Advent Liturgy: December 2012 Archives

23 December, O EMMANUEL

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Murillo's painting of the Infant Christ distributing bread to pilgrims is an invitation to consider the mystery of the Eucharist, God-With-Us, the Child of Bethlehem, the House of Bread. An Angel assists the Infant Christ. Behind Him (not visible in this detail) is His Mother, her body forming a kind of Eucharistic throne, a variation on the Sedes Sapientiae motif. Perhaps the sequence of the Mass of Corpus Christi provided a subtext for this painting:

Ecce, panis Angelorum,
Factus cibus viatorum:
Vere panis filiorum.

Behold, the Bread of Angels sent
For pilgrims in their banishment,
The Bread for God's true children meant.

O Emmanuel (Is 7:14; 8:8),
our King and Lawgiver (Is 33:22),
the expectation of the nations and their Saviour (Gen 49:10):
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

The Last of the O Antiphons

At Vespers on December 23rd we sing the last of the Great O Antiphons. We are accustomed to seven, but, in other times and places, and even now, there are nine or even as many as twelve.

O Virgo Virginum

O Virgo Virginum, the last of the Great O Antiphons in the old English liturgy of Sarum , occurs on December 23rd. Its structure is quite different from all the other Great O Antiphons. The first part is a question addressed to the Virgin Mary; in the second part she replies with another question, and then, gives her answer.

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? That which ye behold is a divine mystery.

Here, at Silverstream Priory, since the beginning of Advent, we have been singing O Virgo Virginum each morning as the Marian Antiphon at the end of Lauds.

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O Emmanuel

Like the six Great O Antiphons that preceded it, O Emmanuel is addressed to our Lord Jesus Christ. It seems to me that, with each succeeding day, the O of our invocation, and the Veni of our supplication has grown more confident, more intense and, in a sense, more urgent.

Afraid Never Again

Writing in 1964, Mother Marie des Douleurs Wrotnowska, the foundress of the Benedictines of Jesus Crucified, offers us a somewhat anguished meditation on the Great Antiphon O Emmanuel. It appears to come out of an experience of weakness, fear, and uncertainty. Some would dismiss it as deeply pessimistic and too gloomy for Advent. I sense something else in it: the prayer of woman wrestling with her inner demons, as we all do, and confident nonetheless in the mystery of God-with-us. This is what she wrote:

Emmanuel. Could we have found a name more sweet? God-with-us. That is to say that nothing in our difficulties, our misunderstandings, our sorrows, even in our agony, will find us alone. We will always have Someone with us, Someone present in our very heart to give the strength and light necessary in those moments.
Also, at the same time, our Beloved is always before us. He is the All-Powerful and He wants that we should be saints, all of us. Therefore, we never again need to be afraid. We can be certain that, should it be called for, even heroism is within our reach because our Companion on the road, our daily Food, is always there. We know that He is in us and we know what He asks of us. We know to what degree of detachment and to what gift of self He calls us. We know to what point we must be found holy at the moment of our death.

Pax Benedictina

The tone is sobering. One senses Mother Wrotnowska's Benedictine soul. "To keep death daily before one's eyes" is the 47th instrument of good works. For all of this, she fights against the fear that troubles the soul in its depths. She knows that peace is the characteristic of the Benedictine soul. She goes on to say:

In what peace, in what serenity, in what an outpouring of joy should we live, just recalling this name of the Lord? What bad thing can befall us, or even what lesser good, since all is known by Him, all is willed, all is allowed by Him who has prepared our eternal happiness. He knows what He allows.

The Love That Casts Out Fear

Again, one hears the echo of Saint Benedict in Chapter Four of the Rule: "To rest one's hope in God (RB 4:41), and never to despair of God's mercy" (RB 4:74). Mother Marie des Douleurs goes on to castigate fear. Fear is the real enemy. Fear is what imprisons the soul. Fear offends the Lord Jesus because one who gives in to fear has not begun "to believe in Love." The fearful person seeks to control every thing, whereas the person who has come to believe in Love Incarnate knows that behind everything is the hand of Love, a hand moved by a Heart that is all Love. And so she concludes:

What a lack of awareness it is and what a hurt for the Heart of Jesus that we should have the slightest fear! Let us strive to be cured of this terrible ill by repeating often "God-with-us." Even now He can, and wills to triumph over all the hell within us.

God With Us, God For Us

"The hell within us" -- I almost hesitated before translating this. But no one goes very far in the interior life before confronting the hell within, the dark place inhabited by fears, sinful passions, selfish impulses, and torments that defy explanation. But Mother Marie des Douleurs is in touch with her own reality and with ours. "If God is for us, who is against us?" (Rom 8:31). The God who is "for us" is "God-with-us." This is truth that delivers from fear. "O Emmanuel . . . veni, veni."

Ave, Maria, gratia plena

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As Mary was, so is the Church today, virgin and handmaid; at the beginning of the year's liturgy, she waits for everything from the Lord's grace. Those who would receive Christ and bring Him forth must become like her . . . her soul was virginal, so well cut loose from everything of earth, so humble before God, that He could wholly fill her. (D. Aemiliana Löhr, The Mass Through the Year)

Sunday of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Advent

The Fourth Sunday of Advent belongs to Our Blessed Lady. Venerable Pope Paul VI, influenced, no doubt, by the ancient practice of the venerable Church of Milan, desired that the Fourth Sunday of Advent should become a veritable festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As he intimates in Marialis Cultus, Pope Paul VI wanted to envelop the Christmas mystery in the gentle presence of the Virgin Mother.

By dedicating the Fourth Sunday of Advent to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and by restoring to January 1st, the feast of the Circumcision, its ancient title of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, Venerable Pope Paul VI sought to give us the Infant Christ, the Redeemer of the world, circled round by the tenderness of the Blessed Virgin.

Our Lady: Indispensable to the Advent of Christ

The sacred liturgy celebrates the Virgin Mother before Christmas Day and again eight days after it. This is Mother Church's way of teaching us that the Blessed Virgin Mary is indispensable to every advent of Christ.

If you would welcome Christ, welcome Mary.
If you would receive Christ, seek Mary.
If you would know Christ, know Mary.
If you would love Christ, love Mary.

Dew From Above

The Blessed Virgin is present, not only in the Gospel today, but in every part of today's Mass. The Introit, Rorate, for example, is Our Lady's song before it is ours. It can only be our prayer because it was first the prayer of her Immaculate Heart. "Send down dew from above, you heavens, and let the skies pour down upon us the rain we long for, Him, the Just One: may He, the Saviour, spring from the closed womb of the earth" (Is 45:8). There is no prayer that does not begin in an intense longing for the dew from above. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for holiness; they shall have their fill" (Mt 5:6).

Similarly, the magnificent Offertory Antiphon, Ave Maria, gratia plena (Lk 1:28) and the Communion Antiphon, Ecce, virgo concipiet (Is 7:14) invite us to conversation with the Virgin Mother of the Lord, to a contemplative admiration of her beauty, and to the imitation of her "Fiat". "Be it done to me according to thy word" (Lk 1:38).

