From the Archives: An Advent Consideration
This has appeared in The Inn before but it's worth putting forward again considering the season that's in it:
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 Cæli desuper, et nubes pluant Iustum
(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.”