St Nicholas was Bishop of Myra (now in Southern Turkey) in the fourth century AD. Not much was written about him at that time, but he was remembered as being a wonderful pastor, having a love of children, and for caring for the hungry, the sick and the oppressed.
A church was built over his tomb in the fourth century.
Later, in the eleventh century, his relics were transferred to Bari in Italy by seamen from Bari. Books were written about him about that time telling tales of his wonderful exploits, many of these really legendary. My two favourites are those of the three girls he is said to have rescued from sexual slavery by providing them with dowries (his emblem is a sign of three bags of gold, representing these three dowries and of the rescue of three boys who succeeded not only in being pickled and put in a pickle jar, but in surviving this ordeal alive.
Because of these legends he is most often nowadays associated with the giving of presents, and with giving delight to children. In this guise he is best known as Santa Claus. In several (Northern) European countries it is still the practice to give children presents on 6 December, in honour of St Nicholas.
Almighty Father, lover of mankind,
(G B Timms, The Cloud of Witnesses, London 1982)
Bishop of Milan (332-397). Born in Trier of Christian parents, was not baptised until adulthood. Was trained as a lawyer, and was very successful in that profession. In 374 was elected Bishop of Milan, and, in the course of three weeks, was ordained deacon, priest and bishop.
A great bishop. Baptised St Augustine. Created in Milan a magnificent liturgical tradition which is still in use (different from the rest of the RC provision, and of course used by some of his great successors, such as Pope Paul VI, who brought to completion the Second Vatican Council, and, as Pope, exchanged Episcopal rings with the great Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, with whom he shared a blessing to the congregation of St John Lateran on the occasion of Bishop Ramsey's visit to him in Rome.
Ambrose baptised St Augustine, wrote numerous superb treatises on the Christian faith, still widely read (by clergy, including me) and wrote some terrific hymns, still widely in use: Creator of the earth and sky; The eternal gifts of Christ the King; O strength and stay, upholding all creation; and most valuable of all, the wonderful Advent/Christmas hymn, Come, thou Redeemer of the earth.
Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,
The virgin womb that burden gained
Forth from that chamber goeth he,
From God the Father he proceeds,
(New English Hymnal hymn 19; trans JM Neale and others)
This festival (solemnity) was first introduced in the Eastern Church as 'The Conception of the Virgin Mary by St Anne' (the name attributed by tradition to the mother of the Blessed Virgin, though there is no Biblical evidence to support this; however, this tradition is very ancient) in the eighth century. It spread to Western churches and became a much-loved festival. It was faithfully observed in the Western Church from the twelfth century to the present day.
The Western Church elaborated the understanding of this feast. To understand this you have to think in medieval terms. You will appreciate that, when we receive communion, we receive the body and blood of Christ, as consecrated on the altar. We, the baptised, carry in our bodies the very body and blood of Christ. Now, no one can receive this great gift without first being baptised. Mary, of course, was not baptised. Yet she carried the body and blood of Christ in her body. This presented the medieval church with a problem. The theologians of the day resolved this by saying that Mary must have been conceived 'already baptised, in a state of grace'. This came to be considered 'the immaculate conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary'. You can see where they were coming from. If this medieval theology disturbs you, then, in modern terms, really all it means is that the BVM was born as a special person to God, and she carried out her mission with diligence and grace. Because of this wonderful contribution to salvation history (the history of mankind in the divine context) she has to be considered the first of all the saints.
Sing we of the blessèd Mother.
(G B Timms. New English Hymnal, no 185)
The collect for this day in the Scottish Prayer Book is as follows:
O almighty God,
(Scottish prayer Book 1929, page 298)
Some twenty years ago I was at an education conference in Uppsala in Sweden, much puzzled as to why an international conference should have been set up in mid-December, amid the snow. However, at dinner on 13 December all was revealed: a children's choir entered the dining room singing the Neapolitan song Santa Lucia, and at the back of the choir was a girl wearing a candelabra on her head, with four lighted candles. This, it seems, is a tradition carried out all over Sweden on 13 December. Here is the explanation.
St Lucy was a young Christian in Syracuse, Sicily. She lived in the late third and early fourth century, at a time when the Roman Empire was attempting to force religious uniformity in celebration of Roman gods and the god-emperor (twenty or thirty years later the emperor Constantine established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, but this was too late for Lucy). Lucy gave away her goods to the poor, and was betrayed to the Roman authorities by her betrothed, who was most unhappy at her disposal of goods he considered to be his own. She was put to death in 304.
The celebration of her martyrdom in December led to her name being associated with the light of Christ: The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.
Hence the use of lights from 13 December, making the connection between Lucy's death for Christ and the coming of Christ into the world at Christmas.