Thy Grace Into Our Hearts

Today's Collect in the reformed Missal is familiar and worn like a thing much loved because it is the prayer that, three times each day, concludes the Little Office of the Incarnation that we call the Angelus.

Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts; that we, to whom the incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection, through the same Christ Our Lord.

This prayer sums up the whole economy of our salvation: the message of an angel to the Virgin; the immensity of her "Yes"; the bitter Passion and the Blood outpoured; the Cross, the Tomb, and the triumph of the Prince of Life.

Portress of the Mysteries of Christ

Of all these mysteries, Mary is the Mystical Portress and the Keeper of the Gate. This is why the saints teach that true devotion to Mary is a sure sign of predestination. Understand this aphorism as the saints did: one who loves Mary is destined to imitate her "Yes"; and to follow her through the Passion and Cross of her Son into the glory of His Resurrection.

December 22, O REX GENTIUM

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The connection between this O Antiphon and the "Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization," published five years ago (3 December 2007) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, prompted me to illustrate my reflection with pictures of missionary martyrs: Saint Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, Saint Théophane Vénard, and the Franciscan Missionaries of China.

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O Rex Gentium

O King of the Gentiles,
and the Desired of all nations(Hag 2:8),
you are the cornerstone (Is 28:16)
that binds two into one (Eph 2:14).
Come, and bring wholeness to man
whom you fashioned out of clay (Gen 2:7).

The Desired of All Nations Shall Come

Today we lift our voices to Christ, calling him King of the Gentiles and the Desired of all nations. The O Antiphon draws upon the second chapter of the prophet Haggai. With the temple still in ruins after the Babylonian exile and the project of rebuilding it daunting, Haggai speaks a word of comfort to Zerubbabel, the governor; to Joshua, the high priest; and to all the remnant of the people:

Take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozodak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit abides among you; fear not. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations -- and here the Vulgate translation used by the liturgy differs from the Hebrew text -- and the Desired of all nations shall come; and I will fill this house with splendour, says the Lord of hosts. (Hag 2:4-8)

The antiphon uses but one phrase from this passage: the Christological title “Desired of All Nations,” but in order to grasp the significance of the title we must listen to all of Haggai’s message of comfort and hope, repeating it, praying it, and lingering over it until it inhabits us.

Truth, Beauty, Goodness

By calling the Messiah the “Desired of all nations,” Scripture and the Sacred Liturgy recognize the aspirations of every nation and culture towards the good, the true, and the beautiful, as aspirations towards Christ. In every culture there are traces of a mysterious preparation for the Gospel. Every time a human being seeks the splendour of the truth, the radiance of beauty, the purity of goodness, he seeks the Face of Christ, the “Desired of all nations.” When the missionary Church proclaims Our Lord Jesus Christ, she is proclaiming the “Desired of all nations.”

To Proclaim Jesus Christ

Without knowing His adorable Name, without having seen His Face, without having been told of His Heart opened by the soldier’s lance, the nations of the earth desire Christ and wait for Him, insofar as they desire and wait for truth, beauty, and goodness. The missionary task of Christians is to preach the Name of Jesus, to point to His Face, and to bear witness to His pierced Heart, saying, “Here is the truth, here is the goodness, here is the beauty you desire: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, risen from the dead, ascended into glory, and coming again.”

In an important “Doctrinal Note On Some Aspects of Evangelization,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirmed the Church’s commitment to the missionary mandate received from Our Lord. First, the document identified the problem:

There is today . . . a growing confusion which leads many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and ineffective (cf. Mt 28:19). Often it is maintained that any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom. From this perspective, it would only be legitimate to present one’s own ideas and to invite people to act according to their consciences, without aiming at their conversion to Christ and to the Catholic faith. It is enough, so they say, to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion; it is enough to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. Furthermore, some maintain that Christ should not be proclaimed to those who do not know him, nor should joining the Church be promoted, since it would also be possible to be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ and without formal incorporation in the Church.
That sums up the errors that are prevalent today, and explains the sad decline of missionary zeal within the Church. By calling Christ “the Desired of all nations” in today’s Great O Antiphon, the Church reaffirms her commitment to make Him known. The document goes on to say:


The Church’s commitment to evangelization can never be lacking, since according to his own promise, the presence of the Lord Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit will never be absent from her: “I am with you always, even until the end of the world” (Mt 28:20). The relativism and irenicism prevalent today in the area of religion are not valid reasons for failing to respond to the difficult, but awe-inspiring commitment which belongs to the nature of the Church herself and is indeed the Church’s “primary task”. “Caritas Christi urget nos - the love of Christ impels us” (2 Cor 5:14): the lives of innumerable Catholics bear witness to this truth.

Man Fashioned Out of the Clay of the Earth

For the petition of today’s Great O Antiphon the liturgy reaches all the way back to the second chapter of Genesis. We beg Christ to come and “save man whom he fashioned out the clay of the earth” (Gen 2:7). We ask to be refashioned, reshaped, reformed by Christ, the Word through whom all things were made. It is a bold petition: “Come, Christ, make me over, change me, reshape all that is misshapen in me.”

Unity

In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Our Lord answers our prayer. The Holy Ghost is sent in every Mass to change not only bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, but to change us, to reshape all that is misshapen, to restore to wholeness all that is fragmented, and to beauty all that has fallen into unloveliness. In this is the aim of all missionary activity: the recovery of unity not only within ourselves, but also among us, and among all the nations of the world, in the one Mystical Body of Christ. Veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti. Come -- come in the Holy Mysteries of the Altar -- “and bring wholeness to man whom you fashioned from the dust of the earth.”

December 21, O ORIENS

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O DAYSPRING (Zech 6:12; Lk 1:78),
Splendor of Eternal Light (Heb 1:3),
and Sun of Justice (Mal 4:2):
Come, and enlighten those that sit in darkness,
and in the shadow of death (Is 9:2; Lk 1:78-79).

O Oriens

Oriens: the word is familiar because every morning the Church sings: “Per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri -- literally, through the inmost heart, the secret places of the mercy of our God -- in quibus visitavit nos Oriens ex alto -- in which the Orient from on high has visited us” (Lk 1:79).

Oriens was the name of the ancient Roman sun god, the source of warmth, energy, and light. At the same time, Oriens means the rising sun, the victory of light over the shadows of the night.

From the earliest times, Christians at prayer have turned towards the East. Christ is the Dayspring, the rising sun who dawns upon us from high “to give light to those in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:9). The eastward orientation of churches and altars is a way of expressing the great cry of every Eucharist: “Let our hearts be lifted high. We hold them towards the Lord.”

