The Gospel for Advent I

If you follow the traditional Lutheran lectionary in any of its various recent iterations, whether in Lutheran Service Book, The Lutheran Hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, or others, you know that the appointed Gospel for the quickly approaching First Sunday in Advent is that of the triumphal entry from Matthew 21, usually also read at some point during the services of Palm Sunday. In the Lutheran Service Book three-year lectionary, the triumphal entry account is also given as the first choice for the First Sunday in Advent, according to the evangelist associated with each year of that system. But in Lutheran Service Book, there is also a second Gospel appointed for each year, either Matthew 24:36-44, Mark 13:24-37, or Luke 21:25-36. In these two distinct provisions for the Gospel of Advent I, we have the contemporary display of a divergence dating back at least some 1400 years or so.

In 1934, W. H. Frere, then the Anglican bishop of Truro, published a fascinating work entitled The Roman Gospel-Lectionary (Alcuin Club Collections XXX), in which he surveyed a number of the earliest extant Western Gospel lectionary traditions, starting with the close of the seventh century and beginning of the eighth century. In the sources he surveyed, as well as in our own cataloging of some early Western lectionaries, the triumphal entry from St. Matthew’s Gospel is unanimously appointed for the fourth Sunday prior to the Nativity of Our Lord, or, as we now call it, the First Sunday in Advent. This consensus is reflected throughout most of Europe for the next eight hundred years, with rather few exceptions. In the map below from our friends at Usuarium, you can see the geographic spread of the various Gospels appointed for the First Sunday in Advent, c. 1500.

Not shown in the above map, for limitations of space, are the uses of Nidaros/Trondheim and the Carmelites (mapped as Jerusalem). Both are in the “A” group.

The appointed readings are as follows:
A (red) – Matthew 21:1ff. – 73.22%
B (yellow-green) – Luke 21:25ff. – 15.30%
C (green) – Mark 1:1ff. – 9.29%
D (turquoise) – Luke 1:26ff. – 1.09%
E (purple) – Matthew 21:33:ff. – 0.55%
F (magenta) – Matthew 11:2-15 – 0.55%

As you can see, the substantial majority of the Western Church c. 1500 (Group A) was reading the account of the triumphal entry from St. Matthew’s Gospel on the First Sunday in Advent. The Epistle use was even more united, with 97.24% assigning the familiar Romans 13 reading for Advent I. As far as the Gospels are concerned, though, there are two notable minority traditions.

Group B (Luke 21:25ff.) is, most importantly, the use of the Church of Rome. You can see a small geographic cluster on the Italian peninsula, and another across the Adriatic in Kotor, once seemingly a suffragan of the Archdiocese of Bari on the Italian peninsula. More strikingly, however, there is a substantial and geographically disjunct cluster in southern France that continues into Spain, where it is interspersed with the majority tradition. While a further survey farther back into the lectionaries of southern France would be required to make any definite pronouncement, it seems highly likely that this cluster is a relic of the 14th century Avignon papacy and its influence.

Group C (Mark 1:1ff.) is quite scattered, with a smattering of instances along the upper Rhône River and its northern and eastern tributaries, a few more in northern and western France, a singular British instance in Hereford, and isolated instances in Messina (Sicily) and Braga (Portugal). The erratic spread of this group may well indicate an earlier widespread usage that was largely displaced by Group A, then possibly again somewhat by Group B, so that it only remained in a few relatively isolated pockets. The exact origin of Group C is rather beyond the bounds of our sources or this post, but this author would like to engage in some wild conjecture and suggest that, since the Mark 1:1-8 reading appears on the third Sunday in Advent (out of six) in the seventh century Liber comicus of Toledo, it seems possible that this group may be a lingering adaptation of a related use that was condensed to four Sundays.

Group D (Luke 1:26ff.) has only two witnesses: Girona (Spain) and Le Puy-en-Velay (France), probably the remnant of a smaller regional use. Interestingly enough, while Le Puy-en-Velay has the majority reading (79%) of Matthew 3:1ff. for the Wednesday of Advent I, Girona instead appoints the account of the triumphal entry from Luke, keeping it in the rota of readings.

Group E (Matthew 21:33ff.) is solely found in the use of Valence (France), and, like Girona, has the triumphal entry from Luke appointed for the Wednesday of Advent I.

Group F (Matthew 11:12-15) reflects the singular usage of the Ambrosian rite of Milan for its third (of six) Sundays in Advent. Interestingly, the Ambrosian rite also takes care to include the triumphal entry in its lectionary, appointing Matthew 21:1-9 for the fourth Sunday in Advent, corresponding to our second Sunday.

