By Dr. Robert Crouse
Originally presented by Dr.
Robert Crouse for the Prayer Book Society of Canada, Nova Scotia/Prince
Edward Island Branch Advent 2002 Institute, held at St. George’s Round
Church, November 30, 2002.
Anglican spirituality is essentially liturgical:
it is a way of spiritual life founded in worship and fulfilled in worship; a
spiritual life shaped by the word of God mediated to us in the cycles of the
liturgical year. It is that liturgical pattern of proclaiming the Word of
God, day by day, week by week, year by year, which has shaped the mind and
heart of Anglican Christianity. And that pattern has remained substantially
unchanged for more than a millennium, up until our own generation.
If you consider, for instance, the selection of
Epistle and Gospel lessons for the Sundays in Advent, as they appear in the
Book of Common Prayer, you will find that they are precisely those appointed
in the Sarum Missal of the medieval Church of England, and are in fact the
same as those prescribed in the Comes of St Jerome, which goes back
to the Fifth Century. The only change has been Archbishop Cramner’s
addition, in 1549, of a few verses to the beginning of the Epistle lesson
and the end of the Gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Advent. Apart from
the slight lengthening of those two lessons, the Advent lectionary remains
unchanged since early Christian times.
What we have in that series is not a random
selection of readings, but a coherent series of texts, in which Epistle and
Gospel lessons interpret and supplement each other, and in which there is a
continuous, logical development of teachings from one week to the next. Each
set of texts builds upon the thought of the preceding set, and points ahead
to the one that follows.
Our Anglican Reformers saw no need to alter that
ancient pattern; they insisted only that it be better understood by all the
faithful: read, marked, learned and inwardly digested; that it be more
deeply understood and more perfectly obeyed, that by patience and comfort of
God’s Holy Word, we might all embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope
which is ours in Christ Jesus. Anglican spiritual nurture is basically a
matter of hearing that proclamation, following that pattern, year after
year, understanding perhaps a bit more each time, and each time conforming
our lives a bit more closely to its truth.
Because our spiritual life is basically
liturgical, because it is formed and shaped and sustained by that pattern of
proclamation of God’s Word, it makes little sense, I think, to try to
consider it abstractly, as though spiritual life were an activity somehow
off by itself. The problem is rather to see and understand the spiritual
dimensions of the Church’s liturgical proclamation week by week, and season
by season, throughout the year. And therefore, as we prepare for Advent (as
we prepare, that is to say, for preparation!), it seems to me that our best
course is to try to prepare ourselves to understand more deeply the
spiritual dimensions of the Advent lessons.
The Advent season is multi-dimensional. It looks
backward in time to the coming of the Son of God as the Infant of Bethlehem
two thousand years ago; it looks forward to the end of time, to the
consummation of history in the coming of the Son of God as Judge. But there
is yet another dimension of the most vital importance for our spiritual
life: Advent is about God’s coming now, and our Advent lessons encourage our
hope and expectation of his presence in our life here and now.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Prologue of his
commentary on Isaiah, speaks of these three dimensions of Advent: the coming
of the Son of God in carne: in the flesh, historically; his coming
in mente: in our souls, now by grace; and ad judicium: at the
judgement, at the end and as the end of history. Paramount in our Advent
lessons is that second dimension: Christ’s Advent in mente, the
present coming of the Word of God in our souls by grace. If you were to look
at the lessons from that standpoint, you would notice how in each case the
Epistle lesson underlines the present reference of the Gospel lesson.
This point can be illustrated with reference to
the lessons for the First Sunday in Advent. The Gospel lesson recounts as
historical incident the coming of Jesus to Jerusalem and his cleansing of
the Temple. But the historical reference is broader than that: the Kingdom
of Israel is God’s city and his Temple; he comes to claim the throne of
David, and his coming is a judgment upon that Temple, both immediately and
ultimately. Thus the Gospel speaks of Christ’s Advent in carne and
ad judicium. But on another level, the Temple of God’s presence in the
human soul, and Christ, the Word of God, comes to the soul to awaken it from
its futile dreams and purify its desire. It is that dimension of the Gospel
lesson that the Epistle lesson draws out: “Knowing the time, that now it is
high time to awake out of sleep.” The Word of God approaches, “the day is at
hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the
armour of light…put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for
the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof. This, you see, is Christ’s Advent
I suggest we consider the themes of the four
Advent Sundays in a three-dimensional way. The themes are there:
I. The Awakening and Cleansing of the Soul
Gospel: Mtt. 21.1: Jesus arouses Jerusalem and
Cleanses the Temple
Epistle: Rom. 13.8: The Soul (God’s Temple) is
to be awakened and cleansed of works of darkness, and armed with light.
II. The Passing World and the Enduring Word
Gospel: Lk. 21.25: Heaven and earth pass away,
but the Word of God endures.
Epistle: Rom. 15.4: The Word of God in the
believing soul is the ground of patience, comfort and hope.
III. Witnessing to the Word, in Hope
Gospel: Mtt. 11.2: John the Baptist in prison,
the prophetic messenger.
Epistle: 1 Cor. 4.1: The Christian soul as
faithful steward of the revealed mysteries.
IV. Recognition of the Word and Rejoicing in
Gospel: John 1.19: Behold the Lamb of God.
Epistle: Phil. 4.4: Rejoicing, thanksgiving
and peace in heart and mind.
Advent is the proclamation of God’s three-fold
coming: in carne, in mente and ad judicium. And notice
how those three dimensions are connected: Christ’s coming in the flesh,
historically, and his atoning work, is the basis of his coming to our souls
in grace; and his coming in judgement is nothing other than the summation of
all his comings in grace and what we have made of them. “This is the
judgement, that light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather
than light…” (Jn. 3.19) And so this season urges us to wake up, to cast off
darkness and clothe ourselves in light.
As Austin Farrer puts it, “Advent brings
Christmas, judgement runs out into mercy. For the God who saves us and the
God who judges us is one God…what judges us is what redeems us, the love of
God…But while love thus judges us by being what it is, the same love redeems
us by effecting what it does. Love shares flesh and blood with us in this
present world, that the eyes which look us through at last may find in us a
better substance than our vanity.” (Crown of the Year, Advent II)