Ad Orientem

When, in the celebration of the liturgy, the priest faces the “liturgical east,” he is “guiding the people in pilgrimage towards the Kingdom” and with them, keeping watch for the return of the Lord. “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Pope Benedict XVI has reminded us that a powerful witness is given in the prayer of a priest and people who stand together facing eastward and giving voice to the same hope. “The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come.’ And let him who hears say, 'Come’” (Revelation 22:17).

The message of the Holy Father at Heiligenkreuz Abbey in September 2007 was clear and compelling:

In all our efforts on behalf of the liturgy, the determining factor must always be our looking to God. We stand before God - he speaks to us and we speak to him. Whenever in our thinking we are only concerned about making the liturgy attractive, interesting and beautiful, the battle is already lost. Either it is Opus Dei, with God as its specific subject, or it is not. In the light of this, I ask you to celebrate the sacred liturgy with your gaze fixed on God within the communion of saints, the living Church of every time and place, so that it will truly be an expression of the sublime beauty of the God who has called men and women to be his friends.

Christ, King and Priest

The prophet Zechariah is another source of the antiphon. The Vulgate gives a shimmering image of Christ, the Orient who is our King and our Priest. “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, saying: Behold a Man, the Orient is his name. . . . Yea, he shall build a temple to the Lord: and he shall bear the glory, and he shall sit, and rule upon his throne: and he shall be a priest upon his throne” (Zech 6:12-13).

Splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice

“Splendor of eternal light” comes from the Letter to the Hebrews. Christ is called “the brightness of the glory of God, and the figure of his substance” (Heb 1:3). “Sun of Justice” comes from the prophet Malachi. “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall” (Mal 4:2).

Veni: A Change in the Melody

Today’s O Antiphon is carefully constructed; after three invocations of Christ the Light, the petition begins. But -- surprise! Today’s Great O departs from the familiar pattern: the Veni coming, as it were, out of the depths: do-fa-mi. Today, our Veni has a certitude, a note of triumph, the beginning of a jubilation. It is as if the first rays of the Dayspring are already illuminating our eyes and warming our faces. Today, our cry Veni is sung on la-sol, right after the musical summit of the whole antiphon. Picture this: you have climbed to a mountain peak before sunrise and there, as you survey the dark horizon, you catch the first rosy glimmers of the dawn. From your mountain height you give voice to the cry of your heart: Veni! But the cry comes from one who already sees the light.

The Word Become Prayer

The petition part of the antiphon is taken almost textually from the Benedictus: “Come, and enlighten those that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death” (Is 9:2; Lk 1:78-79). Behind the text of Saint Luke, of course, lies the prophecy of Isaiah that we will sing at Christmas: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined” (Is 9:2). The extraordinary thing about today’s O Antiphon is that in 5 short lines --3 of invocation and 2 of petition-- there are six biblical sources! There is, I think, no better example of how the liturgy is woven from the very fibers of the Word.

20 December, O CLAVIS DAVID

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To illustrate the antiphon O Clavis David, I chose Bartolomeo Bermejo's magnificent painting of the Harrowing of Hell. It depicts the Risen Christ descending into the dreary dungeon of Hades where Adam and Eve, Methuselah, Solomon, and the Queen of Shebah await Him. The Risen Christ descends into the darkness, radiant in the light of his glory. Psalm 106 expresses the mystery of the moment: "Then they cried to the Lord in their need and he rescued them from their distress. He led them forth from darkness and gloom and broke their chains to pieces" (Ps 106:13-14).

O Key of David
and Sceptre of the House of Israel ,
who opens and no one can shut,
who shuts and no one can open (Is 22:22; Rev 3:7):
Come and bring the prisoners forth from the prison cell,
those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death (Is 42:7; Ps 106:13-14; Lk 1:9).

The Yes to Love

On December 20th we stand in the doorway of the humble dwelling where the Blessed Virgin Mary receives the Angel's message. We are all ears, all eyes . . . listening, looking, and trying to take in something of the mystery that unfolds before us. The mystery of the Annunciation is, in essence, the Virgin’s utterly simple "Yes" to Love; through her "Yes" l'amore che move 'l sol e anche le stelle, the light that moves the stars and even the sun, encloses itself in her womb. We enter the mystery of the Annunciation, not by any effort of the imagination, but by an utterly simple and penetrating act of faith, by the "Yes" to Love.

Love Conceived, Love Crucified, Love Risen

One does not approach the Virgin of the Annunciation without discovering the Mother of Sorrows. The joyful "Yes" to Love conceived beneath the Virgin's heart flowers into the sorrowful "Yes" to Love crucified, and the glorious "Yes" to Love risen from the tomb. Standing in the doorway of the Holy House of Nazareth, listening and looking, we have only to believe in Love, in the Love to whom "nothing is impossible" (Lk 1:37).

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Annunciation

Today's O Antiphon is closely tied to the Annunciation Gospel. "He will be great," said the Angel Gabriel, "and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to Him the throne of his father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end" (Lk 1:32-33). We lift our voices to Christ, calling him "Key of David and Sceptre of the House of Israel."

The Key of the House of David

The antiphon draws its invocation from the twenty-second chapter of Isaiah. The Lord says to Shebna, the master of the household of King Hezekiah, "And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Helkias, and I will clothe him with thy robe, and will strengthen him with thy girdle, and will give thy power into his hand: and he shall be as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Juda. And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut and none shall open. And I will fasten him as a peg in a sure place, and he shall be for a throne of glory to the house of his father" (Is 22:20-23).

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A Key Borne on the Shoulder

Eliakim, whose name means, "God has raised up," is a figure of Christ. Christ is Lord and Master over the household of the Father. On the shoulder of Christ was placed the key of the Cross, the key that opens what no mortal can open, and that closes what no mortal can close. In the image of the great key placed on the shoulder we recognize a figure of the Cross placed on the shoulder of Christ, the key by which heaven is opened and hell vanquished.

Before Thee A Door

The second biblical source of the antiphon's invocation is in the third chapter of the Apocalypse. "And to the angel of the church of Philadelphia, write: These things saith the Holy One and the true one, he that hath the key of David; he that openeth, and no man shutteth; shutteth, and no man openeth. I know thy works." (Apoc 3:7). Read on! The following verse is crucial: "Behold, I have given before thee a door opened, which no man can shut: because thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word and hast not denied my name" (Ap 3:8). The open door set before us is like the door opened before the Virgin Mary by the message of the Angel. It is comforting to hear the Lord say to each of us, "Thou hast a little strength" (Rev 3:8). Our little strength is no obstacle to the designs of God, "because no word shall be impossible with God" (Lk 1:37).

Out of Darkness

The O Antiphons are composed of two parts: the invocation beginning with the word "O," and the petition beginning with the cry, Veni. The petition of today's antiphon is derived from the Song of the Servant given in the forty-second chapter of Isaiah. There, the Lord God presents his servant whom he upholds, the Chosen in whom his soul delights(Is 42:3). The Servant is given as "a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness" (Is 47:7).