As noted above, Group B used the Advent I gospel associated with the Roman Church and its immediate spheres of influence. A closer look at groups A and B shows that they, unlike some of the other groups shown above, clearly share a common tradition that has simply been shifted by one week. See the table below.

GospelGroup AGroup B
Matthew 21:1ff.Advent I
Luke 21:25ff.Advent IIAdvent I
Matthew 11:2ff.Advent IIIAdvent II
John 1:19ff.Advent IVAdvent III
Luke 3:1ff.Ember SaturdayAdvent IV
(and Ember Saturday)

As you can see, groups A and B have in common three Sunday gospels for Advent, and they are even in sequential order. The difference between the two is that Group A appoints Matthew 21:1ff. for Advent I and Group B duplicates the Ember Saturday gospel of Luke 3:1ff. on the next day (Advent IV).

Despite the distinct minority status of the Group B readings in the larger picture of late medieval western Christendom (and, in fact, that of the western Church of the previous thousand years or so), it was these readings that were promulgated in the 1570 Missale Romanum of Pius V. In this particular instance, as in many others, notably the ceremonies of Holy Week, the 1570 missal took the particular usages of the papal court and applied them onto the rest of the Church.

The Lutherans, of course, did not adopt that 1570 missal, and so they, along with the Anglican tradition, as found in traditional versions of the Book of Common Prayer, retained the custom of reading the account of the triumphal entry from Matthew on the First Sunday in Advent for another 400 years.

However, in 1969, the Roman Church once again promulgated a lectionary, this time a three-year lectionary, the Ordo Lectionum Missae, which served as the basis for all subsequent three-year lectionaries. This lectionary (at least, in theory) took as its basis the lectionary of the 1570 Missale Romanum, which had remained largely unchanged over the intervening centuries. And so, on the basis of the existing Roman tradition of reading Luke 21:25ff. on Advent I, the Ordo Lectionum Missae appointed accounts of the second coming to be read on the First Sunday in Advent for each of the three years.

In 1983, a pan-Protestant adaptation of the Ordo Lectionum Missae, entitled the Common Lectionary, was published, and was subsequently edited and re-issued as the Revised Common Lectionary by the Consultation on Common Texts in 1992. Among the representatives on the CCT during the compilation of the RCL were the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its Canadian partner church, and the Anglican churches in the United States and Canada. By this point, even the Lutherans and Anglicans who, centuries before, had retained their long-standing traditions, now a rather venerable 1400 years old, found themselves following after Rome once again.

It is notable, however, that there was initially some hesitancy among Lutherans on this question. The ILCW lectionary published in 1973 retained a version of the triumphal entry gospel as an option in all three years, likely in no small part due to the substantial corpus of Lutheran hymnody for Advent (O Lord, How Shall I Meet Thee; O Bride of Christ, Rejoice; Prepare the Royal Highway; Come, Thou Precious Ransom, Come) that makes direct reference to the traditional Matthew 21 gospel. The 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship followed suit in providing the triumphal entry as an option, as did Lutheran Worship in 1982 and Lutheran Service Book in 2006. Sadly, the ELCA’s 2006 Evangelical Lutheran Worship adopted the RCL in its entirety, and makes no provision for the triumphal entry gospel on the First Sunday in Advent.

As you have seen by this point, such a seemingly small detail as the option between two readings can have quite a substantial history. This is only the most threadbare outline of the question – it’s entirely possible that an entire dissertation could be written on this one topic, spanning some 1500 years. Until someone else decides to write that dissertation, I leave you with a few stanzas from the beloved hymn of Paul Gerhardt for this First Sunday in Advent.

O Lord, how shall I meet Thee,
How welcome Thee aright?
Thy people long to greet Thee,
My Hope, my heart’s Delight!
Oh, kindle, Lord most holy
Thy lamp within my breast
To do in spirit lowly
All that may please Thee best.

Thy Zion strews before Thee
Green boughs and fairest palms,
And I, too, will adore Thee
With joyous songs and psalms.
My heart shall bloom forever
For Thee with praises new
And from Thy name shall never
Withhold the honor due.

Love caused Thy incarnation,
Love brought Thee down to me;
Thy thirst for my salvation
Procured my liberty.
O love beyond all telling,
That led Thee to embrace,
In love all love excelling,
Our lost and fallen race!

What though the foes be raging,
Heed not their craft and spite;
Your Lord, the battle waging,
Will scatter all their might.
He comes, a King most glorious,
And all His earthly foes
In vain His course victorious
Endeavor to oppose.

He comes to judge the nations,
A terror to His foes,
A Light of consolations
And blessèd Hope to those
Who love the Lord’s appearing.
O glorious Sun, now come,
Send forth Thy beams so cheering,
And guide us safely home!

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