December 24, 2017: CHRISTMAS VIGIL
December 24, 2017: VIGIL OF CHRISTMAS.
“Be comforted, be comforted, my people, saith your
God. Speak ye to the heart of Jerusalem, and call to her, for her evil is come to an end, her iniquity is forgiven: she hath received of the hand of the Lord double blessings for all her sins.”
(Isaias, xl. 1-2)
Tomorrow shall be cancelled the sins of the earth; and the Saviour of the world shall reign over us. Alleluia.
O God, who makest us rejoice in the yearly expectation of the feast of our redemption; grant that we who cheerfully receive thy only begotten Son as a Redeemer, may behold, without fear, the same Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, coming as our judge. Who liveth and reigneth, world without end. Amen.
“At length,” says St. Peter Damian, in his Sermon for this holy Eve, “at length we have got from the stormy sea into the tranquil port; hitherto it was the promise, now it is the prize; hitherto labour, now rest; hitherto despair, now hope; hitherto the way, now our home. The heralds of the divine promise came to us; but they gave us nothing but rich promises. Hence, our Psalmist himself grew wearied, and slept, and, with a seeming reproachful tone, thus sings his lamentation to God: But thou hast rejected and despised us; thou hast deferred the coming of thy Christ (Ps, lxxxviii). At another time he assumes a tone of demand, and thus prays: O thou that sittest upon the Cherubim, show thyself! (Ps, lxxix) Seated on thy high throne, with myriads of adoring Angels around thee, look down upon the children of men, who are victims of that sin, which was committed indeed by Adam, but permitted by thy justice. Remember what my substance is (Ps, lxxxviii); thou didst make it to the likeness of thine own; for though every living man is vanity, yet inasmuch as he is made to thy Image, he is not a passing vanity (Ps, xxxviii). Bend thy heavens and come down, and turn the eyes of thy mercy upon us thy miserable suppliants, and forget us not unto the end!
“Isaias, also, in the vehemence of his desire, thus spoke: For Sion's sake I will not hold my peace, and for the sake of Jerusalem I will not rest, till her Just One come forth as brightness. Oh! that thou wouldst rend the heavens, and wouldst come down! So, too, all the Prophets, tired of the long delay of the Coming, have prayed to thee, now with supplication, now with lamentation, and now with cries of impatience. We have listened to these their prayers; we have made use of them as our own, and now, nothing can give us joy or gladness, till our Saviour come to us, and, kissing us with the kiss of his lips, say to us, I have heard and granted your prayers.
“But, what is this that has been said to us: Sanctify yourselves, O ye children of Israel, and be ready; for on the morrow, the Lord will come down? We are, then, but one half day and night from the grand visit, the admirable Birth of the Infant-God! Hurry on your course, ye fleeting hours, that we may the sooner see the Son of God in his crib, and pay our homage to this world-saving Birth. You, Brethren, are the Children of Israel, that are sanctified, and cleansed from every defilement of soul and body, ready, by your earnest devotion, for to-morrow's mysteries. Such, indeed, you are, if I may judge from the manner in which you have spent these sacred days of preparation for the Coming of your Saviour.
“But if, notwithstanding all your care, some drops of the stream of this life's frailties are still on your hearts, wipe them away and cover them with the snow-white robe of Confession. This I can promise you from the mercy of the divine Infant: he that shall confess his sins and be sorry for them, shall have born within him the Light of the World; the darkness that deceived him, shall be dispelled; and he shall enjoy the brightness of the true Light. For how can mercy be denied to the miserable this night, in which the merciful and compassionate Lord is so mercifully born? Therefore, drive away from you all haughty looks, and idle words, and unjust works; let your loins be girt, and your feet walk in the right paths; and then come, and accuse the Lord, if this night he rend not the heavens, and come down to you, and throw all your sins into the depths of the sea.”
This holy Eve is, indeed, a day of grace and hope, and we ought to spend it in spiritual joy. The Church, contrary to her general practice, prescribes, that if Christmas Eve fall on a Sunday, the fasting alone should be anticipated on the Saturday; but that the Office and Mass of the Vigil should take precedence of the Office and Mass of the fourth Sunday of Advent. How solemn, then, in the eyes of the Church, are these few hours which separate us from the great Feast! On all other Feasts, no matter how great they may be, the solemnity begins with first Vespers, and until then the Church restrains her joy, and celebrates the Divine Office and Sacrifice according to the Lenten rite. Christmas, on the contrary, seems to begin with the Vigil; and one would suppose that this morning's Lauds were the opening of the Feast; for the solemn intonation of this portion of the Office is that of a Double, and the Antiphons are sung before and after each Psalm or Canticle. The purple Vestments are used at the Mass, but all the genuflexions peculiar to the Advent Ferias are omitted; and only one Collect is said, instead of three, which always denote that the Mass is not that of a solemnity.