The Orient From on High

The second text related to the petition of the antiphon is a familiar one because we sing it every morning at Lauds in the Benedictus. "Through the bowels of the mercy of our God . . . the Orient from on high hath visited us: to enlighten them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death: to direct our feet into the way of peace" (Lk 1:79). The way of peace is the way opened before us by the Cross-bearing Christ. Christ, with the key of the Cross, opens the door before us.

Into the Mystery of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

The way of peace leads to the altar and into the mystery of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the actualization of the Kingdom here and now. From the altar, the light of the Resurrection penetrates into all that, in our lives, remains shadowy and locked. With the Virgin of the Annunciation, we have only to believe in Love and, believing, say faith's simple "Yes." Our "little strength" is of no consequence. We go to the altar of God to be overshadowed by the power of Love. Love will do the rest for "God is love" (1 Jn 4:16 ) and "no word shall be impossible with God" (Lk 1:37).

19 December, O RADIX IESSE

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I could have chosen one of the many medieval images of the Tree of Jesse to illustrate this O Antiphon, but instead I chose this 18th century Gesù Bambino from Southern Italy. Now, this may be because I have a not so secret affinity for all things Neapolitan, but it is also because there is something in this Gesù Bambino that goes to the heart of the O Antiphon I am meditating. The Child Christ is holding a little wooden cross. He is gazing at it intently and there is a mysterious sorrow in his eyes. He is also offering the cross to anyone willing to receive it from His hands. This is the Child before Whom kings shall shut their mouths and Whom the nations shall seek. "Lifted up from the earth, He will draw all things to Himself" (cf. Jn 12:32).

O Root of Jesse (Ac 13:22-23),
standing as a sign to the peoples (Is 11:10),
before whom kings shall shut their mouths (Is 52:15),
and whom the nations shall seek (1 K 10:24; 2 Chr 9:23):
Come and deliver us and do not delay (Hab 2:3; Rev 22:20).

O Root of Jesse

The image of the Root of Jesse comes from the eleventh chapter of Isaiah where he says, "And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of His root" (Is 11:1). It is the passage that enumerates the gifts of the Holy Ghost; from the Vulgate, the Catholic tradition counts seven gifts. "And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him: the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding, the spirit of counsel, and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and of godliness. And He shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord" (Is 11:2-3). This means that when we cry out, "Come," to the Root of Jesse who is Christ, we are, in the same prayer, invoking the Holy Ghost who, in His sevenfold gift, comes to us with the Son.

The Tree of the Cross

Isaiah goes on to say in the tenth verse of the same chapter: "On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of Him." The Root of Jesse is given, not only to Israel, but as a signal to the nations, a standard around which all peoples will rally. In fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, Jesus says of himself, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (Jn 12:32). The Root of Jesse is already the profile of the Cross: a figure of the glorious standard of the King, the Vexilla Regis of which we sing in the Vespers hymn of September 14th. Today's O Antiphon opens onto the paschal mystery: the Root of Jesse announces that the advent of the Son is ordered to the mission of redemption that He will accomplish on the Tree of the Cross.

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Like a Root Out of Dry Ground

The next line brings the mystery of the Cross into focus more clearly: "before whom kings shall shut their mouths." The text, taken from Isaiah 52, leads directly into the Song of the Suffering Servant. "So He shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of Him" (Is 52:10). This silence of the kings of the earth expresses numbed astonishment. They are dumbstruck by the humble Root of Jesse gloriously exalted, all the more because, "He grew up before the Lord like a young plant a like a root out of dry ground; He had no form or comeliness that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces" (Is 53:2-3).

The Verbum Crucis

The silence of the kings of the earth is their amazement before the triumph of the Cross. The verbum Crucis, the "word of the Cross" (1 Cor 1:18) shuts the mouth of every earthly king. The psalm given us for the Introit of the Christmas Mass In Nocte will describe the machinations of earthly powers against the Christ of God: "The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and His anointed" (Ps 2:2). But already, in today's O Antiphon, we see them judged from the Cross; they have no judgments to give, no verdicts, and no decrees, "for the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor 1:25).

All the Earth Desires to See His Face

The next line of the antiphon -- "and whom the nations shall seek" -- is not quite as easy to grasp. Its meaning is in the verb used in the Latin text: quem gentes deprecabuntur. The verb deprecari means to implore, to seek favour, to entreat, or to seek, as in Psalm 44:13, "The richest of the people shall seek your favour." The underlying sense of deprecabuntur is found in two very revealing related passages. "And all the earth desired to see Solomon's face, to hear his wisdom, which God had given in his heart" (1 K 10:24). The same text occurs in 2 Chronicles 9:23. You recognize it, I think, as the very text used for the first antiphon of the First Vespers of Christmas: "The King of Peace is magnified and all the earth desires to see His face."

Christ the King

What is described in today's Great O is this: the kings of the earth, dumbstruck by the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection, are forsaken by the nations who, instead of following them in their worldly wisdom and power, now seek Christ, the Root of Jesse, the King who rules from the Tree of the Cross with the wisdom that the world dismisses as folly and with the power that the world judges weak.

The Waiting of All the Ages

The last part of the antiphon is the plea itself that begins with the great cry, "Veni -- O come" with its dramatic do-fa interval leaving the second syllable suspended for what seems like a long moment on the mi. In that suspended mi, we are meant to hear the waiting of all the ages! "O Come, and deliver us, and do not delay."

Coming Soon

The inspiration for the last phrase comes from the book of Habakuk. The Lord himself assures His prophet that the vision promised him will come to pass. "If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay" (Hab 2:3). The antiphon also sends us to the hope held out by the second to the last line of the whole Bible. There, Jesus himself, "the root and offspring of David, the bright morning star" (Apoc 22:16) says, "Surely I am coming soon" (Apoc 22:20). In that word of His lies all our hope.

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Our Lady in the Last Days of Advent

Yes, today, December 18th, is one of the liturgy's loveliest old Advent festivals of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that of the Expectatio Partus. Established in 656 by the bishops assembled for the Tenth Council of Toledo, it was kept by nearly the entire Latin Church. Mother Mectilde de Bar, writing in 17th century France, left some splendid sermons on the feast. The Marquess of Bute calls it, in his fine old translation of the Breviary, "The Blessed Virgin Mary Looking Shortly To Be Delivered." It was also called in Spain, and elsewhere, Nuestra Señora de la O, and this because, after Vespers, the clergy in choir used to give voice to a loud and protracted "O" to express the yearning of the universe for the advent of the Redeemer.

Ave, Maria, gratia plena

Looking first at the Office for the feast, one discovers that the Invitatory Antiphon is the greeting of the Archangel to the Virgin of Nazareth: "Hail Mary, full of grace, * the Lord is with thee." The antiphons on the psalms of Matins are all taken from the Advent Office. The lessons are Isaiah's prophecy of the Virgin with Child (Is 7:10), a passage from Saint Ildephonsus of Toledo on the Maidenhood of Blessed Mary, and one from the Venerable Bede on the Annunciation Gospel. The final responsory is the glorious Fourth Mode Suscipe verbum, "Receive, O Virgin Mary, receive the word of the Lord, which is sent thee by His Angel."

