Receiving the Word of God in Advent
One of the excellent reforms of our new Book of Common Prayer is that many of the Sunday collects have been restored to their traditional places. Of note is the collect for this week, penned by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the Second Sunday of Advent in 1549: "Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” This collect captures one of the particularly urgent themes of Advent reflection, that of embracing Holy Scripture so that we may have hope in Jesus. The collect understands that no one can receive the benefits of reading Holy Scripture unless the Lord grants it. But, it also makes clear that there are many ways to receive the comfort of the Word of God. Cranmer identifies five ways:
1. Hearing. Cranmer understands, in a society still largely illiterate, that the power of the proclamation of the Word of God in Holy Scripture leads us to faith. “Faith comes by hearing,” Paul writes (Romans 10:17) “… and hearing by the word of God.” Today, even young people who have grown up in the Church are biblically illiterate. One wonders how much of this might be caused by the fact that they rarely hear Scripture read out loud, either in Church or in the home. Advent is a great time to renew the practice of reading Scripture in the home!
2. Reading. The second sense in which we receive the Word is perhaps the most obvious, but in the days of Cranmer, it wasn’t. Bibles were still hard to come by. They had to be chained up to the lecterns in the parish churches, and many parishes engaged in public reading of Scripture all day long so that the people could hear. Part of the genius of Cranmer’s Daily Office is a renewed emphasis on the reading of Holy Scripture. It is clear that he envisioned a renewed Christian England in which all could read the Bible. in Advent, we remember the great heroes of Holy Scripture who knew the Scriptures well and placed their hopes in the God of Israel to save His people: Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Isaiah, and John the Baptist to name a few.
3. Marking. This does not mean going through the pages of Scripture underlining and highlighting. It means that Scripture should be obeyed. It also means that we should be attentive to the various connections between the Old and New Testaments. This is a key Advent theme, the fulfillment of the hopes of prophets in the coming of Jesus Christ. It is also good in Advent to renew obedience to Jesus as we await His second coming.
4. Learning. To learn Holy Scripture means that we know it well, indeed that we begin to speak its language. Biblical illiteracy is one thing, but the lack of an ability to articulate biblical truth knowledgeably is perhaps worse. We must come to know not only the whole story of Scripture, but also come to memorize key passages. In Advent, we remember the story of salvation at its very apex: God coming to be with His people in the Messiah.
5. Inwardly digesting. The highest form of receiving the Word of God and the grace therein is meditation. By “inwardly digest,” Cranmer means being nourished in the spiritual life by the words of Scripture, just like food nourishes the body. Hearing, reading, and learning are good, but meditation on Holy Scripture is better. Through meditating on Scripture, we are not only comforted, meaning made strong, but we are granted lasting hope in Jesus Christ. Hope is the strongest of Advent themes. It does not mean believing that our lives will improve. We cannot hope in what we see, because hope, being a theological virtue, has God himself as its end. Inward digestion of Holy Scripture leads us to God in the interior life, which establishes us in the unchanging divine life, which is alone the source and end of our hope.
If you've fallen out of the habit, or if you simply want to read more of Holy Scripture, I want to encourage you! The Daily Office lectionary in our prayer book has a very accessible and robust plan for reading Scripture daily. Advent is a great time to establish these kinds of holy habits.