Monday, December 27, 2021

The Alleluia of Christmas Day, the Protomartyr, and the Beloved Disciple

I always feel that the feast of the Beloved Disciple, the Eagle Evangelist, the Divine, the Theologian, the Seer of Patmos, ought to receive much more attention than it does. Part of the reason for that feeling might be personal: my wife and I chose this feastday for our nuptial High Mass twenty-three years ago. But it also has to do with my study of St. John’s Gospel and St. Thomas Aquinas’s commentary thereupon, which is his most profound biblical work; it has to do with my brushing up against St. John nearly every day in the form of the Prologue that serves as the traditional Mass’s “epilogue.” And ever since I read Scott Hahn’s book The Supper of the Lamb, I have thought about St. John’s Book of Revelation as the template for Catholic liturgy.

As a church musician, it pains me that the feast of St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents, indeed every day of the Christmas octave until the Circumcision, relatively rarely sees a sung Mass or a solemn Mass. Most clergy and musicians are exhausted after the liturgical (and other) excesses of Christmas, so church tends to be sparsely attended on these octave days. I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon during the octave of Easter. Even though each day of the octave has a splendid proper Mass, all of them graced with some of the most sublime chants of the entire repertoire, one will be lucky to see a motley group sprinkled in the church for low Mass. I wonder if it has been ever thus. Perhaps readers more knowledgeable of historical precedents regarding the observance of days within these two octaves could add some observations in the comments.

Fortunately, over the past three decades, I have been called upon, at one time or another, to sing Mass for most of these octave days, and thus have slowly become acquainted with their more exotic riches. Singing for the feast of St. Stephen last year, I was surprised by the challenge presented by the grand Offertory “Elegerunt Apostoli Stephanum levitam”—with its exultant flourishes on the words plenum fide and Domine Jesu, and its climbing figures on lapidaverunt and spiritum—and the equally grand Communion “Video caelos apertos.”

What really caught my attention was the fact that the same melody is used for the Alleluia on December 25th (Mass of the Day), December 26th, and December 27th, with only the words changing. In this way, the liturgy establishes a subtle but profound connection between these three feasts and their respective Gospels. The Christ-child, Word made flesh, the faithful witness, “the only man who was born to die” as Fulton Sheen once said, is accompanied in the Gospel procession by His first martyr, and by the virgin disciple who followed the Lamb whithersoever He went, even to the foot of the Cross and the empty tomb. The great light descends to the earth; the heavens are opened for the just; true testimony is borne to the Light who is the Life of men.

Dies sanctifícátus illúxit nobis: veníte, gentes, et adoráte Dóminum: quia hódie descéndit lux magna super terram. (A sanctified day hath shone upon us: come ye Gentiles and adore the Lord: for this day a great light hath descended upon the earth.) [The Gospel of the day is the Prologue of St. John.]


Video cælos apertos, et Jesum stantem a dextris virtutis Dei. (I see the heavens opened, and Jesus standing on the right hand of the power of God.) [The Gospel of the day is from Matthew 23, Christ's prophecy of the coming persecution of His disciples, and His lament over Jerusalem.] 


Hic est discipulus ille, qui testamonium perhibet de his: et scimus, quia verum est testimonium ejus. (This is that disciple who giveth testimony of these things: and we know that his testimony is true.) [The Gospel is from John 21, the curious passage where St. Peter asks Jesus about John, and receives a response that is then said to be misinterpreted as John not dying.]

A pragmatically-minded person might point out that it’s also a mercy to the singers to give them the same melody three days in a row, so that if they are going to sing all these Masses right after Christmas, some of the weight has been lifted off their shoulders. How like the tradition of the Church, to do something at once so beautiful and so practical!

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