The Collect throughout the day is that of Lady Day in March:

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 in very deed
the Mother of God,
may be holpen by her prayers in Thy sight.

At Lauds and the Hours, the antiphons are those of Lady Day, while the hymns remain those of the Advent Office. The Magnificat Antiphon is the lovely O Virgo Virginum, composed in the same Second Mode melody as the Great O Antiphons:

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O maiden of maidens,
how shall this be,
since neither before nor henceforth hath there been,
nor shall be such another?
Daughters of Jerusalem,
why look ye curiously upon me?
What ye see is a mystery of God.

The Perpetual Virginity of Our Lady

I would venture to suggest that the Office and Mass of the Expectation of the Blessed Virgin Mary are today, more than ever before, worthy of celebration and meditation, given that the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God is roundly mocked by many. Even in the minds of many of the faithful, enfeebled by a forty year dearth of popular orthodox catechesis, a tragic confusion holds sway concerning the privileges of the Blessed Virgin Mary and, in particular, her virginity before, during, and after childbirth. There are many, alas, who, affected by various mutations of creeping Nestorianism and Arianism, have no grasp of what it means to call the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Those who do not confess the privileges of the Blessed Virgin Mary, honouring them and celebrating them, fall inevitably into one or another of the classic Christological heresies.

All of this makes me want to open my Processionale Monasticum to page 146 and sing, Gaude Maria, Virgo, cunctas haereses sola interemisti:

Rejoice, O Mary,
by whose mighty hand the Church hath victory
over her foes [every heresy] achieved,
since thou to Gabriel's word of quickening power
in lowliness hast listened, and believed
-- thou, still a virgin, in thy blessed womb
hast God Incarnate of thy flesh conceived,
and still, in heaven, of that virginity remainest
after childbirth unbereaved.
V. Blessed art thou that hast believed,
for there is a performance of those things
which were told thee from the Lord.

18 December, O ADONAI

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I will attempt each day until December 22 to present the O ANTIPHON of the following day. Yesterday I presented O SAPIENTIA. Tomorrow's O ANTIPHON is O ADONAI.

This is the central panel of a triptych painted by Nicolas Froment in 1476. It depicts Moses awestruck before the Burning Bush and the appearance of the Angel of the Lord. The Burning Bush -- here a rose bush all ablaze with radiating flames -- surrounds the Virgin Mother holding her Divine Son. The Child Christ holds a mirror in his hand in which both of them are reflected. The painting illustrates a mystical antiphon of the Office of January 1st to which I refer below.

A Precarious Note

Again today the great cry goes up, a cry wrung from the depths of our being, a cry framed between two expressive words: O and Veni. The musical treatment of both words is the same: do-fa-mi. The interval do-fa is a stretching heavenward. We hardly reach the dominant fa of our confidence when we fall to the precarious mi, an unstable note in the second mode, one that suggests just how fragile we are. The mi is suspended: we have cast our prayer upward into the heavens. The uncertainty of the mi obliges us to hope against hope, to believe without seeing, to abandon our prayer once we have thrown it into the heavens, trusting that the hand of God will receive it and take it to heart.

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ADONAI

Yesterday we called to the Christ, naming Him Wisdom, Sapientia; today we call Him ADONAI, Sacred Lord, Master of All, Majesty. Today we have the most Jewish of the O Antiphons: ADONAI, Moses, and Sinai -- the Lord God, the man of God, and the mountain of God are named in a single brief prayer. ADONAI is used frequently in the Hebrew scriptures. The Jews use it in place of the holy and unutterable name, the name that it is forbidden to pronounce. You see, then, the significance of this name given to Christ. Christ is the "angel of God" who appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush (cf. Ex 3:2). "And, lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, 'I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt" (Ex 3:2-3).

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Apparuisti

The center and summit of today’s antiphon is the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush. The most important word of the antiphon is apparuisti - "thou who didst appear." It is on this word that the melody soars to the heights of "Horeb, the mountain of God" (Ex 3:1), giving to its last syllable the astonishing treatment of a double torculus: six notes in all!

The Virgin Mother of God

When Saint Joseph was confronted with the inexplicable mystery of Mary, his betrothed, being found with child, he was very much like Moses before the burning bush. "Lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed" (Ex 3:2). An antiphon of January 1st makes exactly this comparison: "In the bush which Moses saw burning and yet not burnt, we recognize your virginity gloriously preserved. O Mother of God, intercede for us." Man before the mystery. "I will turn aside and see" (Ex 3:3)

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The Call of God

Moses' experience before the burning bush is a paradigm of all prayer. God drew Moses out of himself, and captured his attention by means of the burning bush. "And when the Lord saw that he went forward to see, he called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said: 'Moses, Moses!" And he said, 'Here am I!'" (Ex 3:4). Just when we think that prayer is about our calling to God, we discover that it is really about God calling to us. Just when we think we have put our whole heart into saying, "Come!" to God, we discover that ceaselessly God puts His whole heart into saying "Come!" to us.

Adoration

God wants us close, very close to himself, but in the intimacy of adoration, in a wondering awareness of the Mystery. Adoration carries us into the infinity of God, into depths where our senses and our reason cannot go. And this is the reason why Moses is ordered to remove the shoes from his feet. "Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Ex 3:5). Only then does God reveal Himself as the Maker of covenants (Gen 17:1-8), the Giver of Blessings (Gen 26:12), the Mysterious Wrestler in the night (cf. Gen 32:24-30). "And He said, 'I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God" (Ex 3:6).

Saint Joseph

Saint Joseph too found himself drawn close, very close, to Mary his bride-with-child, but like Moses, he could not help but hide his face, that is, suspend the judgment of his senses and his reason. Saint Joseph's chaste intimacy with his bride was one of amazement and wondering awe. Only after the message of the Angel in the night was Joseph able to live with the Mystery. "And he took his wife into his home" (Mt 1:24).

Moses hides his face; what he cannot see with his eyes of flesh, he perceives with the eyes of the heart. One understands too why Saint Joseph is the friend of those who suffer dark nights of not seeing so as to better see into the inscrutable depths of the Mystery. So it is, always, in prayer. "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face" (1 Cor 13:12). Paradoxically, in prayer, seeing comes from not seeing. This is why Saint Paul prays that the Ephesians may have "the eyes of their hearts enlightened, that they may know what is the hope to which God has called them" (cf. Eph 1:18).

I Have Seen

Only after having drawn Moses to himself in adoration and in the not-seeing that is seeing, does God reveal His plan: "I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them" (Ex 3:7). The Veni of today's O Antiphon rests upon this promise. Christ-ADONAI sees our affliction. Christ-ADONAI hears our cry. Christ-ADONAI knows our sufferings. Christ-ADONAI has come, comes even now, and will come again to deliver us. Veni! The instability of that mi becomes a tremor of joy.

