Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility: that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to life immortal; through him who liveth etc.
The Prayer Book retains a number of octaves. In the American Prayer Book the feasts with octaves are Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Whitsunday, and All Saints’. But there are only two seasonal collects in the Prayer Book: this collect for Advent I, to be read after the collect for the day throughout Advent until Christmas Eve, and the collect for Ash Wednesday, to be read daily throughout Lent until Palm Sunday. These two collects show their author at the height of his undoubted literary genius. The Advent collect, moreover, shows Cranmer’s willingness to innovate. In the Latin rite the collects throughout Advent begin ‘Excita’ (‘excite’ or ‘stir up’). In the Prayer Book only the collect for the Sunday next before Advent retains this beginning. The other Advent collects are Cranmerian compositions, all of which strongly reflect themes from the traditional Sunday lessons and the season.
The Advent I address is very simple: ‘Almighty God’.
The meat of the collect comes in the petition. The collect takes directly from the epistle a contrasting pair: ‘works of darkness’ and ‘armour of light’ (Romans 13:12). There are several other such contrasting pairs, both in the collect and in the epistle. From the collect come ‘this mortal life’ / ‘the life immortal’; ‘great humility’ / ‘glorious majesty’; and, ‘now’ / ‘the last day’. In the epistle are ‘time to wake’ / ‘sleep’ and ‘walk honestly’ / ‘rioting and drunkenness’. These pairs together set up the general Advent themes of watchfulness for the Second Coming and of preparation for the final Judgement. Much of the beauty of the collect comes from the balancing of these pairs.
At first the collect seems to allude much less to the gospel than to the epistle. Certainly the collect does not directly quote and invoke the gospel in the direct way that it does the epistle. The center of the collect, however, contains a clear, if unobtrusive, reference to the Palm Sunday story which, in Saint Matthew’s version, forms the gospel. The reference is in the phrase ‘thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’. The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on an ass is a clear example of ‘great humility’. More specifically, in Saint Luke’s version of the Palm Sunday story, when Jesus weeps over Jerusalem he addresses the city mournfully ‘because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation’ (19:44).
‘Visit’ and ‘visitation’ are important Biblical terms, often having either one or both of two main senses. First, God ‘visits’ his people in a salvific sense, bringing them deliverance and grace. Consider, for example, the opening of the Benedictus Dominus Deus: ‘for he hath visited, and redeemed his people; and hath raised up a mighty salvation for us’ (Luke 1:68f.). Such visitations to save and deliver have a long history before the New Testament, as when God charges Moses to tell the elders of Israel, ‘I have surely visited you’ (Exodus 3:16). This sense of visitation is appropriate for Advent in reference to the first Advent of Jesus at his Nativity, also ‘in great humility’. In a very literal sense Christmas is a divine visitation to save.
The second main sense for ‘visit’ or ‘visitation’ concerns the other Advent theme, namely the Second Advent of Jesus for the final Judgement. In this sense ‘visitation’ refers to someone in authority coming to observe and judge human behavior, to rectify what is amiss, to punish what is evil, and to reward what is admirable. A bishop making a ‘visitation’ of a parish or a religious superior ‘visiting’ a religious house has this meaning. This is the sense of ‘visitation’ in Luke 19:44. The Authorized Version note on ‘visitation’ at that verse refers the reader to I Peter 2:12. There those addressed are warned to behave honestly and well, so that outsiders may ‘glorify God in the day of visitation’.
The collect’s central reference to visitation, therefore, weaves together all the main themes of the prayer, of the season, and of the day’s lessons: preparation for the Nativity (the saving visit in great humility) and the Second Coming (the judging visitation in glorious majesty), exhortation to moral watchfulness (‘armour of light’), and the recollection of the Palm Sunday entrance (saving humility that also brings judgement).