‘Stir-Up Sunday’ is an informal term, in many churches, for the last Sunday before the season of Advent. Originally the term ‘Stir-Up Sunday’ came about as a result of our love in the UK of Christmas pudding! The Christmas pudding is one of the essential British Christmas traditions and is said to have been introduced to the Victorians by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, although the reality is that the meat-less version was introduced from Germany by George I in 1714.
Traditionally, families gathered together in their kitchens on Stir-Up Sunday to mix and steam the Christmas pudding. Parents taught their children how to mix ingredients for the pudding, everyone would take a turn to stir the pudding mix and each person involved would make a special wish for the year ahead. Practically, stirring the mixture was hard work, therefore as many people as possible were involved. By tradition the pudding mixture was stirred from East to West in honour of the three wise men who visited the baby Jesus. When I was a child silver sixpences were added to the pudding mix. It was believed that finding a coin in your serving of the pudding on Christmas Day brought good luck for the year ahead. We always ate our Christmas pudding very carefully as a result, in order to avoid choking on a swallowed sixpence or avoiding the necessity of an emergency visits to the dentist? Today this practice has largely gone out of fashion and a recent survey revealed that two-thirds of British children had never experienced stirring Christmas pudding mix. It is suggested that this is a direct result of a preference for ready made puddings available in grocery stores today.
‘Stir-up Sunday’ however, also has a spiritual (as well as a practical) emphasis, and it is this ‘spiritual’ emphasis that is currently enjoying a renaissance in many churches today. The idea stems from the opening words of the collect for the day found in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer: ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’ In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer this collect is listed for ‘The Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Trinity’, with a rubric specifying that this collect ‘shall always be used upon the Sunday next before Advent’. This reinforced the significance of this day as forming part of the preparation for the season of Advent. The rubric is necessary because the last Sunday before Advent does not always fall on the twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity Sunday is a moveable feast and the Advent season is fixed, so the number of weeks in between varies from year to year).
Thus, this collect was always read just before Advent. Since most recipes for home made Christmas puddings call for the pudding to be kept for several weeks to mature, the day subsequently became connected with the preparation of Christmas puddings in readiness for Christmas. Allegedly, people would go to church (churches that used the Book of Common Prayer, that is), hear the words ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord …’, and be reminded, by association of ideas, that it was about time to start stirring up the puddings for Christmas!
In recent years most provinces of the Anglican Communion, and many Nonconformist Churches as well, have adopted the practice of the Roman Catholic Church in observing this Sunday as ‘Christ the King Sunday’. Popular attachment to the ‘Stir Up’ collect has, however, caused it to be retained (in contemporary language) in the liturgies of several churches, and the idea of using the Sunday immediately prior to Advent in order to attempt to ‘stir up’ the members of the church and congregation has become ‘in vogue’ in many places!
Now, in one sense, those of us who ‘name the Name’ of Christ should not need to be ‘stirred up’ to follow and serve the Lord Jesus Christ as true disciples. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church in Rome, exhorts them: ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship!’ (Romans 12:1). As the last verse of one version of Isaac Watt’s great hymn suggests: ‘Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all – Shall have my soul, my life, my all!’ For Paul, to contemplate all that God has done for us in Christ, particularly in the death of Christ on the cross for each one of us, to genuinely ‘come to grips’ with the ‘mercy of God’ revealed to us in this way, can only result in one thing – a laying of our all on the altar of life for God! As C T Studd (the former England cricketer, and missionary) once said: ‘If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him!’
The reality, however, is that oftentimes we do need to ‘stir ourselves’ when it comes to giving Jesus Christ his rightful place in our lives, and serving our day and generation in a godly and gracious way. Writing to his young protégé, Timothy (the youthful Pastor of the numerically large and spiritually significant church in Ephesus), the Apostle Paul (sensing that Timothy is no longer as ‘on fire’ for God as he once was) and exhorts him ‘to stir up the gift of God which is in you … for God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind’ (2 Timothy 1:6,7)! The actual word Paul uses here for ‘stir up’ in the original Greek language literally means ‘give yourself a good poke’. It is more commonly used to describe the action of poking a fire that has been ‘deadened’ by the accumulation of ash and clinker, with a poker in order to cause the ash and clinker to fall away thus enabling the fire to burn brightly once again! And … if we are honest … there are times when perhaps we all need to ‘stir ourselves up’ spiritually in this way.
As a young ministerial student, studying at Spurgeon’s College back in the 1960s, I was often invited to preach at various churches around the UK in order to represent the college. One Sunday I was preaching, morning and evening, at Newbury Baptist Church (which in those days was a numerically very large and significant church). I was given hospitality for the day by the Church Treasurer, a prominent local Bank Manager. At lunch we all sat round the dining room table, all dressed in our ‘Sunday best’ – the Church Treasurer in his best suit, complete with waistcoat, matching tie and pocket handkerchief. Very formally he announced that he would say ‘Grace’ and as we all solemnly bowed our heads he prayed a prayer that I have never forgotten (and which I still laugh at today 50 plus years later) … and which makes a point relevant to ‘Stir Up Sunday’: It went like this: ‘As Thou didst bless the loaves and fishes, Bless this food upon our dishes. And as the sugar’s in the tea, May we all be stirred by Thee!’