In Brachio Extento: the Cross

Today's O Antiphon ends with a mysterious allusion to the Cross. Veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento -- "Come to redeem us with an outstretched arm." There is certainty and rest in the last note of the antiphon. The final re is where all our hopes come to rest in an unshakeable confidence. We know that the arms of the Crucified outstretched on the wood of the Cross draw us even now into the embrace of God. This is the reality of every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the definitive answer to our Veni. "Come," we cry. And ADONAI, our crucified, risen, and returning Christ answers, "Come to me . . . and I will give you rest" (Mt 11:28).

17 December, O SAPIENTIA

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The Saints John

How delightful to see in this painting both little Johns, the Baptist and the Theologian, together with the Incarnate Word, Holy Wisdom. Note that the little Evangelist is already writing the opening words of the Prologue of his Gospel.

Meditating the O Antiphons

Beginning today, I will offer reflections on each of the Great O Antiphons. In the Novus Ordo Missae, the Great O's may be sung not only at Vespers each day, in their traditional place before and after the Magnificat, but also as the Verse, taken with an Alleluia in the 2nd Mode, during the procession with the Evangeliary at Mass. This innovation may be understood as a pastoral accommodation to familiarize those of the faithful who have no experience of the Divine Office with the incomparable treasure of the O Antiphons.

The traditional use of the O Antiphon before and after the Magnificat at Vespers also presents it in relationship to the Gospel, for the Magnificat is the unchanging Gospel of Vespers, and the high point of the sacrificium vespertinum.

In monasteries, the first of the Great O Antiphons is intoned by the Abbot or Prior from his place; the choir continues it standing outside the stalls. Candlebearers flank the Abbot or Prior; the church bells are rung continuously throughout the Antiphon and the Magnificat; and the altar is incensed.

The Arrival of Holy Wisdom

In the Novus Ordo Missae, The General Instruction on the Roman Missal emphasizes the importance of the procession with the Book of the Gospels. It is a kind of parousia, the glorious appearing of the Lord "amid cries of gladness and thanksgiving, the throng wild with joy" (Ps 41:5). It is the arrival of the Bridegroom; His advent is greeted with jubilant alleluias and with lighted lamps. It is the descent of the all-powerful Word from the royal throne "into the midst of the land that was doomed" (Wis 18:15).

The melismatic Gregorian Alleluia is the Church's ecstatic cry of welcome; it is an eschatological song, for the arrival of Christ in the sacramental Word anticipates His arrival in glory upon the clouds of heaven (cf., Mt 24:30).

Make Known to Us Your Ways

O Wisdom coming forth from the mouth of the Most High God, Your lordship is over all that is, stretching from the beginning to the end, You who order all things with might and with sweetness, come teach us the path of prudence. Make known to us Your ways.

The age-old text shines with a fresh and immediate meaning every time it is sung: the Holy Gospel--be it the Magnificat or the Gospel of the Mass--deploys the virtus Christi in the midst of the Church. With good reason, then, did Christians of old believe in the healing power of the Holy Gospel read over the sick. "And all the multitude sought to touch him, for virtue went out from him, and healed all" (Luke 6:19).

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The Last Gospel of the Mass, the Prologue of Saint John, is but one example of the Gospel being read super populum, for the healing of the sick, the blessing of non-communicants, and the deliverance of those tormented by evil spirits.

Prudence

We acclaim Christ the Logos in His appearing as Holy Wisdom, the eternal Wisdom of the Father, and we make a very specific petition: "Come, teach us the way of prudence." What is prudence? It is the habit of using our reason, in every circumstance, to discern what is our true good and of choosing the means to achieve it. Saint Thomas calls prudence "right reason in action." Prudence is an austere virtue because it means that we will not allow our decisions, our course of action, or our reactions to be determined by our emotions.

When we allow our choices to be determined by fear--fear of loss, fear of rejection, fear of making a mistake, fear of failure, fear of the future, or any other fear--we are not being prudent. When we allow our choices to be determined by an unwise love, a disordered love, we are not being prudent. When we choose impulsively, we are not being prudent. When we delay choosing and put off acting, we are not being prudent. Prudence has to do with choosing wisely so as to act wisely. And so today, we cry out to Wisdom, begging to be taught the way of prudence.

The Might and Sweetness of God

Our plea is answered immediately in the chanting of the Magnificat (or of the Gospel of the Mass) and, then, most perfectly, in the adorable mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist. In response to our cry, the Word is sent forth ex ore Altissimi, "from the mouth of the Most High." Fortiter. The might of God comes to us in our weakness. Suaviter. The gentle sweetness of God comes to us in our bitterness. "Come to teach us the way of prudence." The prudence of God comes to rescue us from our folly.

The Cortège of Wisdom

The "secret and hidden Wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification" (1 Corinthians 2:7) comes to us enfleshed in a human story. The long genealogy of Saint Matthew invites the ancestors of Christ to precede Him in His advent, to surround him in His appearing, and to join with us in hearing and in adoring Him. All of the names pronounced in the Genealogy together form the royal cortège of Wisdom.

Wisdom in Our Midst

Will the advent of Holy Wisdom, her arrival and appearing in our midst, leave us unchanged? Today is the meeting of our weakness with the might of the Logos, the meeting of our harshness with God's disarming gentleness, the meeting of our shortsightedness with the prudence of the ages.

Shall we plead for Wisdom's arrival and then refuse her advances? Shall we retreat before the arrival of the long-desired Word? Or shall we go out to meet Wisdom with lighted lamps?

The Taste of Wisdom

Holy Wisdom's arrival in what Evelyn Underhill calls "the liturgic Word" is completed in the mysteries of Christ's Sacred Body and Precious Blood. Our communion with Wisdom is two-fold: in Word and in Sacrament. We go to the altar, Wisdom's table. To our "Come!" Wisdom replies, in turn, "Come, eat my bread and drink the wine which I have mingled for you. Forsake childishness, and live, and walk by the ways of prudence" (Pr 9:5-6).

Gaudete in Domino semper!

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The image of Saint John's vision in the Apocalypse (1360-1390) is by Jacobello Alberegno. I chose it because the Eternal Father is vested in a lovely rosy pink garment. Gaudete Sunday in heaven?

Third Sunday of Advent
A Homily on the Introit

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer let your petitions be made known to God (Phil 4:4-6).

Rejoice in the Lord Always

We began Advent on the crest of a surging wave, an immense welling up of hope that lifted us out of ourselves and carried us Godward: "All my heart goes out to Thee, my God; I trust in Thee" (Ps 24:1). Last Sunday, the Introit did not address God at all; it was a clarion call, a trumpet blast to wake us up, to shake us up, a summons to open our hearts to the joy of the glorious voice of the Lord (Is 30:30). Next Sunday, the Introit will again become pure prayer, a cry wrenched from the depths of human experience, a plea for the dew from heaven, the dew that refreshes and makes fruitful. "Send down dew from above ye heavens, and let the skies pour down upon us the rain we long for, Him, the Just One" (Is 45:8).

