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From Dom Guéranger's The Liturgical Year.

CHRISTMAS Eve, with its own happy spirit, is drawing to its close. Already has the Church terminated all her Advent Offices, by the celebration of the Holy Sacriftce. In her maternal considerateness, she has permitted her children to break their Fast of preparation for the great Feast, by taking their meal at mid-day. Whilst refreshing their bodies with this repast, to which Abstinence gives merit, the Faithful feel an instinct of gladness which comes as a harbinger, to tell them of that immense joy which this beautiful Night will bring them, by giving them their Emmanuel.

But so great a Solemnity as that of to-morrow could not possibly be an exception to that usage of the Church whereby she anticipates all her Feasts on their Eves. In a few moments the Office of First Vespers, in which is offered to God the evening incense, will call us to the Church, and the splendour of the function, and the magnificence of the chants, will open our hearts to those feelings of love and gratitude which will prepare them to receive the graces of to-night.

Let us spend the interval in endeavouring to gain a clear knowledge of the Mystery of our Feast; and let us absorb well the sentiments and spirit of the Church. We shall be assisted to do both by considering some of the principal traditions which attach to this joyful Solemnity.

Let us begin by listening to the Holy Fathers speaking of Christmas Day with an eloquence worthy of the Feast. And first we have St Gregory the Theologian, Bishop of Nazianzum, who thus opens his thirty-eighth discourse, which is on the Theophania,or Nativity of our Lord.

Christ is born—glorify him! Christ comes down from heaven—go ye forth to meet him! Christ is on the earth—be ye lifted up above it! O sing to the Lord, all thou earth [1] and to say all in one word, Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad,[2]because he that is now born is both of heaven and of earth! Christ has assumed our Flesh—exult in fear and in joy; in fear, because of sin; in joy, because of hope! Christ is born of a Virgin: women! honour holy virginity, that you may become Mothers of Christ!

Who would not adore him that is from the beginning? Who would not praise and extol him that is born in time? Darkness is at an end; Light is created; Egypt remains in darkness, and Israel is enlightened by the pillar of fire. The people that sat in the darkness of ignorance, now possess the bright light of knowledge and wisdom. The old things are passed away, and lo! all things are made new. The letter has given way, the spirit has triumphed; shadows have faded, the reality is come. . . . The laws of nature are set aside; the world of Heaven is to be peopled; Christ commands it—let us obey.

O clap your hands, all ye nations![3] for a Child is born unto us, and a Son is given unto us. The emblem of his Government is upon his shoulder, for his exaltation shall come by the Cross; and his name shall be called the Angel of the Great Counsel, that is, of the Counsel of his Father.[4]

Let the Baptist now cry out: Prepare ye the way of the Lord! I, too, will proclaim the virtues and power of this day. He that is without flesh takes flesh; the Word takes a Body; the Unseen is seen; the Intangible may be touched; the Eternal has a beginning; the Son of God is made the Son of Man—Jesus Christ, yesterday and to-day, and the same for ever.[5] Let the Jew take scandal, and the Greek mock, and the heretic prate. They will believe when they shall see him ascending into heaven; and if not even then, at least when they shall see him coming down from heaven, and seated on his judgement-seat.

It is hard to hear such thrilling eloquence as this, and remain cold. But let us now give ear to a Father of the Latin Church, the devout St Bernard, who, in his Sixth Sermon for Christmas Eve, pours forth his heart’s joy in these fervent words:

We have just heard the saying, which is full of grace, and worthy of all acceptation: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is born in Bethlehem of Juda. At these words my soul melts with love, yea, and my spirit that is within me bums with impatience to tell you, as in other years, of this joy, this thrilling joy. Jesus means Saviour. And what so necessary to them that are lost? what so welcome to them that are in misery? what so precious to them that are in despair? Besides, what salvation, what chance of salvation, was there in the law of sin, in that body of death, in so evil a day, and in such a place of affliction—had not a new and unlooked-for Salvation been born? Say not that thou dost indeed desire salvation, but that, knowing thy delicacy and the grievousness of thy sickness, thou fearest lest the cure be violent. No, fear not: this Jesus is Christ, that is, he is all sweetness; he is meek and plenteous in mercy; he is anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows, that is, above them who, though they receive not the fulness, yet receive of his fulness. Yet lest thou shouldst think that because this Jesus is the Anointed with sweetness, he is therefore weak in power, it is added, he is the Son of God. . . . Let us, then, be exceeding glad, as we think over within ourselves, or say to each other, this sweet sentence: Jesus Christ—the Son of Godis born in Bethlehem of Juda!

