Advent: It means “Coming.” Advent is the beginning of the liturgical calendar, in which the church regularly cycles through the important events of the faith. The liturgical year begins with preparation for the coming of Christ, the spiritual coming of light to the world.
Many Christians today joyfully celebrate Advent with Advent wreaths, “Jesse Trees,” and Advent calendars to count off the days. (My grandchildren have Lego Advent calendars this year; is that better than chocolate?)
What did Advent and Christmas mean to Jane Austen and other Anglicans of her day, and how did they celebrate? Austen wishes people “Merry Christmas” and mentions family gatherings, school holidays, visits to friends, and parties during the Christmas season. Edmund of Mansfield Park is ordained as a clergyman during that season, a traditional time for ordination. And Austen’s Emma has to miss church on Christmas day because of bad weather, though she obviously would normally have gone. Many decorated with greenery (probably not Christmas trees, though) and gave charitably to the poor during the Christmas season. A Yule candle might be lit, but not until Christmas Eve. The main remembrance of Advent was in church services.
The Bible readings chosen for Advent in The Book of Common Prayer (1790) surprised me. I expected the traditional Christmas stories and prophecies about Christ. However, I found passages about God’s judgment, Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, and Jesus’ return in glory, along with promises of hope and joy. All seem related to “coming,” though, in some way.
Advent began on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s Day, Nov. 30. This year that was Dec. 3, though in some years it falls in November. On the first Sunday of Advent, Romans 13:8-14 was read, including: “the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. . . . The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (verses 11-12).
Why does this reading begin Advent? Austen’s Advent looked forward not only to Christ’s first coming, his birth, but also to his second coming, his return in glory as promised in Scripture. (Many traditions, including Catholics and Anglicans, still have this focus.) We sometimes describe the church, in modern terms, as being in a period of “Now, and Not Yet.” Now: Jesus has come, brought salvation, ushered in the Kingdom of God. Not yet: The world is still full of sin and pain, and knowledge of God’s glory does not yet fill all the earth (as promised in Habakkuk 2:14).
The “collect” prayed twice daily throughout Advent reflects both comings: (A “collect” was a short prayer, following a certain format, prayed as part of prescribed church services.)
“Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light . . .” This gives the theme of darkness and light, still celebrated with Advent candles, from Romans 13:12.
“. . . now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; . . .” reminds us of the first coming of Christ, to be celebrated soon.
“. . . that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.” We are to prepare for Christ’s second coming, by casting away the works of darkness.
The other New Testament reading for that first Sunday of Advent shows Jesus entering Jerusalem on a humble donkey while the crowds shout, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Here we see Jesus “coming” triumphantly into Jerusalem as the king he is now, but not yet; his second coming will be more glorious. Just as he came humbly at his birth, as a baby in a manger, he comes humbly on a donkey into the place where someday (not yet) he will reign.
Joy in the Middle?
Can we find joy in the middle of the now and not yet; when Christ has come, but there is still so much evil and suffering in the world?
On the second Sunday of Advent, Romans 15:4-13 announces hope and joy, for “The root of Jesse [Jesus] will come” (not yet), but even now, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” The Gospel reading in Luke 21 tells us to watch for the signs of the second coming: “. . . they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” We can find joy in faith, in believing, and in hope that the suffering we see and experience will not last forever; ultimately Christ will return as King.
For the third Sunday of Advent, the new collect prayer again mentions both comings. Readings remind the congregation again that Christ came and is coming back. In Matthew 11, John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus if he is the “one who is to come” (the promised Messiah). Jesus tells them of healings and good news preached to the poor; surely joyful news!
The collect for the fourth Sunday of Advent asks God to “come among us,” with power, help, and deliverance. The reading of Phil. 4:4-7 commands believers to “Rejoice in the Lord always!” Why? “The Lord is at hand.” So we should pray thankfully and receive God’s peace in the midst of our trials.
On Christmas day, which was also a Communion service, finally came the prophecies of Christ’s birth, the story of his birth, reminders of God’s salvation, and that the light has come into the world!
Where do we find joy in Advent? In the “now and not yet,” we travel with those who awaited his first coming and enjoy the anticipation of celebrating Christmas, but we also look forward with joy to Christ’s return, knowing that he will put all things right, and “wipe away all tears from all faces”!
Can we find joy in reflecting on both the first and second comings (Advent) of Jesus? On Christ coming as a baby and coming back as a King? You might want to read some of the passages read in Austen’s churches, listed below, as you prayerfully prepare for the celebration of Christmas.
Next week, we’ll look for joy in Christmas carols, and explore their history!