Today's Introit is one of the few drawn from the Epistles of Saint Paul. It is an exhortation to joy, but its mood is quiet and reflective. "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer let your petitions be made known to God" (Phil 4:4-6).

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Grace, and Loveliness, and Joy

What the Latin gives as, "gaudete" and the English as "rejoice," is astonishingly rich in Saint Paul's Greek. Any one translation would be inadequate. Paul says, "chaírete." It is the very same word used by the angel Gabriel to greet the Virgin of Nazareth. "Chaire, kecharitoménè!" "Joy to you, O full of grace!"(Lk 1:28). The word is untranslatable. Just when we think we have seized its meaning once and for all, another door opens inside it. "Chaírete" was the ordinary greeting of the Greeks. It embraces health, salvation, loveliness, grace, and joy, all at once. In the mouth and in the ear of Christians, the taste of the word is indescribable. "Grace to you, and loveliness, and joy in the Lord; again I wish you grace, and loveliness, and joy" (Phil 4:4). Saint Paul's greeting is not so much an imperative -- a command to be joyful -- as it is the imparting of a gift in the Lord. "What I wish for you, what I send you, what I offer you in the Lord is grace, and loveliness, and joy."

The Lord is at Hand

The second sentence becomes more intelligible in the light of the first. Paul says, "Let your gentleness -- or your modesty, your courtesy, your forbearance, your serenity, your meekness -- be known to everyone" (Phil 4:5). In other words, give evidence around you of the gift you have received: grace, and loveliness, and joy in the Lord. Show each other faces that are serene and peaceful, radiant with joy, faces that reflect the loveliness of God. And he adds, "the Lord is at hand" (Phil 4:5). This is the great central affirmation of the liturgy today, and every day. "The Lord is at hand" (Phil 4:5).

No Anxiety

He who is to come is already here, near to us, close at hand. God is present, and from his presence streams all grace, all loveliness, all joy. Saint Paul draws a very practical conclusion from this: "Have no anxiety about anything"(Phil 4:6). Were God absent, had God not yet come in His Christ and in the gift of the Holy Ghost, we might have reason to worry, reason for anxiety, and for fear. Worry and anxiety are an affront to the graciousness of God, a denial of his nearness to us, a turning from Him who has turned His Face towards us. Saint Paul is categorical: "Have no anxiety about anything" (Phil 4:6). You will recall the words of Saint Teresa of Jesus: "Let nothing frighten you. All things are passing. God alone is changeless. He who has patience wants for nothing. He who has God has all things. God alone suffices."

A thousand reasons not to follow Saint Paul's mandate come to mind. "But I have this, and he has that. This thing is lacking, and of another thing there is too much." This kind of thinking leaves us wide open to an attack of the "what ifs." "What if this happens, and what if that?" It is easy to listen to the voices of our fears, our insecurities, our need to arrange, rearrange, and attempt to control even things beyond our control. The Apostle says, "Have no anxiety about anything," but we hold ourselves excused, saying, "Is not a little anxiety, just a little bit of worry reasonable and right?" Saint Paul is not moved by our rationalizations. "Have no anxiety about anything" (Phil 4:6).

Behold!

The Epistle repeated, word for word, the text of the Introit. And the Communion Antiphon will deliver the same message: "Say to those who are of a fearful heart, be ye comforted and have no fear; behold, our God will come and save us" (Is 35:4). Again, the marvelous pedagogy of the Church! She knows that during the Introit, the Epistle we may have been distracted for a moment or inattentive. She wants us to hear the message nonetheless, and so she repeats it again and again at Communion: "Say to those who are of a fearful heart, be ye comforted and have no fear; behold, our God will come and save us" (Is 35:4).

The "Behold" of the Communion Antiphon echoes the "Behold" of the invitation to Communion: "Behold, the Lamb of God; behold, our God will come and save us!" And so, he comes. The Lamb comes in the adorable mysteries of His Body and Blood; He comes in His Eucharistic advent to comfort us and deliver us from every fear.

Prayer

Saint Paul gives us the key to a worry-free life, the means to stop grumbling, fretting, and trying to manage and control everything. "In everything," he says, "by prayer let your requests be made known to God" (Phil 4:6). Saint Paul sends us to prayer because in prayer God accomplishes the things that of ourselves, and by ourselves, we are unable to do. In prayer we wait, all of us -- the weak, the poor, the misshapen, the broken, and the wounded-- for God's gifts of grace, and loveliness, and joy.

God Silent in His Love

It is in prayer, especially in adoring silence before the Blessed Sacrament, that we experience the truth of what the Prophet Zephaniah declares: "The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty, He will save; He will rejoice over thee with gladness, He will be silent in His love, He will be joyful over thee in praise" (Zeph 3:17). How I treasure that one mysterious phrase in Zephaniah's prophecy: "He will be silent in His love" (Zeph 3:17). Silebit in dilectione sua. The silence of Christ, loving us in the mystery of His Eucharistic advent, is the wellspring of all our joy. Join Him in His silence and He will give you the joy of His dilectio, the love by which He singles you out, cherishes you, and reveals Himself as the Bridegroom of the soul.

The Sacrament of Our Joy

Today's Introit, you see, is a blessed imperative and a gracious gift. It prepared us to hear the Word of God and, in a few moments the remembrance of it will send us to the altar, to the place of Christ's Sacrifice to the Father. To us who "know not how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26), the Holy Ghost communicates the perfect and all sufficient prayer of Christ Himself. The Most Holy Eucharist is the sacrament of our joy. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the inbreaking of divine joy. "Joy to you in the Lord at all times; once again I wish you joy" (Phil 4:4). Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Gaudens gaudebo in Domino

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A Meditation on the Mass of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Look at this extraordinary medieval painting that shows the Tree of Life with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Eve, completely naked, is giving the bitter fruit of her sin to her own communicants in evil. From her side of the tree a skull looks out, grimacing in death. On the other side of the tree is Mary, crowned and clothed in grace and beauty. She takes pure white hosts from among the branches of the tree and, like a priest distributing Holy Communion, places them in the mouths of her own communicants in eternal life. In the branches of Mary's side of the tree there is a crucifix. The Face of the Crucified is turned toward those who partake of the fruit of the Cross.

A Song From the Womb

"Rejoicing, I will rejoice in the Lord, and my soul shall be joyful in my God. He has clothed me with the garment of salvation, and with the robe of justice He has wrapped me about, as a bride adorned with her jewels" (Is 61:10). A song intoned from the womb! The Church takes the jubilant words of the prophet Isaiah and places them in the mouth of the Immaculate Conception, the Child full of grace just conceived in the womb of Saint Anne.

Prelude to the Magnificat

Gaudens, gaudebo in Domino. "Rejoicing, I will rejoice in the Lord." If you would understand the text, you must sing it as the Church sings it on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The exegesis of the text is in its ravishing third mode melody composed by Dom Pothier (1835-1923), monk of Solesmes and later abbot of Saint-Wandrille. It soars pure as crystal in a kind of ecstatic cry of undiluted joy in God.