God our redeemer,
(Exciting Holiness, 2nd edition, Norwich 2003)
14 December: St John of the Cross
St John of the Cross was born in Avíla in Spain in 1542. He was educated by the Jesuits, but entered the Carmelite order. He met St Teresa of Avíla, and between them the two saints carried out considerable reform of the Carmelite order, against considerable opposition. St John of the Cross was so distressed by the opposition he had to contend with that he wrote about the Dark Night of the Soul. This was his way of coming to terms with his problems by focusing on the Passion, death and Resurrection of our Lord, thus seeing the dark night of the soul as the way of emerging into the Light of Christ. He wrote some impressive poetry on this theme. He died on this day in 1591.
The eternal source hides in the Living Bread
(From Song of the Soul that is glad to know God by Faith, trans Roy Campbell, London 1966)
(G B Timms, London 1982)
The Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after 13 December have traditionally been held as the Advent Ember Days. These are days of preparation for those about to be ordained in Advent, and days of prayer for the rest of us.
'Pray the Lord of the harvest, that he may send out labourers into his harvest.' On these days we pray for all who are about to be ordained, and also for all those in ordained ministry. Please pray for your Rector and all your clergy, in their service of our parishes and the wider Church, and for Gregor our Bishop and the diocese of Glasgow and Galloway. The Bishop is the repository of the faith for all in his diocese, and all clergy carry out their apostolate subject to his approval. Pray also for all who share in the work to ensure the smooth running of our services and our church work.
Ordained clergy are of course the ministers of the sacramental action of the Church, but it is important to remember that all church members are also involved in God's work in the world in this way, and carry their chare of responsibility for bringing the gospel to others and God's grace and reconciliation to those whom they meet. So please pray for all members of our congregations, that they may carry out their Christian mission with faithfulness and love.
(Scottish Liturgy p41)
These refrains are used before and after the Magnificat at evensong during the week leading up to Christmas.
It is important to remember that liturgy is 'theology turned into lyric', as seen in Isaiah and many shorter passages in Luke and the New testament writings. The antiphons are therefore quoted here in their familiar metrical form, in the translation of T A Lacey, as adapted by the editors of the New English Hymnal.
O come, thou Wisdom from on high!
Wisdom, a great attribute of those who serve God (Proverbs, Psalms), but above all an attribute of God, the creator of the world (see especially Wisdom 9,9: With you is wisdom, she who knows your works/and was present when you made the world;/she understands what is pleasing in your sight/and what is right according to your commandments. - NRSV, Apocrypha p49. The Apocrypha is a collection of books included in the Greek translation of the Old Testament - the Septuagint - but not in the Hebrew OT. The Septuagint was the Bible of John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter and Paul and all the early Church. The Apocrypha is an essential component of any Bible.)).It became common to associate divine Wisdom with God in creation, and from there to relate divine Wisdom to the second person of the Trinity (see John 1 and 1 Corinthians 1, as well as Ephesians 3 and Colossians 1). In this antiphon these ideas are interwoven with the idea of God in salvation history, and with that of Christ as Saviour, who, through his life, passion, death and resurrection has given to the baptised the role of living as part of that salvation history, in the hope (the Advent hope) of being part of the culmination of salvation history at the second coming of Christ. In fact, from a Christian perspective, salvation history as seen in the Old Testament only comes into its own with the birth of Christ and the Advent hope.
O come, O come, Adonaï,
Adonaï is Aramaic (the language spoken in Palestine in Jesus's day) for THE LORD. This is the way the name of God, Yahweh, was read when the scriptures were read aloud. In NRSV, whenever the words THE LORD are a translation of Yahweh, they are printed in capital letters to make this clear.
So, this verse is a prayer for the second coming of THE LORD as Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, in his birth at Bethlehem. This coming is associated with the coming of THE LORD at the giving of the ten commandments, the first recorded expression of the Law. The verse also emphasises the holiness of God, reflecting the importance in Liturgy of demonstrating that worship is our lyrical expression of our faith in and love for God, the tremendous and awe-inspiring centre, focus and 'mystery' of our faith ('mystery' in the ancient sense of sacramental understanding).
O come, thou Root of Jesse! Draw
Jesse was the father of David, and Jesus is celebrated by the synoptic evangelists (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as being of the lineage of David. This verse therefore refers also to the role in salvation history of the line of the kings of Israel, and the focal function of David in the Old Testament narrative, showing God's purpose being carried forward in that salvation history. The verse also celebrates the work of Jesus Christ, who through his passion, death and resurrection made available for his followers the baptised the Advent hope, which is the hope of life with Christ in this world and the next, through feeding on his body and blood in the eucharist and living the Christian life in contradistinction to the life of the world which is subject to the wiles of the devil (Satan, the lion's claw).
O come, thou Lord of David's Key!
