Something that I and other preachers often observe throughout the month of November is how the Sunday Communion lectionary transitions so smoothly into Advent from the end of the Trinitytide season. Whether it’s the traditional calendar or the modern, the readings naturally anticipate many of the major Advent themes: eternity, Christ’s judgement & reign, the Kingdom of God, our glorification in Christ. In both cases Advent does not come out of nowhere, but is a natural “next step” in the calendar’s cyclical presentation of the whole Gospel of Christ throughout the year.
But Advent has some pretty tough opponents these days. It normally begins on the coattails of Thanksgiving in the USA, and the commercialization of Christmas tends to drown out the distinction of Advent from Christmas. The hustle and bustle of culture, school, and general “holiday prep” makes it all too easy for the Christian today to miss the season of Advent completely. What can be a beautiful, quiet, and deeply spiritual experience is frequently truncated to a cardboard box with 24 numbers on it and chocolates inside.
I know what we need, MORE ADVENT!
Some eleven years ago now, a group of Episcopalians and Methodists came up with the idea of extending Advent from four weeks to seven, and thus The Advent Project was born. Nothing much came of it, and it never left the confines of liberal Protestantism. Unlike most liturgical innovations from that crowd, however, this idea was based on some rather sound principles: (1) Advent was a 40-week fast in the Early Church, (2) the secularization of Advent & Christmas needs to be combated, and (3) this could be accomplished without substantially changing the lectionary as it stands.
It’s also worth noting that the modern calendar authorized in the Church of England actually sets forth a sequence of “Sundays before Advent” (sometimes nicknamed Kingdomtide) which deliberately explores some pre-Advent themes. The liturgical color of red is put forth there as an alternative to the more traditional green.
The Advent Project’s 7-week plan, however, makes a lot of sense. When the popular secular and church cultures alike have made a mess of something like the season of Advent, why not turn to the Early Church for help? And if we can do that without yet another change to the lectionary, doesn’t that sound like the perfect solution?
Actually this is a silly idea.
But every good idea has its downsides. If you extend Advent to seven weeks in length, that means it begins on the Sunday within November 6th through 12th, meaning that roughly two years out of seven there is going to be a conflict between All Saints Sunday and the First Sunday of Extended Advent. Celebrating All Saints’ on the first Sunday of November is actually a 20th-century innovation, but the sort of congregation that is likely to adopt the 7-week Advent is probably also the sort that observes All Saints’ on the first Sunday of November, and thus there will be this conundrum to face on a regular basis.
Furthermore, the idea that Advent is so special that it needs its own pre-season reveals a telling bias. The traditional calendar has three weeks of Pre-Lent, smoothing the transition beautifully from Epiphanytide to Lent; but the modern calendar has thrown them out, resulting in a jarring shift of gears from Epiphany/Ordinary Time to Lent with only one Sunday (unique to Anglicans and Episcopalians I think) to bridge the gap between them. (That Sunday does, admittedly, use the Transfiguration as a brilliant hinge to make that shift from Epiphany to Lent, but it’s still just one little day with Ash Wednesday following too soon for anyone to prepare themselves spiritually.) The fact that there is interest in restoring dignity to Advent while neglecting Lent indicates what might be considered an imbalanced set of spiritual and theological priorities.
Also, let’s be real, what are the odds that a proposal like this, which has been dead in the water since 2011, will ever catch on?
Let’s see how it works!
Having played devil’s advocate, I want to turn now to providing some positive suggestions on how the spirit of the extended Advent idea can be used fruitfully, particularly in my context, using the authorized 2019 Prayer Book of the Anglican Church in North America.
The Advent Project had a clever idea: take the seven O Antiphons and appoint each of them as the theme or motif for each of the seven Sundays of Extended Advent. If you present them in their traditional order (with just one pair switched) they line up with the modern lectionary quite nicely. The collects in the 2019 BCP are different from those in the 1979 BCP, so many of the original idea-matches from the Advent Project are not applicable. But there are different ways that the same idea can work. Let’s walk through them:
Proper 27 / Third Sunday before Advent / Superadvent I: O Sapientia
SUNG VERSE: O come, thou wisdom from on high, who ord’rest all things mightily…
COLLECT: As the song prays that we might follow in the ways of Wisdom, so too does the collect pray that we purify ourselves as Christ (our wisdom) is pure so that we will be like him upon his second advent.