Glorious day, indeed, is this of the Birth of the Saviour!

It had been looked forward to by the human race for four thousand years. The Church had prepared for it by the four weeks of her Advent, a Season which has ever such a charm about it. Nature, too, longs for this day, on which the Sun begins his yearly victory over the dreary reign of wintry darkness. A Holy Doctor of the Syrian Church, St Ephrem, has written the most admirable words on the beauty and fruitful virtue of this mysterious day. Let us borrow some of these from him and say them with his enthusiasm.

Grant, O Lord! that we may now celebrate this the Day of thy Birth, which to-day's Solemnity brings round to us. This Day is like thyself—it is the friend of mankind. It comes to us in its regular course, visiting us each year. It grows old with the old; it is young and fresh with little children. We remember when we were young, how it came and passed away; and here it is again, faithful as ever in its welcome visit. It knows that nature could not do without it; here again like to thee, it comes in search of our fallen race. The whole earth thirsts after thy Birthday, O Jesus! It stands, as it were, between the past and the future, commanding all ages, as thou dost. It is one, and yet it multiplies itself, as thou dost. And since we behold thy past Birthday in this presentFeast, make the two resemble each other in this also—that as thy Birthday brought Peace between heaven and earth, when the infinitely High God descended to this low earth; so may this solemnity signify and give us Peace. . . . And truly, if every day of the year be rich in thy gifts, how much more ought not this to overflow with them?

The other days of the year borrow their beauty from this, and the other Feasts owe to this all their solemnity and loveliness. . . . Thy Birthday, O Jesus! is a treasure out of which we all take wherewith to pay our debts. . . . Blessed be the Day which has brought us back the Sun, after we had been wandering in the dark night; which has brought us the Divine Sheaf that enriches us with plentifulness; which has given us the Vine-Branch that is to yield us, in due time, the cup of our salvation. ... In the bosom of that Winter which robs our trees of their fruit, the virgin Vine has given forth its divine growth. In the Season of frost, which strips our plants of their beauty, the Root of Jesse has given us its Bud. It is in December, which hides the seed sown in the earth, that the Wheat of our salvation appears from the Virgin's womb, into which he had entered in that fresh Spring-time, when the lambkins were skipping in our meadows.[6]

It is not, therefore, to be wondered at, if this day, which, we may say, is an important one even to God himself, has been made a privileged one above those of the rest of the year. We have already seen that the old pagan world paid homage to it, and thus, in their own way, were carrying out the design of God. The Holy Doctors, and the Church herself in her Liturgy, allude continually to the material Sun being the symbol of him who is called the Sun of Justice. Then again, there is the venerable tradition which tells us that the Incarnation of the Son of God having been accomplished on a Friday (March 25), the Birth of Jesus, the Light of the world, must have taken place on December 25, a Sunday. This gives a peculiar sacredness to Christmas Day when it falls on a Sunday, as it was on that day of the week that God began the Creation, and said: Let there he Light! and on the same, also, did our Lord rise from the tomb. St Sophronius of Jerusalem has beautifully treated this mystery in his first homily for Christmas Day.

In order to impress the nations of Europe, that is, of the favoured portion of the Church, with the importance of this ever-blessed day, God, who is the Sovereign Ruler of all things, has willed that on it should happen certain events of intense interest. We will select three of these. To begin with the first in order of time: it was on a Christmas Day that the Kingdom of the Franks was founded; for it was on this glorious Solemnity that King Clovis was baptized at Rheims by St Remigius. The haughty Sicambrian, thus admitted into the Fold of Christ, became a meek and humble Christian, and the founder of the first Catholic monarchy, which is now the nation of France.

