Monday, December 23, 2013

Liturgical Notes on the Vigil of Christmas

A Vigil is traditionally a full liturgical day, penitential in nature, in preparation for a major feast, including the whole day’s Office from Matins to None. The Mass of a Vigil is not an anticipation of the feast, but a part of the preparation for it, said after None, without Gloria in excelsis, Alleluia or the Creed; First Vespers said after Mass is then the official beginning of the feast itself.

In various medieval uses of the Roman Rite, although not in that of Rome itself, the Vigil of Christmas was often extended back to include the Vespers of the preceding day, December 23rd, with the addition of a special responsory to be sung between the chapter and the hymn. (A similar custom is found in the Breviary of St. Pius V on the Epiphany, the vigil of which runs from Vespers of January 4th to None of the 5th.)
R. De illa occulta habitatione sua egressus est Filius Dei; descendit visitare et consolari omnes, qui eum de toto corde desiderabant. V. Ex Sion species decoris ejus, Deus noster manifeste veniet. Descendit. Gloria Patri. Descendit.

R. From that hidden habitation of His, the Son of God shall go forth; He hath come down to visit and console all those, who long for Him with all their heart. V. Out of Sion the loveliness of His beauty, our God shall come manifestly. He hath come down. Glory be. He hath come down.
In his curious work On the Correction of the Antiphonary, the first liturgy critic, Agobard of Lyon (ca. 780-840), says that this responsory should be rejected “with great severity”, since its “vain and presumptuous author … lyingly asserts that He visited and consoled all those who long for Him, when rather He caused those whom He deigned to visit, to acknowledge and long for Him.” His opinion was not accepted, and the responsory is found in a great number of medieval antiphonaries and breviaries; in the post-Tridentine period, however, it appears to have been retained only by the Premonstratensian Order and a few local uses.

A page of the Breviary according to the Use of Prague, 1502; the responsory De illa occulta is in the middle of the left column.
The Office and the Mass of the Vigil begin with almost the same words, adapted from Exodus chapter 16, “This day ye shall know that the Lord shall come, and will save us, and on the morrow ye shall see His glory.” The medieval commenter Rupert of Deutz, (a man of much finer poetic sensibility than Agobard), explains the sense of this text in the liturgy of the day. Speaking first of the Office, in which these words are sung six times:
On the vigil of the Lord’s Birth, that beautiful prophecy of divine consolation is most frequently and solemnly spoken by the Church. “This day ye shall know that the Lord shall come, and on the morrow ye shall see His glory.”
And then, in reference to Introit of the Mass:
When the Lord had said to the sons of Israel, “Behold, I will rain bread from Heaven for you,” Moses and Aaron said to them, “In the evening you shall know that the Lord hath brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord.” (Exod. 16, 4 and 6-7) … (this) invites us to consider that that manna, which was given to the sons of Israel when they had come out of the land of Egypt, and were marching for the promised land, was a figure of the Word of God, which took on the flesh through the Virgin, and came to feed us that believe in Him, … The interpreter of this similitude is not just any man, but the very One who said, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the desert, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that if any man eat of it, he may not die.” (John 6, 48-51)
The Miracle of the Manna in the Desert, by Tintoretto, 1577
The homily at Matins in the Breviary of St. Pius V, is taken from St. Jerome’s commentary on the days’ Gospel, St. Matthew, 1, 18-21, explaining the reasons why Christ was born of a virgin.
Why was the Lord conceived not simply of a virgin, but of one espoused? First, that by the begetting of Joseph, the origin of Mary may be shown. Secondly, lest she be stoned by the Jews as an adulteress. Third, that She might have a protector as She fled to Egypt. The martyr Ignatius (of Antioch) added a fourth reason why He was conceived of one espoused, saying, “that His birth might be concealed from the devil, who would think that He was begotten not of a virgin, but of one married. “Before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” She was found so by no other, but only by Joseph, who had already almost an husband’s privilege to know all that concerned his wife. But where it is said “Before they came together,” it followeth not that they came together afterwards; but the Scripture showeth what did not happen.
On Christmas Day itself, there are three different Masses; at Matins of Christmas, therefore, there is read in the Third Nocturn a brief homily on the Gospel of each of the three, the first by St. Gregory the Great, the second by St. Ambrose, the third by St. Augustine. The inclusion of a passage of St. Jerome completes the number of the four doctors of the Latin Church; between the vigil and feast, each of the four preaches to us on the Nativity of the Lord.

