Advent begins on this coming Sunday! There are many customs, local and regional, that probably occupy the attention of you and your fellow church-goers. Many people like to have advent wreaths in the church these days. That’s fine, but don’t usurp a beautiful family tradition! It’s a lovely devotion for the home setting, don’t let the church “take it over” and “liturgize” it, if I might coin a phrase. Perhaps a new sermon series for the four Advent Sundays is being readied. Perhaps the music is going to take on a different mood as the expectant, penitential, preparatory, and other connotations of the season.
But for the first Sunday in Advent, you need not look any further than the Prayer Book for ideas of how to especially mark this day in the life of the congregation (or at least in your own household, if you’re not a decision-maker).
Suggestion #1: Read the Exhortation
Back in 1662, despite a hundred years of reformation, people were still not going to Communion every Sunday, and many churches were not offering the Eucharist every week anyway. So the three Exhortations that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had written back in the 1540’s stuck around: one to announce that Communion will be celebrated in the near future, one to announce that Communion will be celebrated immediately next, and one to badger people into receiving Communion if they’d been neglecting it for a while. Today, only the second one survives in modern American Prayer Books. Weekly Communion is almost completely normalized across the board; there is no need to “give notice of a Communion” for the coming month.
In the 1928 Prayer Book, the Exhortation is instructed to be read thrice a year: the first Sunday of Lent, Trinity Sunday, and the first Sunday of Advent. The current ACNA rubrics state:
The Exhortation is traditionally read on Advent Sunday, the First Sunday in Lent, and Trinity Sunday.
This means we are not obligated to use the Exhortation, but this is the minimum recommended usage. Given the enormous theological value of the Exhortation, it is well worth everyone’s time for the celebrant to read it. You don’t need to add it to the bulletin or project it on an overhead screen, just stand up and read it to the congregation.
Suggestion #2: The Great Litany
Some people today like to argue over whether Advent should be considered a “penitential season” anymore. Regardless of where you stand on that debate, the Great Litany is an excellent way to prefix the Communion service this Sunday. Remember that in the historic Prayer Book tradition the Litany was supposed to be said every Sunday (and Wednesday and Friday!) so bringing it back for special occasions like this need not have a “penitential” connotation. The Advent call to watch and pray for our Lord’s return is more than sufficient cause for instituting the Litany at the beginning of the service.
There are rubrics in our text of the Litany that explain where to end the Litany and how to join it onto the Communion service. And, although there are no rubrics about this idea, I have always omitted the Prayers of the People from the Communion liturgy on Sundays that we say the Great Litany at the beginning – partly for the sake of time and partly because the function of responsive prayer has already been fulfilled. You could be a better liturgical purist than I and keep both sets of Prayers… power to ya.
If you’re not a liturgical decision-maker in your church, saying the Litany is something you and anyone can do before the service that morning.
Suggestion #3: Use the Decalogue
In the ACNA Communion liturgy there is a penitential rite near the beginning. After the Collect for Purity we have two choices: the Summary of the Law & the Kyrie or the Decalogue (Ten Commandments). The early Prayer Books provided only the Decalogue; the Summary of the Law was a later concession for a shorter option. If your congregation normally just sticks with the Summary of the Law, hitting them up with the fullness of the Law (well, just the Decalogue) is another effective way of liturgically declaring “the seasons have changed!”
For my part, I use the Decalogue throughout the seasons of Advent and Lent, as well as a handful of other Sundays scattered throughout the year.