“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.
The Collect quoted above is the Collect for the First Sunday in Advent. It may well be the work of the Blessed Thomas Cranmer, Christian Martyr, Protestant, Archbishop of Canterbury and author of the first and second publication of the Anglican Rite’s Book of Common Prayer. I consider Thomas Cranmer a Reformation Saint, whose coerced recantations of the Protestant Church in England during the reign of Mary Tudor, Queen of England, fully inform us of his humanity, his weakness and sinfulness. Who then cannot but be moved at the words of his Confession and declaration from a temporary “pulpit” in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin Church, Oxford, on the day of his execution.
Finally released from all pretense, from all vanity, from oaths of service and loyalty to the “Bloody” Roman Catholic Usurper and her cowering Court, finally discharged from all vows of fealty and discipline to the corrupt and fallen Roman Catholic Pope, Julius III, finally clothed in simple, unadorned robes such as Christ’s disciples might have worn, finally facing his death and the certain judgment of God Almighty, finally with no hope of earthly breath left, he choose to proclaim the righteousness of the Reformation, the fallacy of the Roman Catholic Church, the apostasy of the Pope.
He condemned his right hand for the recantations he had previously written, and vowed it should burn first in his fiery burning at the stake that was to follow. He died proclaiming his love of Christ, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit,” and saw heaven open before him. This was the death of a Martyr, a Saint, a Protestant, and an Englishman.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Advent Collect celebrates the final “Glorious Last Day,” not the First Day, the Day of Conception, as God and Woman conceive life, and quicken within Mary’s womb the humanity of the Son of God, Jesus. Nor does it even mention the coming Day of Birth of the Son of Man, when the Miracle of the Virgin Birth brings forth into the world the Son of God, the Christ, Jesus.
Understand, I love the Book of Common Prayer, and worship with it daily; it is the font of my sacramental grace, the guide to my life of worship. But it is, as is almost all Christian literature of the past two millennia, focused on end times, on eschatology, not on incarnality, not on the Incorporeal Manifestation of Flesh, the Divine Act of God becoming Man.
The four weeks of Advent seem such a short time to focus on the Incarnation and Nativity of Jesus. Should not Advent be the longest season, the most joyful event, and the holiest, most worshipful time of a Christian’s life? Unlike Lent, a time of somber reflection on our sins and the “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction” of Jesus Christ necessary for Divine Forgiveness, Advent should celebrate New Life given by God, renewing the Old Covenant, creating a New Covenant, broadening, deepening, entwining the historical and scripturally revealed ADONAI with all mankind. The birth symbolizes not only the incomprehensible act of God becoming Man, but of humanity realizing what it is to become, in the most profound fashion, like God. Faith, Hope and Charity, Unconditional Love, all these gifts come to us through the Incarnation, through Christ’s birth, not through His crucifixion and death.
I preach this because I find the act of humility much more difficult than the act of sacrifice; that God should become Man is far more inspiring to me than that Jesus should sacrifice himself for mankind. I thank God for His gift of everlasting life, but I can not touch nor experience the ethereal realm. I live in the world of flesh and bones, of imperfection and weakness, but I know that this world of the flesh was inexorably changed at the very moment described in Luke 1:35 ” The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God”
At that very instant, the promise of Adam and Eve was realized, the state of “original” sin which their act created was dissolved. Man, born evil in sin was transformed into man born innocent, free of sin. The Little Child of the Nativity was born guileless and guiltless, an innocent. Who will argue that an infant today is born in sin? Who would ascribe evil to the children the Lord Jesus gathered to himself, and held up as models of God’s children, models of how we should approach our Father in Heaven?
In the Holy Nativity, we see man returned to innocence. No longer is man compelled to choose Good from Evil, now, sinless at conception and birth, man may choose good or evil, the very same choice God gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
In this Advent Season, I ask all Christians that I meet: What if there was no promise of Eternal Life, what if all the time you are allowed was just your life as you live it today? Would not the day of Christ’s Birth still be the greatest day in the history of humanity? Would you love God less if his only gift was the Grace that has enriched your life, the Goodness and Loving-Kindness that He drew out of the hardened hearts of all mankind, the charity, the wisdom, the love that has enriched all our lives since the moment of His conception?
The Incarnation of God becoming Man, not appearing as a man, not manifested in human form for a day, not perceived as a vision, but in the flesh, in the days and nights, weeks and months of thirty three years; in every way, every limb, every organ, every cell, human. This is our lesson that Jesus as a human, as a Man, with free will, could live in obedience to his Father, could live in love and worship of his Father, every day of his life.
For me, the Incarnation is a most profoundly personal experience. It is the sine qua non of all Christian experience, and the sanctification of this Advent Season, commemorating the conception and birth of Jesus is sadly overlooked in emphasis in both Liturgy and Life.