Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Key to the Season: The Collect for the Vigil Mass of Christmas Eve

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Nativity at Night, ca. 1490

Lost in Translation #31

In order to understand the meaning of Christmas, let us turn to tomorrow’s Collect:

Deus, qui nos redemptiónis nostrae ánnua exspectatióne laetíficas: praesta; ut Unigénitum tuum, quem Redemptórem laeti suscípimus, venientem quoque júdicem secúri videámus, Dóminum nostrum, Jesum Christum, Filium tuum: Qui tecum

Which I translate as:

O God, who makest us glad with the yearly expectation of our redemption, grant that we who now joyfully receive Thine only-begotten Son as our Redeemer, may also confidently behold Him coming as our Judge, our Lord Jesus Christ Thy Son: Who with Thee.
Tomorrow in the 1962 Calendar is the Vigil Mass of Christmas, which is not an anticipatory Mass that “counts” for the next day, nor is it the Midnight Mass, which is the first Mass of Christmas. Vigil Masses are penitential events immediately preceding a great feast. Prior to Vatican II, December 24 was a day of complete fast and abstinence.
Tomorrow’s vigil, however, cannot hide the Church’s joy about the arrival of the Messiah. The Secret tells of “the soon-to-be-adored birthday” (adoranda natalitia) of the Son of God, while the Postcommunion prays that we may “catch our breath again” (respirare) by celebrating the Nativity. 
The Collect is also joyful albeit with a twist. God “makes us glad” each year with an annual expectation of our redemption. Redemptiónis nostrae ánnua exspectatio can be taken in two ways. The predominant meaning is an expectation of the feast of our redemption, namely, Christmas Day (the Roman orations often speak in shorthand). On the other hand, it can also mean an expectation of Doomsday, which St. Paul calls the “day of redemption” (Ephesians 4, 30). Both meanings are the subject of the Collect’s apodosis (second half): just as we are currently glad about celebrating Christ as our Redeemer who has come, we pray that we may be glad to meet Him as the Judge who is to come. 
The ambivalence of Redemptiónis nostræ ánnua exspectatió is, I strongly suspect, deliberate. The Church wants us to blur the lines between the two events in order to indicate the relation between Christ’s three comings. The purpose of annually celebrating Christ’s earthly Nativity is to renew our faith and receive Christ more fully into our hearts; and the more fully Christ has come into our hearts, the more we will be ready for His Second Coming. The goal, as the Collect implies, is to be so well prepared that seeing Jesus Christ as our Judge on the Last Day will be no more fearful than seeing Him as a Babe in the manger.
That is quite a goal. Although as Christians we should be looking forward to the end of the world and Christ’s glorious return, it is understandable if most of us aren’t exactly giddy with excitement at the prospect of Armageddon. Moreover, anyone with half an ounce of self-knowledge has cause for concern about the prospect of beholding Christ in all His terrifying splendor on Judgment Day. As St. Augustine writes:
And when men look for Him to come from heaven as the judge of the quick and the dead, it strikes great terror into the neglectful, so that they wheel themselves around to a diligent [preparation] and [learn how] to long for His approach by acting well rather than fearing it by acting badly. [On Christian Doctrine, 1.15.14]
The last Sundays after Pentecost and the entire Christmas season are designed to offer “diligent preparation” that can convert a terrified and “negligent” person into a holy soul “who longs for His approach.” Beginning around the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, the Mass propers address the fears of a negligent person as they take on an apocalyptic note that crescendos with the Last Sunday after Pentecost and its Gospel reading, St. Matthew’s detailed description of the end of the world (24, 15-35). The next week, the First Sunday of Advent, continues the theme of holy terror; on the other hand, the Gospel reading for that Sunday is St. Luke’s description of the end of the world, which is shorter and arguably less frightening. A shift is therefore underway, and by the time we get to Christmas Day, fear has been replaced by joy, even to the point that we can imagine ourselves so transformed by our ongoing redemption that we are actually looking forward to Doomsday: as the Collect puts it, we aspire to be confident or securi, which literally means “without a care” (sine cura) in the world. (I punted somewhat when I translated laeti and securi as “joyfully” and “confidently.” They are not adverbs but adjectives, attributes of our state of being [real or aspirational], not mere qualifiers of a passing action.) What a Christmas present it would be to be truly securus! And happily, it is one which Almighty God, through the conditioning of His Church’s calendar, makes possible every year.

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