Saturday, December 22, 2007

Christmas is Coming. . . .

This little appreciation, slightly dated and all the more charming for it, is taken from "Christmas In Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan" by Clement A. Miles. The date on it is 1912.

Whatever may be his attitude towards Catholicism, or, indeed, Christianity, no one sensitive to the music of words, or the suggestions of poetic imagery, can read the Roman Breviary and Missal without profound admiration for the amazing skill with which the noblest passages of Hebrew poetry are chosen and fitted to the expression of Christian devotion, and the gold of psalmists, prophets, and apostles is welded into coronals for the Lord and His saints. The office-books of the Roman Church are, in one aspect, the greatest of anthologies.

Few parts of the Roman Breviary have more beauty than the Advent offices, where the Church has brought together the majestic imagery of the Hebrew prophets, the fervent exhortation of the apostles, to prepare the minds of the faithful for the coming of the Christ, for the celebration of the Nativity.

Advent begins with a stirring call. If we turn to the opening service of the Christian Year, the First Vespers of the First Sunday in Advent, we shall find as the first words in the “Proper of the Season” the trumpet-notes of St. Paul: “Brethren, it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.” This, the Little Chapter for the office, is followed by the ancient hymn, “Creator alme siderum,” chanting in awful tones the two comings of Christ, for redemption and for judgment; and then are sung the words that strike the keynote of the Advent services, and are heard again and again.
“Rorate, coeli, desuper, et nubes pluant Justum
(Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down the Righteous One).
Aperiatur terra et germinet Salvatorem
(Let the earth open, and let her bring forth the Saviour).”

Rorate, coeli, desuper—Advent is a time of longing expectancy. It is a season of waiting patiently for the Lord, whose coming in great humility is to be commemorated at Christmas, to whose coming again in His glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead the Christian looks forward with mingled hope and awe. There are four weeks in Advent, and an ancient symbolical explanation interprets these as typifying four comings of the Son of God: the first in the flesh, the second in the hearts of the faithful through the Holy Spirit, the third at the death of every man, and the fourth at the Judgment Day. The fourth week is never completed (Christmas Eve is regarded as not part of Advent), because the glory bestowed on the saints at the Last Coming will never end.

The great Eucharistic hymn, “Gloria in excelsis,” is omitted in Advent, in order, say the symbolists, that on Christmas night, when it was first sung by the angels, it may be chanted with the greater eagerness and devotion. The “Te Deum” at Matins too is left unsaid, because Christ is regarded as not yet come. But “Alleluia” is not omitted, because Advent is only half a time of penitence: there is awe at the thought of the Coming for Judgment, but joy also in the hope of the Incarnation to be celebrated at Christmas, and the glory in store for the faithful.

Looking forward is above all things the note of Advent; the Church seeks to share the mood of the Old Testament saints, and she draws more now than at any other season, perhaps, on the treasures of Hebrew prophecy for her lessons, antiphons, versicles, and responds. Looking for the glory that shall be revealed, she awaits, at this darkest time of the year, the rising of the Sun of Righteousness. Rorate, coeli, desuper—the mood comes at times to all idealists, and even those moderns who hope not for a supernatural Redeemer, but for the triumph of social justice on this earth, must be stirred by the poetry of the Advent offices.

It is at Vespers on the seven days before Christmas Eve that the Church's longing finds its noblest expression—in the antiphons known as the “Great O's,” sung before and after the “Magnificat,” one on each day. “O Sapientia,” runs the first, “O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High, and reachest from one end to another, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: come and teach us the way of prudence.” “O Adonai,” “O Root of Jesse,” “O Key of David,” “O Day-spring, Brightness of Light Everlasting,” “O King of the Nations,” thus the Church calls to her Lord, “O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations, and their Salvation: come and save us, O Lord our God.”

At last Christmas Eve is here, and at Vespers we feel the nearness of the great Coming. “Lift up your heads: behold your redemption draweth nigh,” is the antiphon for the last psalm. “To-morrow shall be done away the iniquity of the earth,” is the versicle after the Office Hymn. And before and after the “Magnificat” the Church sings: “When the sun shall have risen, ye shall see the King of kings coming forth from the Father, as a bridegroom out of his chamber.”

Yet only with the night office of Matins does the glory of the festival begin. There is a special fitness at Christmas in the Church's keeping watch by night, like the shepherds of Bethlehem, and the office is full of the poetry of the season, full of exultant joy. To the “Venite, exultemus Domino” a Christmas note is added by the oft-repeated Invitatory, “Unto us the Christ is born: O come, let us adore Him.” Psalms follow—among them the three retained by the Anglican Church in her Christmas Matins—and lessons from the Old and New Testaments and the homilies of the Fathers, interspersed with Responsories bringing home to the faithful the wonders of the Holy Night. Some are almost dramatic; this, for instance:—
“Whom saw ye, O shepherds? speak; tell us who hath appeared on the earth.
We saw the new-born Child, and angels singing praise unto the Lord.
Speak, what saw ye? and tell us of the birth of Christ.
We saw the new-born Child, and angels singing praise unto the Lord.”

It is the wonder of the Incarnation, the marvel of the spotless Birth, the song of the Angels, the coming down from heaven of true peace, the daybreak of redemption and everlasting joy, the glory of the Only-begotten, now beheld by men—the supernatural side, in fact, of the festival, that the Church sets forth in her radiant words; there is little thought of the purely human side, the pathos of Bethlehem.

It was customary at certain places, in mediaeval times, to lay on the altar three veils, and remove one at each nocturn of Christmas Matins. The first was black, and symbolised the time of darkness before the Mosaic Law; the second white, typifying, it would seem, the faith of those who lived under that Law of partial revelation; the third red, showing the love of Christ's bride, the Church, in the time of grace flowing from the Incarnation.

A stately ceremony took place in England in the Middle Ages at the end of Christmas Matins—the chanting of St. Matthew's genealogy of Christ. The deacon, in his dalmatic, with acolytes carrying tapers, with thurifer and cross-bearer, all in albs and unicles, went in procession to the pulpit or the rood-loft, to sing this portion of the Gospel. If the bishop were present, he it was who chanted it, and a rich candlestick was held to light him. Then followed the chanting of the “Te Deum.” The ceremony does not appear in the ordinary Roman books, but it is still performed by the Benedictines, as one may read in the striking account of the monastic Christmas given by Huysmans in “L'Oblat.”