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Mary herself intones the first chant of the Mass today: a kind of prelude to her Magnificat. Already -- just conceived -- the Child Mary begins to sing, and with her the whole Church. On no other feast of the year does the liturgy allow the Virgin Mary to open the Mass by singing in the first person singular. "Rejoicing, I will rejoice" (Is 61:10). Mary's message, from the first instant of her Immaculate Conception, is one of joy in God.

The Tree

The joy of the Immaculate Conception springs from the mystery of the Cross. The Collect says that Mary was "preserved from all stain" in foresight of the death of Christ on the Cross. Here enters the figure of the tree glimpsed in today's First Lesson from Genesis. The tree of Eve's mourning and weeping becomes for Mary the tree of "an unutterable and exalted joy" (1 P 1:8). Mary is the first to taste of the sweet fruit of the Tree of Life; Mary is the first to sing of the joy of the cross.

Holy and Immaculate Before the Father

The Collect asks that we, by the Blessed Virgin Mary's intercession, may come into the presence of God "with pure hearts." The Collect points to the Lesson from Ephesians. Saint Paul says that "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph 1:3) chose us in Christ "that we should be holy and immaculate before Him" (Eph 1:4). This standing before God in holiness contrasts with the fear of Adam and Eve who, upon hearing the sound of God in the garden, "hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden" (Gen 3:8). The naked Christ, exposed to the gaze of the Father on the tree of the Cross, casts out the fear that caused our first parents to make of the trees of the garden a screen between themselves and the Face of God. The first effect of the grace of Christ is that it makes us come into the presence of the Father, "free from fear" (Lk 1:73). "For you have not received the spirit of bondage in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: 'Abba, Father'" (Rom 8:15).

Blessed the Clean of Heart

The Collect asks specifically that we, being made clean, may draw near to God. The connection with the beatitude of the clean of heart is not to be missed: "Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God" (Mt 5:8). Mary, the Immaculate Conception, is the Mother of the pure in heart. By her intercession, she obtains from Christ, again and again, the application of "the blood of his Cross" (Col 1:20) to every heart darkened and defiled by sin. The Collect invites us to pray, specifically through the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, the poignant petition of King David: "A pure heart create for me, O God" (Ps 50:12).

Immaculate Mother of the Purest of Lambs

The Prayer Over the Offerings returns to the same petition, asking that "we may be freed from all our faults" by Mary's intercession. A culpis omnibus liberemur! What a stupendous petition! It leads directly into the Preface. There we praise the Father for His work in Mary, calling her "the purest of Virgins, she who was to bear your Son, the innocent Lamb who takes away our sins." We seem to hear already something of the sermon of Meliton of Sardis read in Holy Week: "He is the mute lamb, the slain lamb, the lamb born of Mary, the fair ewe" (Paschal Homily).

O Dayspring

The Communion Antiphon opens on a phrase from Psalm 86, a song in praise of Zion, the city cherished by the Lord. The liturgy takes the verse, "Glorious things are said of thee, O city of God" (Ps 86:3), and in place of "city of God" says "Mary." "Glorious things are said of thee, O Mary." A key image from the prophet Malachi completes the Communion Antiphon: "for from thee has arisen the Sun of Justice, Christ our God" (cf. Mal 4:2). We see here a glimmer of the O Antiphon of December 21st: "O Dayspring, radiance of the light Eternal and sun of justice; come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death." In Malachi's prophecy the "sun of justice" rises "with health in His wings" (Mal 4:2). Mary, the Immaculate Mother of the clean of heart, is also the Mother of all those healed by the rays of Christ, the Sun of Justice.

Our Wounds Repaired

Today's Mass is artfully constructed of interlocking parts. It requires the closest attention of those who would benefit from its teachings and, through it, receive the sweet light of today's mystery. The Communion Antiphon leads directly into the Postcommunion Prayer and interprets it. "Lord our God, may the sacraments that we have received heal (or repair) within us the wounds of that fault from which you preserved the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in so wonderful a way." In every Holy Mass, "Christ, the Sun of Justice arisen from Mary" shines for each of us with "healing in His wings" (Mal 4:2). Unlike Mary, we were conceived bearing the wounds of Adam's ancient sin but, by the Eucharistic Face of Christ shining like the sun, we are healed of the wounds from which the Immaculate Conception was preserved.

The First and Last Word Given to Joy

In the end, for those who allow themselves to be illumined by the grace of the sacred liturgy today, there is a return to the song of the beginning. "Rejoicing, I will rejoice in the Lord, and my soul shall be joyful in my God. He has clothed me with the garment of salvation, and with the robe of justice he has wrapped me about, as a bride adorned with her jewels" (Is 61:10). This is the song not only of the beginning of today's Mass; it is the song of Mary's beginning in her mother's womb. It is the song of every new beginning in grace. It is the song of every man and woman once paralyzed by fear, but now set free to stand unafraid in the sight of the Father. It is the song of every heart darkened and stained by sin, but now made bright and clean by grace. It is the song of every life wounded by sin, but healed by the Sun of Justice who, even now, will rise glorious above the altar "with healing in his wings" (Mal 4:2). The last word and the first belong to joy.

vangogh%20starry%20night.jpg

The Orbit Determined By Christ

At the very moment when the Magi, guided by the star, adored Christ the new king, astrology came to an end, because the stars were now moving in the orbit determined by Christ. This scene, in fact, overturns the world-view of that time, which in a different way has become fashionable once again today. It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love--a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free.
Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi

Until the Stars in Welcome Sing

This is my homespun translation of the seventh century hymn for Vespers in Advent: Conditor Alme Siderum. (John Mason Neale's translation is far superior to mine. Read it and hear the ancient syllabic melody here.) When Advent rolls round and I sing this hymn in Latin or in English translation, I see in my mind's eye Van Gogh's Starry Night. In the little church with the tall steeple at the bottom of the painting there must be a lingering scent of incense. Advent Vespers will have been sung. The Creator of the Starry Night is glorified.

O Light unconquered, Source of Light,
Whose radiance kindles stars and sun,
Shine tenderly on us this night;
Creation groans until you come.

Immense your grief to see our plight:
When sin had shrouded all, you came.
True Dayspring bursting death's dark bands,
Emmanuel, your saving name!

Night weighed upon a weary world
When silently you pitched your tent,
Enclosed within the Virgin's womb
True man, true God from heaven sent.

So to the darkened world in need,
Eternal Word, you came as man.
You came as Bridegroom, swift and strong,
To claim the prize the course you ran.

Until your glory fills the skies,
Until the stars in welcome sing,
Until you judge both small and great,
From sin, protect us, Sovereign King.

To God the Father, God the Son,
To God the Spirit ever be
Glad songs of praise throughout the night
While faith adores the mystery. Amen.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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