Advent and Christmas Readings
From The Book of Common Prayer (1790) that Austen read from daily, with a joyful highlight from each passage; you might want to read the whole passage! For easier reading, verses are from the English Standard Version, not from the versions she would have used (1535 Coverdale Bible for the Psalms, and probably King James Version for other passages). Sources and further reading are below this section.
Isaiah 1: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (verse 18).
Isaiah 2: “. . . nation shall not lift up sword against nation . . .” (4).
Matt. 21:1-13: “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey . . . Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (5,9).
Romans 13:8-14: “. . . the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone, the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (11,12).
Isaiah 5: This one is full of judgment, but is described as a “love song” (v.1). “Man is humbled, and each one is brought low” (v. 15).
Isaiah 24: More judgment, but then “they lift up their voices, they sing for joy” (14).
Luke 21:25-33: “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. . . . your redemption is drawing near” (27,28).
Romans 15:4-13: “. . . that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. . . . Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people. . . . May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing . . .” (4,10,13).
Isaiah 25: “He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away all tears from all faces . . . let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (8,9).
Isaiah 26: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you” (3). “You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” (19).
Matt. 11:2-10: Jesus tells John the Baptist the signs he is doing, and says that John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus. “. . . the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (5).
I Cor. 4:1-5: Do not judge now, for “the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (5).
Isaiah 30: “You shall have a song as in the night when a holy feast is kept, and gladness of heart” (29).
Isaiah 32: “Behold, a king will reign in righteousness, . . . like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land” (1,2).
Phil. 4:4-7: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice . . . do not be anxious about anything” (4,6)—instead pray and thank God.
John 1:19-28: John the Baptist prepares for Christ’s coming, “Make straight the way of the Lord” (23).
Isaiah 9:1-8: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light . . . they rejoice before you. . . for to us a child is born . . .Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end . . .” (2,3,6,7).
Isaiah 7:10-17: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (14). Immanuel means “God with us”: joyful news!
Luke 2:1-15: The familiar Christmas story. “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (10-12). That the baby was in cloths and in a manger was good news for the shepherds; it meant he was in a poor person’s home (where animals normally lived on the ground floor, but were moved out for these visitors), and that they would be welcome there!
And/or John 1:1-12: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (4,5).
Titus 3:4-9: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us . . . according to his own mercy . . .” (4,5).
And/or Hebrews 1:1-12: “But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever . . . You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness . . .” (8,9).
Psalms chosen for Christmas day were 19, 45, and 85 in the morning, and 89, 110, and 132 in the evening. These focus on God’s revealing himself in his Word and his world, his coming as king, his salvation, righteousness, and peace, his steadfast love, the Messiah’s second coming as priest and conquering king (Ps. 110), and God’s dwelling place. Though warnings of judgment are interwoven, these Psalms give many reasons for God’s people to “shout for joy”! (Ps. 132:16)
Christmas Readings after Christmas
Dec. 28, Innocents’ Day: Matthew 2:13-18, Herod slaughters the babies at Bethlehem.
Sunday after Christmas: Matthew 1:18-25, the angel comes to Mary to announce Jesus’s coming.
Jan. 1, The Circumcision of Christ: Luke 2:15-21, the shepherds visit Jesus.
Jan. 6, Epiphany: Matthew 2:1-12, the Wise Men visit Jesus.
Prayers read as part of the daily services (italics added, except for the Amens.)
For all of Advent:
“Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy 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 quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.”
From the second Sunday of Advent, along with the prayer for the first Sunday, is added:
“Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.”
For the third week of Advent: “O Lord Jesu Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before there; Grant that the Ministers and Stewards of thy mysteries, may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; that at thy second coming to judge the world, we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father, and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.”
The fourth week of Advent: “O Lord, raise up (we pray thee) thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us, thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us, through the satisfaction of thy Son our Lord; to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be honour and glory, world without end. Amen.”
Finally, on “The Nativity of our Lord, or the birth day of CHRIST, commonly called Christmas-day,” Austen and her community prayed,
“Almighty God, who hast given us thy only begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin; grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit, through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.”
References and Further Thoughts for Advent
The Book of Common Prayer, 1790. The Advent readings are on pages 45 and following in the pdf file; after the Thanksgivings.
Charles Wheatly, A Rational Illustration of the Book of Common Prayer, 1848.
A Jane Austen Christmas: Regency Christmas Traditions by Maria Grace is an excellent source if you want to know more about how Austen and her family would have celebrated, what they ate, what games they played, and much more.
“The Season of Advent: Anticipation and Hope”
“Advent,” from the Church of England