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Advent series: Last trump for our times

by
02 December 2022

Adrian Leak continues our Advent series with Isaiah’s prediction of the Messiah’s birth

© British Library Board. All Rights Reserved/Bridgeman Images

The prophet Isaiah, holding a scroll with his messianic prophecy of Isaiah 11.1 (Siegburg Lectionary, originally published/produced in the Abbey of St Michael, Siegburg, Germany; second quarter of 12th century)

The prophet Isaiah, holding a scroll with his messianic prophecy of Isaiah 11.1 (Siegburg Lectionary, originally published/produced in the Abbey of St...

THE picture shows Isaiah holding a banner, which carries in Latin a quotation from Isaiah 11.1-2: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots: and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” The image is from an 11th-century illuminated lectionary belonging to the Benedictine abbey of St Michael, Siegburg, in the diocese of Cologne. Many centuries later, the Siegburg Lectionary turned up in Britain as part of the Harleian collection. It was sold to the nation in 1753, becoming one of the foundation documents of the British Library.

The full-page picture of Isaiah is one of a number of brilliantly coloured illuminations. The lectionary includes figures of Peter, James, John, and Paul, as well as two figures from the Old Testament: Isaiah, and the Tree of Jesse. For the 11th-century monk who was charged with the task of preparing the texts and ornaments of worship in the abbey chapel, the lectionary was a necessary tool of his trade. Its 106 parchment pages contain lists of all the required readings across the year’s calendar.


AT THIS time of year, Messianic texts from the Old Testament become increasingly resonant in our worship. Although we may wince as the ever-expanding season of Christmas threatens to eclipse Advent, many of us will none the less be raising the roof as we sing “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

In addition to those words on Isaiah’s banner about the stem of Jesse, our Advent liturgy makes use of other familiar passages from the Old Testament, such as “A virgin shall conceive, and bear a son and call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7.14); “Unto us a son is given” (Isaiah 9.6); “But thou, Bethlehem Ephrata, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel” (Micah 5.2).

We are now accustomed, in our worship, to the interweaving of Old and New Testament texts. The standard for carol services was set more than 100 years ago: first by E. W. Benson (Truro Cathedral) in 1880, and then by Eric Milner-White (King’s College, Cambridge) in 1919. They created the Christmas narrative of the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”. Two disparate, and in many ways contradictory, sources — Hebrew scripture and Christian Gospel — were conflated to make a continuous story.

This treatment of Hebrew writings (the Pentateuch, and the Prophecies) as the first part of a continuous narrative, with its culmination in the New Testament, has good authority. It was Jesus himself who set the precedent in the words of his inaugural sermon (Luke 4.17-21) and, more explicitly, in his words to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, when “beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24.27).


THERE are two Collects associated with the Second Sunday of Advent. The Book of Common Prayer prescribes one composed by Cranmer in 1549. It develops the opening sentence of the Epistle for the day: “Whatsoever things were written aforetime, were written for our learning. . .” (Romans 15.4).


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. Amen.


Common Worship
, rather confusingly and for no obviously good reason, has moved Cranmer’s Collect elsewhere. In its place, it prescribes for Advent 2 a prayer which had already appeared in the Book of Common Prayer as the Collect for Advent 4. It is a translation from the medieval Salisbury Missal. The monks had taken it from the Gregorian Sacramentary, a seventh-century collection of prayers widely used throughout Charlemagne’s empire and then, after the Norman Conquest, imported from the Continent by the new monastic communities in England.

The structure and liturgy of the Church in post-Conquest England was heavily indebted to the Carolingian Church on the Continent — much more so than to her Saxon predecessor.
 

THERE is, however, one important deviation from the Latin original of the Collect set in Common Worship for Advent 2. In their devotions, the monks — using the Salisbury rite — had addressed the prayer directly to our Lord Jesus Christ. The petition “Raise up your power and come among us” was no less than a call for his Second Coming, that the Last Trump should blast this fragile and doomed universe. Our forebears knew that they lived on the edge of eternity.

But Cranmer’s version, and therefore the one in Common Worship, addresses God the Father, altering Christ’s part to that of intermediary. This has changed the meaning of the petition. We are not now asking Christ to come in glory at the end of time: a vision too startling for our generation. Our petition is for a safer outcome: that, by his bountiful grace, our heavenly Father might deliver us from the consequences of our sins.


O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power
and come among us,
and with great might succour us;
that whereas, through our sins and wickedness
we are grievously hindered
in running the race that is set before us,
your bountiful grace and mercy
may speedily help and deliver us;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen.


The Revd Adrian Leak is a retired Anglican priest, whose recent publications include a collection of essays,
The Golden Calves of Jeroboam (Books, 11 December 2020); and his memoirs, After the Order of Melchizedek (Books, 8 July).

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