O Sapientia begins

The die-hard liturgy fans out there may already know about this, but others of you may glance at the ACNA calendar this week and mumble in broken Latin “O Sapientia?”  It means “O Wisdom” and it refers to a traditional antiphon that was paired with the Magnificat in Vespers (Evening Prayer).

Let’s back up.

In the final week leading up to Christmas, pre-reformation liturgical tradition spruced up each Evening Prayer service with a different antiphon, meditating on a different aspect of Christ.  Because each of them begin with the expressive word “O”, they’re known as “The O Antiphons.”  How does an antiphon work?  Traditionally they are placed at the beginning of a Psalm or Canticle and repeated at the end, after the “Glory be”.  So the first one, O Sapientia, would work like this:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
For he has regarded
the lowliness of his handmaiden.

He, remembering his mercy, has helped his servant Israel,
as he promised to our fathers, Abraham and his seed forever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Each day, at Evening Prayer, this Antiphon would be different, in the final lead-up to Christmas.  For most of Europe there were seven such antiphons:

  • O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
  • O Adonai (O Lord)
  • O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
  • O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • O Oriens (O Dayspring)
  • O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)
  • O Emmanuel (O God-with-us)

In England, an eighth was added at the end, moving all the other seven forward a day: O Virgo Virginum (O Virgin of Virgins).

As the discerning reader might now recognize, the classic seven of these comprise the seven verses of O come, O come Emmanuel that we have in our hymnals.  The order is not the same, however, and with good reason: the culmination of these pictures of Jesus is Emmanuel; that is the most profound and clear of all the prophetic images of Christ.  These antiphons, thus, form a progression of growing clarity in our Advent anticipation: we await our Wisdom, our Lord, the Root (or stump) of Jesse, the Key of David, the Dayspring (or Morning Star), the King of the Gentiles, God-himself-with-us!

The medieval English addition of the Marian observance, O Virgo Virginum admittedly interrupts this progression, though its content is just as biblical and pious as the other seven.  I adapted it to verse a couple years ago, for those who care to add it to the hymn.

If you have found Advent to be passing you by, perhaps you can latch on to this final week before Christmas.  These O Antiphons are the stuff of excellent Bible Study, meditation, reflection, prayer, and worship.

The Advent Collect: a breakdown

Starting yesterday, this week’s Collect is the great Advent Collect:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

This majestic prayer is, in my opinion, one of the best Collects in our tradition.  In the classical Prayer Book tradition, this Collect was also appointed to be prayed following the Collect of the Day through the entire season of Advent, making it not only the Collect of the Day, and for the week, but for the season itself.  Just looking at it, you can probably see why – it captures the themes of the season so well, it’s hard to improve upon it.

But let’s take a look at this Collect more closely.  Like most collects, this prayer has multiple Scripture references built into it, much of which is not necessarily linked to the official readings of the First Sunday in Advent.

Reference #1: Romans 13:12
Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light

This phrase is straight-up quoted in the Collect; there is nothing subtle about this reference.  It is bolstered further by the fact that Romans 13:8-14 is the traditional Epistle lesson for the first Sunday, though in the modern lectionaries it’s there only on Year A.  (Right now, Year C has just begun, so next year we’ll all be hearing this match-up at last.)

This is the primary exhortation of the season.  Our active preparation for Christ’s arrival is one of cleansing: we put away our evil deeds and pursue the illumination of the light of Christ.

Reference #2: 2 Timothy 4:1
…Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead,
and by his appearing and his kingdom…

This is only a brief quote.  The Collect notes Christ’s role of Judge at the end of the age upon his return.  This is the primary backdrop and context for the exhortation we just received; only in light of Christ’s return and right to judge do we endeavor to be faithful citizens of his kingdom.