GOSPELS: Matthew 25:1-13 Parable of the WISE and foolish virgins
Mark 12:38-44 The learned scribes are unwise in their conduct, the poor widow is wise in her generosity
Luke 20:27-38 God is God of the living, not the dead; the Sadducees were not wise to understand this
Proper 28 / Second Sunday before Advent / Superadvent II: O Adonai
SUNG VERSE: O come, thou Lord of might, who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height…
COLLECT: As the song remembers the giving the Law, the collect prays for an abundance of good works (which the Law directed but was powerless itself to bring about).
GOSPELS: Matthew 25:14-30 Parable of the talents, in which one servant fails to invest his talent
Mark 13:14-23 & Luke 21:5-19 Do not be deceived by false Lords (adonai’s)
Proper 29 (Christ the King) / Last Sunday before Advent / Superadvent III: O Rex gentium
SUNG VERSE: O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind…
COLLECT: The song and the collect both pray for the end of human division under the unifying reign of Christ the King.
GOSPELS: Matthew 25:31-46 The King will judge the sheep from the goats for his kingdom
John 18:33-37 Jesus admits to Pilate that he is a king
Luke 23:35-43 This is the King of the Jews
Advent I / Superadvent IV: O radix Jesse
SUNG VERSE: O come, thou Rod of Jesse’s stem, from ev’ry foe deliver them…
COLLECT: The song prays for deliverance and victory, matched in the collect’s reference to putting on the armor of light.
GOSPELS: Matthew 24:29-44 & Mark 13:24-37 At the coming of the Son of Man, his elect will be delivered
Luke 21:25-33 Keep watch and pray that you will escape all these things at the end of the age
Advent II / Superadvent V: O clavis David
SUNG VERSE: O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heav’nly home…
COLLECT: The song prays for the path to misery be shut and the heavenly way opened, and the collect sets forth the Scriptures as a vehicle for blessed hope.
GOSPELS: Matthew 3:1-12 & Mark 1:1-8 & Luke 3:1-6 John the Baptist’s preaching points the way/highway/path to Christ
Advent III / Superadvent VI: O Oriens
SUNG VERSE O come, thou Day-spring from on high, and cheer us by thy drawing nigh…
COLLECT: The song’s language of dispelling darkness and night is matched in the collect’s prayer for repentance and cleansing upon hearing the prophets’ preaching.
GOSPELS: Matthew 11:2-19 Jesus affirms to John’s disciples that he is dispelling the darkness as promised
John 1:19-28 & Luke 3:7-20 John the Baptist proclaims that the Christ is drawing nigh
Advent IV / Superadvent VII: O Emmanuel
SUNG VERSE: O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel…
COLLECT: The song bids us await the appearance of the Son of God, and the collect also prays for him to come among us.
GOSPELS: Matthew 1:18-25 They shall call his name Emmanuel
Luke 1:26-38 He will be called the Son of the Most High
Luke 1:39-56 Fetal John the Baptist recognizes the newly-conceived Jesus
A final personal note of recommendation.
Surely if you dig through the Epistles and Old Testament lessons of the modern lectionary you will find further connections to these themes. But it should be emphasizes that this schema is not how the lectionary was designed to be interpreted. Using these seven O Antiphons in this manner only gives coincidental lines of interpretation. They’re not bad lines of interpretation, but they don’t account for everything, nor do they even begin to exhaust the potential of these Sundays’ themes and lessons.
I have used this Extended Advent concept once, a few years ago, and plan to use it again in 2023. I did not, and will not, rename the Sundays before Advent as if to make an official Pre-Advent season; rather, I treated it like a sermon series, preaching on Jesus in the Old Testament images that those seven antiphons/verses portray. We also sang the corresponding verse of the hymn each week, needless to say. I do recommend other priests and pastors give this a try sometime, too. 2023 is a good opportunity for it because All Saints’ Sunday won’t conflict with the first day of this sequence!
That having been said, there are plenty of other ways to anticipate Advent in the final Sundays of the church year. As early as “Proper 24” (Oct. 16-22) the Collects of the Day give themes that summarize the course of Christian life and discipleship and anticipate eternity – bondage from sin (24), live among things that are passing away (26), and so on – not to mention the lectionary’s meanderings into the later Prophets, and 1 & 2 Thessalonians around the same time. (I suppose Year B is the weak one of the three, when it comes to explicit anticipation of Advent.) The seven-week Advent idea is a nifty one, and can be used gently to draw upon the wisdom and resources of the Early Church without having to tinker with the liturgy we’ve received by authority in our own day. But it’s one approach of many, and I pray that you and yours will be enriched with the blessed hope of eternal life that this time of year directs us toward!