A century later, that is in the year 596, our own dearest country was converted to the true faith by the labours of St Augustine, of whom St Gregory the Great, who sent him, says: ‘he was a Monk of my Monastery’[7] This holy Missionary had baptized King Ethelbert, and travelled through the land, preaching everywhere the name and Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Having reached York, he preached the word of Eternal Life to the people, and when he had ended, they seek baptism from his hands. Christmas Day is fixed upon for the regeneration of the Catechumens, and the river which flows through the City is chosen as the Baptismal Font. Ten thousand men, not counting women and children, go down into this stream, whose waters were to cleanse their souls. The severity of the season is unheeded by these fervent disciples of the Babe of Bethlehem, who, but a few days before, knew not so much as his name. From the frozen waters there comes, full of joy and innocence, the long line of Neophytes; and the Birthday of Jesus counts, that year, one nation more as belonging to his Kingdom.

Three hundred years after this, God gives us another glorious event in honour of the Birthday of his Son. It was on this divine Anniversary, in the year 800, and at Rome, in the Basilica of St Peter, that the Holy Roman Empire was created, to which God assigned the grand mission of propagating the Kingdom of Christ among the barbarian nations of the North, and of upholding, under the direction of the Sovereign Pontiffs, the confederation and unity of Europe. St Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor. Here, then, was a new Cæsar, a new Augustus, on the earth; not, indeed, a successor of those ancient Lords of Pagan Rome, butone who was invested with the title and power by the Vicar of him who is called, in the Sacred Scriptures, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Thus has God glorified, in the eyes of men, the Divine Babe who is this day born: thus has he prepared, at various times, worthy anniversaries of that Birth which gave glory to God and Peace to men. Time will reveal in what other ways the Most High still wishes to magnify, upon this twenty-fifth of December, himself and his Christ.

Impressed with the extreme importance of this Feast, and justly looking upon it as the beginning of the Era of the world's regeneration, the nations of the West, for a long time, began their year with Christmas Day, as we find in the ancient Calendars, in the Martyrologies of Usuard and Ado, and in numberless Bulls, Charts and Diplomas. It is evident, from a Council held at Cologne in 1310, that this manner of computing the year was still observed at that time. In several countries of Europe, our own among the rest, the custom has been kept up of wishing a Happy Christmas, which was the ancient salutation when this Feast was the beginning of a new year. Hence too, in these countries, the custom of making presents, of writing letters of good wishes, and other friendly acts. How many of our practices of everyday life have originated from Faith, and yet are looked upon as mere consequences of natural good-feeling, or even compliments which society requires us to pay to each other!

To encourage her children in their Christmas joy, the Church has dispensed with the law of abstinence, if this Feast fall on a Friday. This dispensation was granted by Pope Honorius III, who ascended the Papal Throne in 1216. It is true that we find it mentioned by Pope St Nicholas I, in the ninth century; but the dispensation was not universal; for the Pontiff is replying to the consultations of the Bulgarians, to whom he concedes this indulgence, in order to encourage them to celebrate these Feasts with solemnity and joy: ChristmasDay, St Stephen, St John the Evangelist, the Epiphany, the Assumption of our Lady, St John the Baptist, and SS Peter and Paul. When the dispensation for Christmas Day was extended to the whole Church, these other Feasts were not mentioned.

In the Middle Ages, the Civil Law, also, contributed to the people's love of Christmas, by enacting that no creditor could demand any payment from his debtors during the entire week of Christmas, which was called, on that account, the week of remission—a name which it had in common with the weeks of Easter and Pentecost.