Jesus, the Word, the Wisdom of God, holds the key to the kingdom of heaven, and invites his followers, the baptised, through feeding on his body and blood and living the Christian life, learning from the scriptures and the fathers of the faith, to proceed to life with him.
O come, O come, thou Dayspring bright!
The fourth gospel teaches us that we are living in the kingdom of god both now and not yet. In our Advent eucharistic prayer we pray the wonderful words, recollecting Jesus's intention for his followers at the Last Supper: Before he was given up to suffering and death, alight with the vision of a feast that heralded a kingdom yet to come… We recall his birth, passion, death and resurrection and look for the coming of his kingdom. The light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
O come, Desire of nations!
We long for Christ's second coming, the second coming of him who is the corner-stone of our faith and of our Christian life. We recognise our human frailty, and we recognise also Christ's power to help us, through our baptism in the Holy Spirit, to overcome the potential consequences of yielding to human impulses rather than to God's commands.
O come, O come, Emmanuel!
After the fall of Jerusalem in 586BC all the notables of Israel were carried off into exile in Babylon: the subject of the laments of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The hope of these prophets was that Israel could return to its homeland, and Jerusalem and its temple be rebuilt. This return is also celebrated by Ezekiel, by Third Isaiah (chapters 56 onwards) and by Zechariah, the return facilitated by decrees of Cyrus King of Persia after his defeat of Babylon in 540BC.
The liturgical use of these texts leads us to see our hope for the life of the world to come in the light of the prophet's hope for the restoration of Israel, our return from exile in the life of the secular world into the life of the kingdom of God and of his Christ.
It seems strange to be writing about Advent as the season of Advent is coming to its close: but the very fact of having worked through the Advent prayers and the Bible texts associated with them brings new insights to consideration of the meaning of our celebration.
The Old Testament is put together in such a way as to highlight
In fact the season of Advent closely reflects this.
Advent is of course about preparing for the coming of Jesus: represented often as a repeat of the hope of God's people for the return from exile and the rebuilding of the temple.
Advent is also about hope: hope brought about by the coming of Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh, bringing to God's people access to God in a special way and, through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ offering them the hope of everlasting life in communion with all Christians living and departed (the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, as stated in the apostles' Creed).
This is reflected gloriously in our Advent Eucharistic Prayer:
All these things are recalled in the Advent 'O' Antiphons ( see my comments on these
for December 17-23). A brief summary of them is seen here in Tropes for the penitential
rite at the Eucharist:
(Celebrating the Christian Year, Norwich 2005, p153)
God of power and mercy,
(Collect for the third Sunday of Advent, Scottish Liturgy P4)
Baruch 4, 21-22:
Take courage, my children, cry to God,
The first Christian martyr. Stephen was a deacon, very gifted at proclaiming the purposes of God in salvation history, and the work of Christ in bringing those purposes to their fulfilment. The story of his martyrdom, and of the part played by Saul of Tarsus (later St Paul) in it (and, therefore, the role played by this event in the conversion of Saul into an Apostle of Christ) is told by St Luke in Acts Chapters 6 and 7. As the crowd killed him, he said, 'Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.' As he died, he prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, do not hold this sin against the.' (Acts 7, 56 and 60)
Grant us grace, O Lord,
We celebrate him who told us of the 'Word made flesh', 'who was born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God'. We celebrate him also who was with Jesus in his earthly ministry, was with him on the holy mountain if the Transfiguration, who was present at the Last Supper, and who stood at the foot of the cross. We celebrate him who described not only the immediate aftermath of the Resurrection, but also the meeting on the lakeshore, and the huge catch of fish, representing the growth of the Church served by a succession of 'fishers of men'.
It was normal, up to the time of the Reformation, for churches to have a 'rood screen' - a screen with a crucifix at its centre - separating the nave from the chancel. Above these screens, the Blessed Virgin Mary stood on one side of the crucifix and John the Evangelist on the other. It is sad that these immediate reminders of the roles of these two saints were removed in favour of tablets containing the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Apostles' Creed. Sometimes pictures speak more loudly than words.
Shed upon your Church, O Lord,
(Scottish Liturgy p36)
The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was accompanied not only by the adoration of the shepherds and of the Magi, but also by extreme cruelty. Warned by the Magi that a 'rival' king was about to be born, and by his advisers to expect that birth in Bethlehem (referring to a text in Micah 5, 2-5a), King Herod ordered the killing of all new-born children in Bethlehem. Meanwhile Mary and Joseph had left as quickly as transport in those days allowed for Egypt, where they would be out of reach of Herod's executioners. When I was in Cairo a few years ago I was taken to see several churches built on sites said to have been occupied by the holy family during the 'flight into Egypt', churches built on sites still held to be very holy indeed.
Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
(Scottish Liturgy p37)