Let us enter into the spirit of the Church, and prepare ourselves, in all the joy of our hearts, to meet the Saviour who is coming to us. Let us observe with strictness the fast which is prescribed; it will enable our bodies to aid the promptness of our spirit. Let us delight in the thought, that before we again lay down to rest, we shall have seen Him born, in the solemn mid-night, who comes to give light to every creature. For, surely, it is the duty of every faithful child of the Catholic Church to celebrate, with her, this happy Night, when, in spite of all the coldness of devotion, the whole universe keeps up its watch for the arrival of its Saviour. It is one of the last vestiges of the piety of ancient days, and God forbid it should ever be effaced!...
Let us contemplate our Blessed Lady, and her faithful Spouse Joseph, leaving the city of Jerusalem, and continuing their journey to Bethlehem, which they reach after a few hours. In obedience to the will of heaven, they immediately repair to the place where their names are to be enrolled, as the Emperor's edict requires. There is entered in the public register, Joseph, a carpenter of Nazareth in Galilee. To his name, there is, doubtless, added that of Mary, Spouse of the above-named Joseph. Perhaps they enter her as a young woman, in the ninth month of her pregnancy. And this is all!—O Incarnate Word! thou art not yet counted by men! Thou art upon this earth of thine, and men set thee down as nothing! And yet, all this excitement of the enrolment of the world is to be for nothing else but this,—that Mary, thy august Mother, may come to Bethlehem, and there give thee Birth!
O ineffable Mystery! how grand is this apparent littleness! how mighty this divine weakness! But God has still lower to descend than merely coming on our earth. He goes from house to house of his people: not one will receive him. He must go and seek a crib in the stable of poor dumb beasts. There, until such time as the Angels sing to him their hymn, and the Shepherds and the Magi come with their offerings, he will meet “the ox that knoweth its Owner, and the ass that knoweth its Master's crib!” (Isaias, i. 3) O Saviour of men, Emmanuel, Jesus! we, too, will go to this stable of Bethlehem. Thy New Birth, which is to-night, shall not be without loving and devoted hearts to bless it. At this very hour, thou art knocking at the doors of Bethlehem, and who is there that will take thee in? Thou sayest to my soul in the words of the Canticle: “Open to me, my sister, my beloved! for my head is full of dew, and my locks of the drops of the night!” (Cant, v. 2) Ah! sweet Jesus! thou shalt not be refused here! I beseech thee, enter my house. I have been watching and longing for thee. Come, then, Lord Jesus! come! (Apoc, xxii. 20)
Let us spend the interval in endeavouring to gain a clear knowledge of the Mystery of our Feast; and let us get well into ourselves 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! (Ps, xcv. 1) and to say all in one word: Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad (Ps, xcv. 11), 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 possesses 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! (Ps, xlvi. 2) 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 (Isaias, ix. 6).
“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 Untangible 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 (Heb, xiii. 8). 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 judgment-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, burns 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 GOD—IS 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 Birth-Day, 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 Birth-Day in this present Feast, make the two resemble each other in this also—that as thy Birth-Day 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 Birth-Day, O Jesus! is a treasure, out of which we all get 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.”
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 the 25th of December, 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 be Light! and on the same, also, did our Lord rise from the tomb. St. Sophronius of Jerusalem has beautifully treated this mystery in his 1st 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 was founded the Kingdom of the Franks; for, it was on this glorious Solemnity, that King Clovis was baptised 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 Kingdom of France.
A century later, that is in the year 596, our own dearest country [England,] was converted to the true faith by the labours of St. Augustine [of Canterbury], of whom St. Gregory the Great, who sent him, says: “he was a Monk of my Monastery.” This holy Missionary had baptised 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 Birth-Day 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 Birth-Day of his Son. It was on this divine Anniversary, in the year 800, and at Rome, in the Basilica of St. Peter, that was created the Holy Roman Empire, 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 Cӕsar, a new Augustus, on the earth; not, indeed, a successor of those ancient Lords of Pagan Rome, but one 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 [England] 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 of other friendly acts. How many of our practices of every-day 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 9th 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: Christmas Day, St. Stephen, St. John the Evangelist, the Epiphany, the Assumption of our Lady, St. John the Baptist, and Saints 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…
PRAYER FROM THE MOZARABIC BREVIARY.
(For the Nativity of our Lord, in the Evening Office, Capitula)
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 Judgment 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.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year - Advent, Edition 1870; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume I, 1806.
“The glory of the Lord will appear, and all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.”
(Isaias, xl. 5)
This day shall you know that the Lord will come and save us; and in the morning you shall see his glory.