Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Ember Wednesday of Advent at Sarum

The Ember Wednesday of December is a particularly special day in the liturgy of Advent, since it is the day on which the Gospel of the Annunciation is traditionally read for the first time in the ecclesiastical year. (It is also read at the Votive Mass of the Virgin in Advent, the famous Rorate Mass, and is quoted repeatedly in the Divine Office.) The Use of Sarum highlighted its importance by a very lovely ceremony, one of the rare examples of a special rite being added to the celebration of Matins.

After the invitatory, hymn and psalms, when it is time to read the homily on the day’s Gospel, “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.” (rubric of the Sarum Breviary) As usual, the beginning of the Gospel is read, followed by a long treatise from the Venerable Bede’s Sermon on the Annunciation, of which I here give an excerpt; the Roman Breviary traditionally gives a fairly brief passage from St Ambrose, but the English very often preferred the writings of their fellow-countryman.

Salisbury Cathedral, from the choir looking west towards the nave. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Click to see the original in very high resolution.)
“Todays’ reading of the holy Gospel, dearest, brethren, commends to us the beginning of our redemption; it tells us that an angel was sent by God from heaven to the Virgin, to announce the new birth of the Son of God in the flesh, so that through it, we may be able to be renewed, our ancient guilt being taken away, and counted among the sons of God. Therefore, that we may merit to obtain the gifts of the promised salvation, let us take to listen carefully to its beginning.

The Angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph.” It is certainly a fit beginning for humanity’s restoration, that an Angel should be sent by God to a Virgin, who would be consecrated by the birth of God, since the first cause of humanity’s ruin was when a serpent was sent by the devil to deceive a woman in a spirit of pride. Nay rather, the devil himself came in the serpent, that he might strip the human race of the glory of immortality by the deception of our first parents. Therefore, because death entered (the world) through a woman, rightly did life also return through a woman. The former, led astray by the devil through a serpent, offered the taste of death to a man; the latter, taught by God through an Angel, brought forth the Author of our salvation to the world.

The Annunciation, from a Book of Hours according to the Use of Sarum made for Lady Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509), the mother of King Henry VII. (From the website of the British Library.)
Therefore, the Angel Gabriel was sent by God. Rarely do we read that Angels are given a name when they appear to men. But when this does happen, it is for this reason, so that from the name itself, they may make known what they are coming to do in God’s service. For Gabriel means “the might of God”, and rightly does he stand out with such a name, who bears witness to God when He is to be born in the flesh; of whom the prophet says in the Psalm, ‘the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle,’ that battle, to wit, in which He came to make war against the spiritual powers, and deliver the world from their sway.

And going in unto Her, the Angel said, “Hail, that art full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art Thou among women.” And this greeting was as fitting to the dignity of the blessed Mary as it was unheard of in the dealings of men. For indeed she was truly full of grace, to whom it was given by divine favor that first among women, She might offer to God the most glorious gift of virginity. For this reason, She rightly merited to delight in the appearance and speech of the Angel, since She sought to imitate the angelic life. Truly was She full of grace, to whom it was given to bear Jesus Christ, through whom came grace and truth.”

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