But let us interrupt these interesting details regarding the grand Solemnity, whose near approach makes our hearts throb with joy. Let us repair to the House of our Heavenly Father, for the Hour of Vespers is near; and on our way, let our thoughts be at Bethlehem, where Joseph and Mary are already arrived. The sun is rapidly setting; and our Divine Sun of Justice is still hid beneath the Cloud, the Womb of the purest of Virgins. Night is coming on: Joseph and Mary are going through the narrow streets of the City of David, seeking a shelter. Let our hearts be attentive, and united in love with the two holy Pilgrims. Every heart and voice should now be giving forth to our God the tribute of praise and grateful love. Oh! happy we, that have a tribute of Song and Psalmody ready for our use, worthy of the day and of its ineffable Mystery—it is our Mother that offers us her Liturgy. Let us prepare to join her.

FIRST VESPERS

After the usual invocation of the divine assistance, the Church intones, in a most solemn chant, the five following Antiphons, which precede as many Psalms:

1. Ant. Hex pacificus magnificatus est, cujus vultum desiderat universa terra.
1. Ant. The King of Peace, whom the whole earth desireth to see, hath shown his greatness.

Psalm, Dixit Dominus, p. 89.


2. Ant. Magnificatus est Rex pacificus super omnes reges universæ terræ.
2. Ant. The King of Peace is magnified above all the Kings of the earth.

Psalm, Confitebor tibi, p. 90.


3. Ant. Impleti sunt dies Mariæ, ut pareret Filium suum primogenitum.
3. Ant. The days were completed for Mary, that she should bring forth her first-born Son.

Psalm, Beatus vir, p. 91.


4. Ant. Scitote quia prope est regnum Dei: amen dico vobis quia non tardabit.
4. Ant. Know ye, that the Kingdom of God is at hand; amen I say unto you, it shall not tarry.

Psalm, Laudate pueri, p. 92.


5. Ant. Levate capita vestra; ecce appropinquat redemptio vestra.
5. Ant. Raise up your heads: lo! your redemption is at hand.

PSALM 116

Laudate Dominum omnes gentes: * laudate eum, omnes populi.

Quoniam confirmata est super nos misericordia ejus: * et veritas Domini manet in æternum.

O! praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people.

For his mercy is confirmed upon us, and the truth of the Lord remaineth for ever.

After having extolled, in these divine canticles, the eternal generation, the fidelity, the mercy, the greatness, and the truth, of her divine Spouse, who is coming, and in a few short hours will show himself to her, the Church suspends her praise for a moment, and listens, in the Capitulum, to the consoling words of the Apostle of the Gentiles concerning the coming of God our Saviour.

Capitulum
(Tit. iii 4)

Apparuit benignitas et humanitas Salvatoris nostri Dei, non ex operibus justitiae quæ fecimus nos, sed secundum misericordiam suam salvos nos fecit.
The goodness and kindness of God our Saviour hath appeared; not by the works of justice, which we have done, but according to his mercy hath he saved us.

Encouraged afresh by these beautiful words, the Church resumes her praises, not borrowing, this time, the psalmody of the Royal Prophet, but singing a Hymn to Jesus, her Spouse, on the glory and beauty of his Birthday, which makes all Nature glad, and brings the sweetest joy of heart to such as know how to love the Divine Babe. It was St Ambrose—the Bee of Milan, as he has been called—who composed this Hymn, which is sung to-day in almost every part of the world.

Hymn[8]

Jesu, redemptor omnium,
Quem, lucis ante originem,
Parem paternæ gloriæ
Pater supremus edidit;

Tu lumen et splendor Patris,
Tu spes perennis omnium,
Intende quas fundunt preces
Tui per orbem servuli.

Memento, rerum conditor,
Nostri quod olim corporis,
Sacrata ab alvo Virginis
Nascendo, formam sumpseris.

Testatur hoc præsens dies,
Currens per anni circulum,
Quod solus e sinu Patris
Mundi salus adveneris.

Hunc astra, tellus, æquora,
Hunc omne quod cœlo subest,
Salutis auctorem novæ
Novo salutat cantico.

Et nos, beata quos sacri
Rigavit unda sanguinis,
Natalis ob diem tui,
Hymni tributum solvimus.

Jesu, tibi sit gloria,
Qui natus es de Virgine,
Cum Patre et almo Spiritu,
In sempiterna sæcula.

