The History of the Advent Collects

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The four Advent collects offer both a concise introduction to the season of Advent and a rich overview of the grace God offers to sinners. These collects thereby present, in microcosm, the Anglican Way as a Catholic and Reformed religion. As expressed in these collects, Anglicans hold to the great themes of the historic Christian tradition, clarified through attention to the Scriptures and the doctrine of justification by faith through grace.

The Advent Collects are found on pages 598-599 of the 2019 Book of Common Prayer. In researching this topic, I especially drew from commentaries by Massey Hamilton Shepherd, Jr., Marion J. Hatchett, and C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F. M. Zahl.

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What is a collect? A collect is a short, formal prayer written in “collect form,” typically appointed for a particular occasion. The Book of Common Prayer is full of collects—and here at Anglican Compass, we love them! Previously, we have published reflections on many individual collects, and articles on the history of the Holy Week and the Easter Week collects.

The First Sunday in Advent

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.

Written by Thomas Cranmer for the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, this collect embodies the double focus of Advent, on preparing for both the first and the second comings of Christ. The first coming was the conception and birth of the Messiah, in which God’s “Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.” Equally important, the collect also references the second coming of Christ on “the last day, when he shall come again.”

The keynote of the whole prayer is its request for “grace.”  This is the essential means by which we may “cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light” (Cranmer takes this phrase from Romans 13:12). In other words, the collect assumes the fundamental sinfulness of man, by which it is not possible for us to turn to God on our own power. Of ourselves, we live in darkness. But by the grace of God, even “in the time of this mortal life,” we may humbly receive the humble Christ, whereby we finally “rise to the life immortal.”

This prayer was so much loved that the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer appointed it to be read every day during the season of Advent.

The Second Sunday in Advent

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Written by Thomas Cranmer for the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, this collect reflects the reformation emphasis on the importance of Scripture. Just as Cranmer included his “Fruitful exhortation to the reading of holy Scripture” as the first in his Book of Homilies, so he appointed this collect to appear in the first season of the church year. The 1979 Book Of Common Prayer made the unfortunate decision to move it into the later propers of the church year. Happily, the 2019 Book of Common Prayer restored it to its original position.

Note also that Cranmer mentions here not only the scriptures in general but rather emphasizes “all Holy Scriptures.” One of Cranmer’s criticisms of the medieval Church was its failure to read the whole corpus of Scripture. To remedy this, Cranmer created a daily lectionary for use at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, by which one could read nearly the whole Bible in a year. Cranmer’s BCP was the original Bible-in-a-year reading plan!

Five Modes To Engage Scripture

Then there is the famous request that we engage the scriptures in five different modes, listed in the typical order of practice: hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. I’ll briefly comment on each mode:

Hear

Hearing the scriptures in corporate assembly is essential to the Church’s worship. This is not only because some people, whether children or the illiterate, cannot read. This is also because hearing is intrinsically linked to faith, as Paul says: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of God” (Romans 10:17).

Read

When we hear Scripture and are intrigued by it, we want to read it ourselves. Reading allows us to read slowly, to read again, to confirm faith with a more profound understanding. And to the Biblical mind, reading the scriptures is a kingly task. The king of Israel is instructed to “read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes” (Deuteronomy 17:19). Thus, when we read the scriptures, we are living into our kingly role with Christ.

Mark

Reading leads to marking as we engage the content of the scriptures. Marking can be a simple matter of identifying a key passage for further study or could even be a literal marking in the form of underlining, highlighting, taking notes, or journaling. The Reformation made a fundamental advance in this way of engaging Scripture by adding chapters and verses to the Biblical text. It’s hard to memorize a verse if you don’t know where it begins or ends!

Learn

By hearing, reading, and marking, we have come much of the way to learning. To learn is to understand the Biblical text’s meaning, both in its own context and as applied to our lives. A purely academic study of the scriptures is undercut by the scriptures themselves, for Paul says, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” (Romans 15:4). In other words, we cannot read the Scriptures properly if we do not consider their applied and existential significance in our own lives.

Inwardly Digest

Cranmer’s final mode is the hardest to understand since it is not literally possible to digest a text inwardly. Metaphorically, however, the idea is that we live with the scriptures in our minds and hearts, drawing strength from them over time, “that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

The Third Sunday in Advent

O Lord Jesus Christ, you sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Grant that the minister and stewards of your mysteries may likewise make ready your way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at your second coming to judge the world, we may be found a people acceptable in your sight; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This collect was written for the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, probably by John Cosin. It reflects the Advent theme of preparation for Christ, with reference to the prophets and especially John the Baptist, who “preach repentance and prepare the way.” This theme is then applied to our own lives as we pray to Christ that ministers today “may likewise make ready your way.” In other words, we prepare for Christ’s second coming in the same way that the people of God prepared for his first: by repentance.

The collect includes an elegant description of the purpose of gospel ministry: “turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” Of course, a minister does not have power in himself to move the hearts of sinful men, but the Holy Spirit accompanies the proclamation of the gospel to convict the sinner and turn him to God. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer revised this collect. It removed this beautiful phrase (in fact the word “disobedient” never appears in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer!). Happily, the 2019 Book of Common Prayer restored the collect.

The Fourth Sunday in Advent

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among use; and as we are sorely hindered by our sins from running the race that is set before us, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

In the medieval liturgy at Salisbury, four collects on the Sundays before Christmas began with the Latin word excita, translated either as “raise up” or “stir up.” Cranmer adapted one for the fourth Sunday of Advent, the final Sunday before Christmas. It is fitting that, on this Sunday, we regognize two truths. We acknowledge both the depth of our depravity (“we are sorely hindered by our sins”) and the depth of God’s love (“your bountiful grace and mercy”).

Cranmer’s version included a specific reference to the atonement of Christ at the end of the collect. It says, “Through the satisfaction of thy Son our Lord.” The phrase was dropped without explanation in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and the Church ought to consider restoring it in the next Book of Common Prayer.

Roseberry’s Testimony

For a real-life example of the power of this prayer, consider the testimony of David Roseberry. As a young man in his 20s, trying to make sense of his own mistakes, he sought spiritual counsel from a priest at a local church. The priest gave him this collect, and here was the result:

I sat in the church that evening after the priest left, reading the prayer repeatedly. Stir up…great might…sorely hindered…grace and mercy…speedily help and deliver. The phrases and images moved my heart and impacted my mind. They applied directly to me and the mess I had created.

When I stood up to leave, I felt completely different. It seemed to me that I was lighter than I had been — as if I had lost weight! I left the church, and halfway out the door, I had to look down at my shoes. It felt to me that I was wearing someone else’s shoes! I was different. I had been unburdened.

David subsequently followed the calling of the Lord into ministry, in which he planted and grew one of the nation’s largest Anglican churches. His story illustrates that there is great spiritual power in the collects of the Church, if only we would stop to listen, pray, and share with those in need!


Photo by Liesel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Published on

December 22, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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