrast between “now in the time of this mortal life” and “the last day, when he shall come again.” This reinforces the major theme of Advent, “the night is far spent, the day is at hand.” This Collect reminds us that whether the final coming of our Saviour is ten thousand years into the future or within the next five minutes, that coming is the great event which really dominates all time between His ascension and the end of the world. We might be tempted to say it “overshadows” all earthly history. But on the contrary, it is the event which breaks apart the clouds of our sin and pours out God's dazzling light. So the present time in which we live is already the time of God's reign.

The Collect for Advent II reflects the resurgence of interest in the Bible which took place in Archbishop Cranmer's time. Although the Scriptures had always been studied and carefully preserved in the Church, both the invention of printing and new translations had made the Bible more accessible. The king whom Cranmer served, Henry VIII, is infamous for his six wives and generally wicked reign. But Henry made one lasting positive contribution to our Church when he commanded that every parish church in the realm of England have a large folio Bible installed for the use of the clergy and people. To this day that is a prominent feature of our Anglican churches, not usually seen elsewhere.

There are many spiritual tragedies in our time. But all, without exception, are rooted in the Church's neglect of the Bible, in our preaching, teaching, and devotional life. The petition that we “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,” should be as urgent as any prayer we pray.

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