Amen.

. Crastina die delebitur iniquitas terræ;
. Et regnabit super nos Salvator mundi.
O Jesu! Redeemer of mankind!
born before the light was made,
and born of the Eternal Father,
equal to him in infinite glory;

O thou the Light and brightness of the Father!
O thou the everlasting hope of all men!
hear the prayers offered thee
by thy servants throughout the world.

Be mindful, O Creator of all things!
that heretofore thou didst assume
a Body like unto ours,
and wast born from the sacred womb of a Virgin.

This present day,
which the year has brought round to us, tells us of this mystery
—that thou, the one Saviour of the world,
didst come to us from the Father's Bosom.

The stars, and earth, and sea,
and all that is under heaven
greet this the Author of their new salvation
with a new canticle.

And we, who have been redeemed
by the stream of thy precious Blood,
we too pay thee the tribute of this Hymn,
in honour of thy Birthday.

Glory be to thee, O Jesus!
who wast born of the Virgin!
and to the Father, and to the Spirit of love,
for everlasting ages.

Amen.

. To-morrow the iniquity of the earth shall be cancelled;
℟. And over us shall reign the Saviour of the world.

And now Mary's own words are to resound in the holy place! The sweet Canticle which she sang at her Visitation to Elizabeth, when, holding within herself the divine and secret Treasure, she celebrated the great things of God's power in her—this Canticle, without which the Church never lets the sun go down, is now going to be sung. O Mary! the hour is fast approaching which will manifest to both heaven and earth that divine Maternity of thine which will make all generations call thee Blessed.Suffer us to unite our souls with thine in magnifying the Lord, and to rejoice in our spirit, as thou didst in thine, in God our Saviour, who is thy Son!

Antiphon of the Magnificat

Cum ortus fuerit sol de cœlo, videbitis Regem regum procedentem a Patre, tanquam sponsum de thalamo suo.
When the sun shall have risen in the heavens, ye shall see the King of Kings coming from the Father, as a Bridegroom from his bride-chamber.

The Canticle Magnificat, p. 96.


Finally, the Church expresses all her desires in the following Prayer, which is to ascend to the Throne of God not only at every Hour of Christmas Day, but several times each day during the Octave:

Collect

Concede, quæsumus, omnipotens Deus: ut nos Unigeniti tui nova per carnem nativitas liberet, quos sub peccati jugo vetusta servitus tenet. Per eumdem Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum Filium tuum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti Deus, per omnia sæcula sæculorum. Amen.
Grant, we beseech thee, O Almighty God, that we who groan under the old captivity of sin, may be freed therefrom by the new Birth of thine Only-Begotten Son. Through the same Jesus Christ thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.

During our Vespers, the last rays of day have disappeared, and darkness has covered the earth. The Sacred Ministers, vested in their richest copes, have left the Sanctuary. In a few moments they will reenter the Church, and repair to the Tribunal of Penance, there to administer to penitent sinners the reconciliation they ask of God through the merciful Birth of his OnlyBegotten Son. All is solemn silence in the Church, which, but a few moments before, echoed with the glad chants of our praise. Let us adore the Majesty of our God, and once more present our prayer to the King of Ages, that he send down the Dew for which our earth is thirsting; and with this prayer of our hope, let us, for a last time, mingle a thought of that salutary fear of the Last Judgement which the Church has nurtured within our souls during the holy Season of Advent.

Let us embody these sentiments in a Prayer taken from the Gothic or Mozarabic Liturgy: it is a beautiful one, and most appropriate.

