First Sunday in Advent
The Exhortation. BCP Pg. 85 & 86.
To him therefore, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, let us give, as we are most bounden, continual thanks; subjecting ourselves wholly to his holy will and pleasure, and studying to serve him in true holiness and righteousness all the days of our life.
I have just quoted to you from the Exhortation found on pages 85 and 86 in the Book of Common Prayer. The rubrics of the Prayer Book say that this Exhortation is to be read during the Mass just prior to the Invitation to Confession, on the First Sundays in Advent and Lent, and on Trinity Sunday.
This particular Exhortation was also a part of the original 1549 Prayer Book and at that time was read during every celebration of the Eucharist. Our own 1928 Book reduced the number of required readings.
It was added to the liturgy during the Reformation primarily for two reasons; first, because at the time of the Reformation, most churches would celebrate Holy Communion, at best, only a few times a year, and the Exhortation “announced” to the people that it was time to prepare.
And secondly, it was a common practice at the time to come to Church and “hear” mass only; but the people would not come forward to receive the Sacrament. This led to the practice of some men riding their horses up to the windows outside the Church, listening until the consecration was completed, then riding off to continue their days activities, believing that they had fulfilled their obligation. The Exhortation was intended to correct the practice of these “non-communicating” masses.
Since neither of these issues exists at St. James (and I’m assuming that there are no horses sitting outside our windows here), there is no need for the Exhortation to be read in our parish, right? But the basic purpose for it remains the same; to remind us and urge us that we must properly prepare ourselves to receive Christ.
Now when I say that we must properly prepare ourselves to receive Christ, this means a couple of things; particularly now during the Advent season. It is of course easy to see the first meaning; that we are about to receive the Body and Blood of Christ at the Mass. But since this is Advent, we know that we are also looking forward to the Birth of Our Savior at Christmas; and so we are also preparing to receive Christ into the world. Together these two purposes make even more sense when you stop to remember that Advent also marks the beginning of the Church Kalendar and is therefore the start of the Christian year.
I know that this is all seemingly quite dry and perhaps a bit bland so far, but I wanted to give you a bit of an explanation up front so you wouldn’t think it odd when I wished you a happy New Year! And of course since this is the start of a new Church year, I’m curious to know what your New Years resolutions will be.
You see, while we usually recognize Advent as a penitential season, a time when we are remorseful for all that we have done wrong and a time for purifying ourselves, we often forget that this is also a time of beginning. As we strive to cleanse and purify ourselves, we should also be taking this opportunity to rededicate our lives to Christ and to his Church. We should be using this time to identify those things that are needed to improve in our spiritual lives. And we need to use this occasion to put forward a program for maintaining our spiritual health throughout the year.
Now typically, New Years resolutions take some very boring, very easily attainable form; I’m going to loose weight. I’m going to exercise more. I’m going to read more books and watch less TV; unless the Cavaliers are on, of course. All very simple stuff. And yet still we fail. We fail because in the end these things don’t really mean that much to us. After all, if we don’t get there this year, we’ll try again next year, right? We fail because our hearts aren’t really in it.
So when we make our New Years resolutions for the Church, we must remember that those too will fail if our hearts aren’t really in it. We can set some seemingly easily attainable goals; we’ll get to Church more often. We’ll start reading the Bible more. We’ll start reading Morning and Evening Prayer. But if we take the attitude that “if we don’t get there this year, there’s always next year”, what real chance do we have for success? And so does it really matter if we fail?
Here’s where things get a bit dicey for us Christians. We know that, as hard as we try, we can never attain Christ’s level of perfection. We even think that the level of spirituality achieved by your average Saint is beyond most of us. And so we tend to think that, since failure is inevitable, we don’t really need to worry about failing, or even necessarily trying all that hard.
But here we get back to the Exhortation. Remember I told you that the purpose of the Exhortation is to remind us to prepare to receive Christ. If we are not properly prepared, if we fail to properly prepare, if our hearts aren’t really in it, does it really matter?
Now you might think about this resolution thing a bit differently. You see the consequences for failing to loose weight or exercise properly or read more, is that at the end of the year we’ll have achieved nothing; but the consequences for failing to prepare to receive Christ? Oh, we’ll have achieved something all right; First Corinthians, chapter 11, verse 29; “for he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body”.
You see, in just twenty-seven days, we will celebrate the Lord’s coming to earth; Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity; his Holy Incarnation. We will come to this place and sing hymns of praise and hear prayers of thanksgiving and joy. And then we will receive him in the Blessed Sacrament.
And so we know that we need to spend the next four weeks preparing for that celebration; the Lord is coming, and Advent is our time to prepare properly for his arrival. But this preparation is not just for Christmas; it is our resolution for the coming year as well. And it has to be for the entire year because Christ doesn’t just come to us on Christmas; he comes to us each and every time we receive the Blessed Sacrament. And we know about the consequences for failing to properly prepare for that each and every time.
So what specifically will be our New Year’s resolution? What goal will we set for ourselves? How do we propose to change something about our lives; to make us ever ready to receive Christ and to worthily discern his Body?
Easy; back to the Exhortation; “let us give, as we are most bounden, continual thanks”. How often during the course of a normal day do we say “thank you” to God? And while I won’t go into a long section on what to be thankful for and why, suffice it to say that we should be thankful for everything, including the people and situations that we find difficult or annoying; but that’s for another sermon.
“subjecting ourselves wholly to his holy will and pleasure”. Think about it; we are inundated right now with commercials that are meant to answer the question, “what are you going to give him/her this year”? So, what are you going to give God this year? And I’ll give you a hint – He only wants one thing.
“studying to serve him in true holiness and righteousness all the days of our life”. On the surface, this one looks like the most work of the three. I know when I think of the word “studying”, it takes me back to all the work I did for my college and canonical exams. But for this purpose, I offer you this definition of the word, “To apply one’s mind purposefully to the acquisition of knowledge or understanding”. We know that we likely haven’t fulfilled our spiritual potential. We just don’t completely understand why. Do we really know what “true holiness and righteousness” is?
Well, we do have one rather obvious example; Jesus Christ himself. As we worship him, as we praise him, as we read his Gospel, we are also applying our minds purposefully to the acquisition of knowledge or understanding; and if we are properly focused, we do will so in holiness and righteousness. And when we do these things we serve him as well.
So there you have it; three resolutions for your New Year, straight from our own Prayer Book; a new year that begins today. But of course, I’ve only given you one small part of the Exhortation. I encourage you to read it for yourself. Read it at home. Read it to yourself or read it aloud to others.
But most of all, pay attention to the intent of the Exhortation on this particular day; because we are at the beginning of the Church year; a time when we start anew and resolve to undertake to do those things that we ought to as Christians; a time when we look forward to the coming of Christ at Christmas. And a time when we prepare ourselves to receive him worthily and to properly discern his Body as St. Paul tells us; a time to properly prepare for the Incarnation of Our Lord. Welcome to the New Year.