Sunday, Dec. 1 is the First Sunday of Advent. As we prepare to begin this first season of a new church year, it is helpful to look at the propers (the assigned Introit, Collect of the Day, Gradual and Readings) for the four Sundays in Advent of the One Year Lectionary and see how they develop the themes of Advent and prepare us to celebrate the incarnation of our Lord at Christmas.
Each of the Sundays in Advent in the One Year Lectionary (often called the historic lectionary) has a name. The name is taken from the first few words of the Latin translation of the introit for the Sunday. The introit for the First Sunday in Advent is from Psalm 25, and begins with Ps. 25:1 “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” The Latin translation is “Ad te Domine levavi animam meam” and so the name for the Sunday is Ad Te Levavi.
The name “Advent” comes from a Latin word that means “coming” and during Advent our attention is focused on the two comings of Christ: His first coming to die on the cross and rise from the dead and His second coming in glory on the Last Day. Ad Te Levavi starts the Church year by reminding us about the goal of the incarnation that we are about to celebrate at Christmas. The Gospel lesson, Matthew 21:1-9 is the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week. As the crowd shouts, “‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’” (Mt. 21:9) we are reminded that Jesus the Christ comes into the world to suffer and die for us.
Because He has done this, we are able to sing the words of the introit, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame” (Psa. 25:1). We wait for our Lord’s second coming, and in confidence sing in the Gradual that “none who wait for you shall be put to shame” (Psa. 25:3). The Collect of the Day is from the Gregorian Sacramentary (a collect of prayers used in church services in Rome) and dates to at least the 600’s A.D. As we prepare during Advent to celebrate our Lord’s first coming and look towards His second coming, we pray, “Stir up your power, O Lord and come.”
The Second Sunday in Advent is called Populus Zion. This name is based on the opening words of the Introit, “Say to the daughter of Zion” (Isa. 62:11). The second Sunday in Advent points forward to Christ’s second coming. The Gospel lesson (Luke 21:25-36) contains Jesus’ words about His return on the Last Day. In the Old Testament lesson (Malachi 4:1-6), we hear from Malachi, “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (4:1).
As the readings indicate, preparation to celebrate our Lord’s first coming at Christmas points us forward to His second coming as well. The Introit announces to us, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your salvation comes’” (Isa. 62:1) and we cry out, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!” (Psa. 80:3). The Gradual assures us, “Our God comes; he does not keep silence” (Psa. 50:3). And in the Collect of the Day (from the seventh century Gelasian Sacramentary) we pray: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds.”
The Third Sunday in Advent is called Gaudete. This name is based on the opening words of the Introit, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4; Gaudete in Domino semper). The Old Testament lesson is the prophecy about John the Baptist in Isaiah, “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord’” (Isa. 40:3). John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the ministry of Christ, and now during Advent we are called to prepare to celebrate His coming in Bethlehem. In the Gospel lesson (Matthew 11:2-10) Jesus answers the question sent to Him by John the Baptist about whether He is “the coming one.” Jesus answers, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt. 11:4-5). We learn that we prepare to celebrate the birth of this One, because in Him God’s end-time salvation has arrived.
The Son of God entered into our world in order to take away our sin. Preparation to celebrate Christmas therefore also involves repentance from sin. The season of Advent is a time of repentance. That is why the Hymn of Praise - the Gloria in excelsis - is omitted and flowers are not placed in the chancel during Advent. However, on Gaudete Sunday this is eased. Flowers are permitted and the third candle of the Advent wreath is pink instead of purple in order to signify this lighter tone.
Finally, the Fourth Sunday in Advent is called Rorate Caeli. This name is based on the opening words of the Introit, “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness” (Isa. 45:8; Rorate caeli desuper et nubes pluant iustum). As we are on the verge of celebrating the birth of Christ that week, the Old Testament lesson (Deuteronomy 18:15-19) teaches us that Jesus is the prophet like Moses promised by God – the One to whom we must listen. In the Gospel lesson (John 1:19-28) John the Baptist confesses that he is not the Christ. Instead he prepares the way for the One whose sandals he is not worthy to untie. The powerful One is about to arrive in a manger as the fulfillment of God’s promises. He brings with him righteousness and salvation for us.