Reference #3: Philippians 2:5-8
…Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form he humbled himself…

These verses form one of the clearest statements in Scripture that back up this Collect’s claim that Christ formerly “came to visit us in great humility”.  This reference does double duty.  Primarily it adds to the context of this life, in which we receive the exhortation to cease from evil and do good, preparing for the return of Christ.  But by specifically referencing the first, humble, advent of Christ, it gives a nod to the liturgical anticipation of Christmas that the Advent season also provides.

It may be prudent for us to note that the first purpose of Advent is actually to prepare us for the second advent of Christ.  The theme of “getting ready for Christmas” is secondary; the “basic” level that helps us grasp what is primary.

Reference #4: 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.

The return of Christ was already referenced in 2 Timothy; what these verses add is the further point that we will “rise to the life immortal” on that Day.  It is interesting to note that the very words of the Collect “rise to the life immortal” point us in an interpretive direction that rule out the popular teaching of “the rapture”, which uses these verses as a proof-text for the idea that God’s people will literally float away into heaven someday.  Instead, our gathering up into the air will be the beginning of our “life immortal” – the resurrection life on earth, inaugurated by Christ’s return to judge.  The populist rapture teaching separates the resurrection of God’s people from the return of Christ as Judge by 7 years or more… a belief rendered incoherent by this Collect, not to mention the united witness of the Bible.

Sample “Daily Mass” Schedule for Advent

If you’re a highchurch sort of person, perhaps you dream of a day where you have the opportunity to celebrate or attend a daily Mass.  This is a staple of Roman Catholic practice, and only the most devotedly-Anglo-Catholic Anglican parishes have brought this practice back in full.  The season of Advent, being so explicitly thematic and conveniently short, is a great time of year to consider taking on a special sort of devotion beyond what you usually do throughout the year.

Holding a Communion service every day of the week is nearly impossible for most of us these days, but what can be done is to read and pray parts of the Communion service on your own.  This is basically the “Antecommunion” liturgy – follow the Prayer Book service up until the Offertory and end it there with a few extra prayers.  Given the resources available to us in the 2019 Prayer Book, there is no one way to do this.  As an example of how one might go about this, here is what I’ve mapped out, and hope to observe as a special daily devotion in addition to the Daily Office.

(Remember if you’re an Anglican, especially a clergyman, it’s more true to our tradition to be praying the Office daily before adding optional extras like daily Mass!)

2018 advent

A few words of explanation so you can see where this comes from and why I did it this way…

Contemporary versus Traditional: The classical prayer books have a different logic for Advent than the modern calendar, and is worth learning from.  So I have appointed the “traditional” lessons for Advent on each Monday.  (With the 2019 Prayer Book, the Collects for each Sunday are the same as the traditional ones, unlike in the 1979).

Votive Mass: This is a Roman Catholic term for what the 1979 Prayer Book called “Occasional Observances” or something like that.  In this case I’m electing to repeat, essentially, Christ the King Sunday’s collect & lessons as an Advent devotion.

O Sapientia: in the Episcopalians’ Lesser Feasts and Fasts book, a number of optional seasonal observances are offered.  “O Sapientia” refers to the final week leading up to Christmas Eve, and are related to the “O Antiphons” from which the hymn O come, O come Emmanual is derived.  In a break from tradition, I decided to spread these eight observances out throughout the season.

Hybald of Lincolnshire: No, you’re not crazy, this guy isn’t on the ACNA calendar of commemorations.  He’s on a list of Anglo-Saxon Saints that I compiled a few years ago.  When the new Prayer Book comes out, then I will finish my and my church’s transition to full conformity with its rubrics.  This is on my last flings with extra commemoration days.

Ember Days: These are in our Prayer Book, and I’m sure I’ll write about them when they approach, later this month.  Noteworthy this year is the fact that Ember Friday will be replaced by the feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle.

December 24th: In Latin Christian discipline, a Priest had to get permission from his bishop to “binate” – celebrate two masses on the same day.  Assuming we’ll just be doing Antecommunion, or even just reading the Collect & Lessons as an extra devotion during the day, there’s no reason to pay that old custom any heed.  Besides, it’s good to finish the Advent Sunday contemporary & traditional pairings, even if it is a little crowded with Christmas Eve.