The Ascension of Christ, depicted in the cupola of the church of Saint John the Evangelist in Parma, Italy. In the corners are depicted the Four Evangelists, each of which is accompanied by one of the Four Doctors. St. Matthew and St. Jerome are depicted together in the lower right.
Nowadays, the most famous liturgical text of Christmas Eve is certainly the notice of the feast of Christmas from the Martyrology. In the traditional Office, the Martyrology’s entry for the following day is read at the Hour of Prime, after the first prayer. Christmas Eve is the only day on which this is done with a particular ceremony, rather than simply being sung by a reader. A priest in violet cope, accompanied by a thurifer and two candles, incenses the book, and then sings the following notice of the Christ’s Birth.
In the year from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, five-thousand, one hundred and ninety-nine; from the Flood, two-thousand, nine hundred and fifty-seven; from the birth of Abraham two-thousand and fifteen; from Moses, and the going forth of the people of Israel out of Egypt, one-thousand five-hundred and ten; from the anointing of David as King, one-thousand and thirty-two; in the sixty-fifth week, according to the prophecy of Daniel; in the one-hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad; in the seven-hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome; in the forty-second year of the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus; while the whole earth was at peace, in the sixth age of the world, Jesus Christ, Eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father, wishing to hallow the world by His most gracious coming, having been conceived of the Holy Spirit, nine months having passed after His conception, at Bethlehem of Juda is born of the Virgin Mary, having become Man.
The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.
At the words “at Bethlehem of Juda” he raises his voice, and all kneel. The final words, “The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh,” are sung “in the tone of the Passion” according to the Martyrology’s rubric, a reminder that the coming of Christ was also so that He might suffer, die and rise for our salvation.

In the Roman Use, the priest who has sung the Martyrology departs at the end of this notice, and those of the other Saints of December 25th are sung by another reader. In the Premonstratensian Use, however, the Breviary directs that all shall prostrate themselves and say Psalm 84 Benedixisti, followed by Kyrie, eleison, Pater noster, a versicle, and the prayers of the vigil of Christmas and the Advent Mass of the Virgin.
O God, who gladden us by the annual expectation of our redemption, grant that we who now joyfully welcome thy Only-begotten Son as our Redeemer, may also behold Him without fear when He cometh as our Judge.
O God, Who didst will that Thy Word should, by the message of an Angel, take flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, grant unto us, we beseech thee, that all we who do believe Her to be truly the Mother of God, may be helped by Her prayers before Thee.
The rubric continues thus: “Giving thanks to God, who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, let them for a time in silence, with devout elevation of the mind, consider the grace of the divine goodness, which is so great towards man.”

With the abolition of the Hour of Prime, the liturgical use of the Martyrology has all but vanished from the revised Roman Rite; a new version for the post-Conciliar liturgy was not published until 2001. A prominent exception is the proclamation of the notice for Christmas, which is now often read before Midnight Mass. In the following video, taken in St. Peter’s Basilica, a more-or-less official revised version of the text is sung in a special tone written for the purpose, a tone which was also widely used before the modern reform. It begins with the date according to the famously inconvenient and complicated Roman dating system, in which “December 25th” is “the eighth day before the Kalends of January”. This is followed by the phase of the moon, the nineteenth in this case.

When numberless ages had passed from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and made man according to His image; and likewise many ages, from when after the Flood, the Most High had placed the rainbow among the clods, as a sign of His covenant and peace; in the twenty-first century from the migration of Abraham, our father in the Faith, from Ur of the Chaldees; in the thirteenth century the going forth of the people of Israel out of Egypt, led by Moses; in roughly the one-thousandth year from the anointing of David as King; in the sixty-fifth week, according to the prophecy of Daniel etc. (The rest of the text is the same as above, except for the omission of the words “in the sixth age of the world”)

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