When examined as a group, the Gospels for the Masses of Advent may seem to be ordered in a rather peculiar way. They are in fact arranged chronologically backwards. On the first Sunday of Advent, the Church reads from Saint Luke Christ’s account of the signs that will precede His return in glory at the end of the world. (21, 25-33) This sets a theological note that will be repeated throughout the season; the first coming of Christ to redeem the world is often contrasted to the second coming, when He shall return to judge it. On the second Sunday, John the Baptist, imprisoned by King Herod, sends his disciples to ask Christ if He is indeed the Redeemer whose coming the world has long awaited. His answer is that the signs of the first coming are already happening, as foretold in the prophets. (Matthew 11, 2-10). The Gospel of the third Sunday recounts an episode from the early days of John’s ministry, before his imprisonment. When men were moved to ask him if he was the Messiah, John confessed that he was but the Forerunner of another who stood in their midst; Christ Himself does not appear or speak in this Gospel. (John 1) The Gospel of the fourth Sunday is the very beginning of John’s mission. Saint Luke speaks once again, and draws us further back in time, to the prophets who foretold not only the coming of Christ, but also that of the Forerunner. This is the only Gospel of the liturgical year in which Christ Himself makes no appearance at all. (3, 1-6)
If we were to consider only the Sunday Gospels, it would almost appear that Christ is drawing away from us as we come closer to the day of His Nativity. However, this backwards motion from the end of the world to the days of the Old Testament places in even greater relief the importance of today’s Mass, the Ember Wednesday of the Advent season. On this day, the Church reads the Gospel of the Annunciation (Luke 1, 26-38), at which point, the beginning of mankind’s redemption, the story begins to move forward. On Friday, there follows the Gospel of the Visitation. (Luke 1, 39-47) In the Breviary homily of that day, Saint Ambrose calls to our attention the first meeting of the Word Incarnate with His Forerunner, while both are still in their mothers’ wombs; “We must consider the fact that the greater one comes to the lesser, that the lesser may be aided: Mary to Elisabeth, Christ to John.” Having announced the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Visitation, the Church then anticipates on Ember Saturday the Gospel of the followed day, the Fourth Sunday of Advent. In the three Ember Day Gospels together, therefore, God becomes Incarnate, goes to the last of His prophets, and sends him forth “to prepare His way.”
The “Missa aurea – Golden Mass”, as it was often called, no longer enjoys the prominence which it once held; even Dom Guéranger, the founder of the original Liturgical Movement, does not include the text of the Mass in his “Liturgical Year” because it was so rarely celebrated in his time. The Breviary and Missal of St. Pius V permitted more or less any feast to impede it, but in the Middle Ages, it was very often the custom to transfer feasts away from it. This custom was partially restored (for a very brief time) by the rubrical reform of 1961.
In the traditional Roman Missal, all four sets of Ember Days have the same stations appointed at major Roman Churches. On Wednesday, the station is at Saint Mary Major, on Friday at the church of the Twelve Apostles, and on Saturday at St. Peter’s Basilica. This last was originally the traditional day for ordinations in the church of Rome; the seven readings (five prophecies, epistle and Gospel) correspond to the seven orders. The medieval liturgical writer Rupert of Tuy (1075-1129) offers this beautiful commentary on the choice of Mary Major for this day.
“On the first day of the (Ember) fast, the station is fittingly appointed at Mary Major; for it is clear that the whole office of that day, properly belongs to that temple of the Lord… in which God entire, dwelling for nine month, deigned to become man. Indeed, from the Gospel is recited the Annunciation or Incarnation of the Lord, that was proclaimed beforehand by the trumpets of the prophets, brought to be present by the Angel, received by the faith of the blessed Virgin, completed and brought forth by Her incorrupt womb.”
Rupert also notes how all of the texts of the Mass are chosen in reference to the Gospel. The Introit is the famous text Rorate caeli, from the forty-fifth chapter of Isaiah, sung in several different places in the Advent liturgy. These words prophecy the coming of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, the belief of the Virgin, and Her reception of the Word Incarnate. The two Epistles (Isaiah 2, 2-5 and 7, 10-15), chosen for their traditional association with the Virgin Mary, “doubly refresh the souls of those who are fasting.”
In non-Roman Western rites, it was the custom to celebrate the feast of the Annunciation shortly before Christmas; the Ambrosian liturgy keeps the last Sunday of Advent as the “feast of the Incarnation”, while the Mozarabs fix the Annunciation to December 18th. In a similar vein, some churches in the Middle Ages, used white vestments for the Ember Wednesday Mass instead of violet, with the deacon and subdeacon in dalmatic and tunicle, the vestments of joy, rather than the penitential folded chasubles. This manner of treating the day almost as a second feast of the Annunciation was observed at Paris, for example, well-known for its strong devotion to Our Lady; it was retained in the neo-Gallican revision of the Parisian liturgy, and continued in use until Paris adopted the Roman liturgy in 1873.
In many places, it was also the custom to sing the Gospel with special solemnity on this day. Mario Righetti notes in his “Storia liturgica” that in the church of Bayeux, the Gospel was sung by a priest (rather than a deacon) wearing a white cope, holding a palm branch in his hand. It was also a common custom to ring the Angelus bell during the singing of the Gospel.
In the use of Sarum, the reading of the Gospel and Homily at Matins was the subject of a particularly beautiful ritual. “The deacon proceeds with the subdeacon, (both) dressed in white,…bearing a palm from the Holy Land in his hand, with the thurifers and torch-bearers…and he incenses the altar. And so he proceeds through the middle of the Choir to the pulpit, to proclaim the Exposition of the Gospel, …with the torch-bearers standing to either side of (him), …and he holds the palm in his hand while he reads the lesson.” The Sarum Rite further underlines the festive quality of the day by omitting most of the penitential features of the Divine Office at Lauds, such as the ferial prayers and the prostrations. Some art historians believe that the dress of the Angel Gabriel as represented in paintings of the Annunciation reflects the local liturgical use observed in the celebration of the “Missa aurea”.
The Gospel of the Annunciation is not, of course, entirely absent from the traditional texts of Advent before the Mass of Ember Wednesday. It is read as the Matins lessons of the Little Office of Our Lady throughout the season, and it provides the text of many of the antiphons and responsories from the very first day of Advent. When the Church began to celebrate the daily Office and Mass of the Virgin, a special version of both was used in many places for the Advent season, and most of the texts for the Mass of the Blessed Virgin in Advent are borrowed from the “Missa aurea”. Several places retain the custom of celebrating this “Rorate” Mass early in the morning, and by candlelight if possible. King Sigmund the First of Poland loved the Rorate Mass so much that in the year 1540, he built a special Lady Chapel within the Cathedral of Krakow, in which the it would be celebrated every day, regardless of the season. (pictured right, exterior view) The choristers of this Chapel were called “Rorantists”, and were also responsible for singing the Gloria in excelsis at the principal Mass of the main choir. A similar custom prevails to this day at the Holy House of Loreto, in which all Masses, public and private are the votive Mass of the Annunciation.