Prayer from the Mozarabic Breviary
(For the Nativity of our Lord, in the Evening Office, Capitula)

Rorate cœli desuper, utique prophetando Christum, et nubes pluant justum; dum Sancti omnes ejus præconantur adventum. Aperiatur terra, ut, Angelo scilicet alloquente, Virgo concipiat, et pariat Salvatorem. Hic igitur ros, qui abs te est, omnipotens Pater, rogamus, et petimus, ut fiat sanitas infirmorum; et hæc pluvia matutini temporis, præbe, nostri temporis infundat arentem, quæ infusa, tanta gratia præteritum facinus abluat, et æternum credentibus justitiæ lumen infundat; nec non ejusdem Filii tui Domini nostri indemnes præsentiam contuentes, atque cum cœlicolis coetui ejus in jubilo occurrentes, hoc canticum lætitiæ præcinamus orantes: Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini, Deus Dominus, et illuxit nobis; cujus nos adventus redemit, et Nativitas illustravit: Qui veniens requisivit perditos, illuminavit in tenebris constitutos. Tribue ergo omnipotens Pater, ut diem Nativitatis ejus ita devotione piissima celebremus, ut judicii diem mitissimum sentiamus: ut cujus benignitatem in redemptione cognovimus, ejus pietatem in judicio mansuetam sentiamus.
Drop down Dew, ye heavens, from above—by prophesying Jesus to our earth; and let the clouds rain the Just One—let all the saintly prophets herald his coming. Let the earth be opened, that, as the Angel is speaking unto her, the Virgin may conceive and bring forth the Saviour. We pray and we beseech thee, O Almighty Father, let this Dew, which comes down from thee, give health to the sick; and this Rain of morn, let it sink into the parched soil of our times, and by the infusion of its abundant grace, cleanse away past sins, and shed over them that believe the eternal light of justice. Moreover, may we, looking with confidence at the presence of our Lord Jesus thy Son, and joyfully going to meet him in company with the heavenly citizens, sing to him this canticle of joy and prayer: Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord: The Lord is God, and he hath shone upon us: his Coming hath redeemed us, and his Nativity hath enlightened us: he that came looking for the lost ones hath given light to them that sat in darkness. Grant unto us, therefore, O Almighty Father, so most devoutly to celebrate the day of his Birth, as that the day of his Judgement may be to us a day of exceeding mercy: that thus, having felt how great is his goodness in redeeming, we may experience how gentle is his mercy in judging us.

And now we will leave the House of God, and attend to the duties of our state of life at home, until the hour of Matins summons us to return and celebrate the Midnight Birth of our Saviour. In order to prepare ourselves for that most imposing Service, we shall do well to resume the reflections upon the Liturgy of our Feast, which we interrupted in order to assist at Vespers. How few would keep from the Service of Christmas Night, and how still fewer would complain that they never seem to derive that benefit from it, which they are told is so great, if they would but take the pains to ask themselves why it is that the Church attaches such importance to her children's joining her in the celebration of this gay Winter Midnight!


[1] Ps. xcv 1.
[2] Ibid. xcv 11.
[3] Ibid. xlvi 2.
[4] Isa. ix 6.
[5] Heb. xiii 8.
[6] Third Sermon On our Lord's Nativity.
[7] Lib. 8, Ep. 30.
[8] In the Monastic Breviary, it is as follows: ℟. Breve. Hodie scietis * quia veniet Dominus. Hodie. ℣. Et mane videbitis gloriam ejus. * Quia. Gloria. Hodie. In 2nd Vespers. ℟. Breve. Verbum caro factum est, * Alleluia, Alleluia. Verbum. ℣. Et habitavit in nobis. * Alleluia. Gloria. Verbum. Christe, Redemptor omnium, Ex Patre Patris Unice, Solus ante principium Natus ineffabiliter, Tu lumen, tu splendor Patris, Tu spes perennis omnium, Intende quas fundunt preces Tui per orbem famuli. Memento salutis Auctor Quod nostri quondam corporis Ex illibata Virgine Nascendo formam sumpseris. Sic præsens testatur dies, Currens per anni circulum, Quod solus a sede Patris Mundi salus adveneris. Hunc cœlum, terra, hunc mare, Hunc omne quod in eis est, Auctorem adventus tui Laudans exsultat cantico. Nos quoque qui sancto tuo Redempti Sanguine sumus, Ob diem Natalis tui Hymnum novum concinimus. Gloria tibi Domine, Qui natus es de Virgine, Cum Patre et Sancto Spiritu, In sempiterna sæcula. Amen.