Whether you choose to copy this or do something else entirely, I hope this at least gets you thinking about how to approach a special daily Advent devotional this year.  You could get really creative, and make these observances part of the family devotion, or link it to an advent wreath, or something else like that!

First Advent Sunday Checklist

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.

Tomorrow is Christ the King

Christ the King Sunday is one of the most modern additions to the liturgical calendar.  It was first instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 to counter the growing secularism and nationalism in Europe at that time.  Despite the Great War, dictatorships were on the rise again, and the Pope felt the need to implement a new solemnity, or major feast day,  to reiterate the supremacy of Christ over all earthly rulers and powers.

Originally, this feast was not on the same date as it is now, but set as the last Sunday in October, such that it would always be observed on the Sunday before All Saints’ Day.  In that original context, Christ the King Sunday was a precursor to the All Saints’ celebration, forming a sort of two-week festive time to honor our King and his court, so to speak.

In 1970 the Roman Catholics moved Christ the King Sunday to the end of “Ordinary Time”, the new name for Trinitytide in their radically reinvented liturgical calendar, upon which the Revised Common Lectionary is built (and thus the 1979 Prayer Book and the ACNA calendar today).

Traditionalists lament this decision: although the traditional last Sunday before Advent had a similar “feel” to Christ the King Sunday, the mood and tone was quite different.  Where “Christ the King” is a joyful and triumphant and victorious sort of celebration, the last Sunday before Advent was a bit more solemn: Jesus is the Prophet and King long-awaited, who feeds his people and judges the nations and stirs us up to love and good works.  It was explicitly a pre-Advent observance preparing the worshiper for the penitential weeks of Advent.

If you want to capture some of the purpose of the traditional calendar, which the Church used for 1,500 years before the 1970’s, consider re-imagining “Christ the King” as “Christ the Judge.”  There is much to celebrate in both the old and new calendar and lessons, but also a powerful call to repentance and obedience to said King.

Transitioning to Advent

Advent is coming… just over two weeks from now we’ll be donning the purple and keeping watch for the four-fold arrival of Christ: in his Nativity, in his Sacraments, in the hearts of his faithful people, and in power and great glory upon his bodily return.

To be fair, I’ve only ever heard of a “three-fold” advent, with different sources choosing either the Sacraments or the believer’s heart.  But I’m not going to get into that here and now.

The changing of the seasons, liturgically speaking, is never sudden.  Each season, or sub-season, has its transition markers.  The modern calendar is a little rougher ’round the edges than the traditional lectionary, but the approach toward Advent is a smooth one in both systems.

in the traditional calendar & lectionary

The Trinitytide Collects & lessons follow an upward path of spiritual growth and maturity, culminating in the ultimate goal of Christian perfection via union with Christ.  The natural response to such a progression is to issue a call to labor, to strive for that perfection, to prepare ourselves for that union with Christ, which is very much in line with Advent’s call to “keep watch.”  Further, the Last Sunday before Advent is a fitting close for the Trinitytide themes and a herald of the Advent season to come.  It’s hardly a stretch to see it as a sort of “Christ the King Sunday” like what we have in the modern calendar.

in the modern calendar & lectionary

The sequential Gospel and Epistle lessons approach their end through the month of November.  In each of the three years, the final weeks before Advent take us into the eschatological discourse of Jesus, looking at the “signs of the end” and his eventual bodily return.  This actually steps on the toes of the traditional Advent season, and opens up the modern Advent to a slightly heavier focus on the upcoming Nativity of Jesus.  So in a way, the modern calendar begins the Advent themes as many as three weeks early.  It’s such a smooth transition that there was actually an “Advent Project” some years ago, advocating for a 7-week Advent, like the Church had in Late Antiquity.  Feel free to peruse that site, but be warned that it contains much that is theologically and liturgically liberal, perhaps inappropriate for a healthy Christian congregation.