My harp is turned to grieving
and my flute to the voice of those who weep.
Spare me, O Lord,
for my days are as nothing.
The Mystery of Advent
Dom Prosper Gueranger, 1870
If, now that we have described the characteristic features of Advent which distinguish it from the rest of the year, we would penetrate into the profound mystery which occupies the mind of the Church during this season, we find that this mystery of the coming, or Advent, of Jesus is at once simple and threefold. It is simple, for it is the one same Son of God that is coining; it is threefold, because He comes at three different times and in three different ways.
‘In the first coming,’ says St. Bernard, ‘He comes in the flesh and in weakness; in the second, He comes in spirit and in power; in the third, He comes in glory and in majesty; and the second coming is the means whereby we pass from the first to the third.’ [Fifth sermon for Advent].
This, then, is the mystery of Advent. Let us now listen to the explanation of this threefold visit of Christ, given to us by Peter of Blois, in his third Sermon de Adventu: ‘There are three comings of our Lord; the first in the flesh, the second in the soul, the third at the judgement. The first was at midnight, according to those words of the Gospel: At midnight there was a cry made, Lo the Bridegroom cometh! But this first coming is long since past, for Christ has been seen on the earth and has conversed among men. We are now in the second coming, provided only we are such as that He may thus come to us; for He has said that if we love him, He will come unto us and will take up His abode with us. So that this second coming is full of uncertainty to us; for who, save the Spirit of God, knows them that are of God? They that are raised out of themselves by the desire of heavenly things, know indeed when He comes; but whence He cometh, or whither He goeth, they know not. As for the third coming, it is most certain that it will be, most uncertain when it will be; for nothing is more sure than death, and nothing less sure than the hour of death. When they shall say, peace and security, says the apostle, then shall sudden destruction come upon them, as the pains upon her that is with child, and they shall not escape. So that the first coming was humble and hidden, the second is mysterious and full of love, the third will be majestic and terrible. In His first coming, Christ was judged by men unjustly; in His second, He renders us just by His grace; in His third, He will judge all things with justice. In His first, a lamb; in His last, a lion; in the one between the two, the tenderest of friends.’ [De Adventu, Sermon III.]
The holy Church, therefore, during Advent, awaits in tears and with ardour the arrival of her Jesus in His first coming. For this, she borrows the fervid expressions of the prophets, to which she joins her own supplications. These longings for the Messias expressed by the Church, are not a mere commemoration of the desires of the ancient Jewish people; they have a reality and efficacy of their own, an influence in the great act of God’s munificence, whereby He gave us His own Son. From all eternity, the prayers of the ancient Jewish people and the prayers of the Christian Church ascended together to the prescient hearing of God; and it was after receiving and granting them, that He sent, in the appointed time, that blessed Dew upon the earth, which made it bud forth the Saviour.
The Church aspires also to the second coming, the consequence of the first, which consists, as we have just seen, in the visit of the Bridegroom to the bride. This coming takes place, each year, at the feast of Christmas, when the new birth of the Son of God delivers the faithful from that yoke of bondage, under which the enemy would oppress them. [Collect for Christmas day]. The Church, therefore, during Advent, prays that she may be visited by Him who is her Head and her Spouse; visited in her hierarchy; visited in her members, of whom some are living, and some are dead, but may come to life again; visited, lastly, in those who are not in communion with her, and even in the very infidels, that so they may be converted to the true light, which shines even for them. The expressions of the liturgy which the Church makes use of to ask for this loving and invisible coming, are those which she employs when begging for the coming of Jesus in the flesh; for the two visits are for the same object. In vain would the Son of God have come, nineteen hundred years ago, to visit and save mankind, unless He came again for each one of us and at every moment of our lives, bringing to us and cherishing within us that supernatural life, of which He and His holy Spirit are the sole principle.
But this annual visit of the Spouse does not content the Church; she aspires after a third coming, which will complete all things by opening the gates of eternity. She has caught up the last words of her Spouse, ‘Surely I am coming quickly’ [Apoc. xxii. 20]; and she cries out to Him, ‘Ah! Lord Jesus! come!’ [Ibid.]. She is impatient to be loosed from her present temporal state; she longs for the number of the elect to be filled up, and to see appear, in the clouds of heaven, the sign of her Deliverer and her Spouse. Her desires, expressed by her Advent liturgy, go even as far as this; and here we have the explanation of these words of the beloved disciple in his prophecy: ‘The nuptials of the Lamb are come, and His wife hath prepared herself.’ [Ibid. xix. 7].
But the day of this His last coming to her will be a day of terror. The Church frequently trembles at the very thought of that awful judgement, in which all mankind is to be tried. She calls it ‘a day of wrath, on which, as David and the Sibyl have foretold, the world will be reduced to ashes; a day of weeping and of fear.’ Not that she fears for herself, since she knows that this day will for ever secure for her the crown, as being the bride of Jesus; but her maternal heart is troubled at the thought that, on the same day, so many of her children will be on the left hand of the Judge, and, having no share with the elect, will be bound hand and foot, and cast into the darkness, where there shall be everlasting weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is the reason why the Church, in the liturgy of Advent, so frequently speaks of the coming of Christ as a terrible coming, and selects from the Scriptures those passages which are most calculated to awaken a salutary fear in the mind of such of her children as may be sleeping the sleep of sin.
This, then, is the threefold mystery of Advent. The liturgical forms in which it is embodied, are of two kinds: the one consists of prayers, passages from the Bible, and similar formula, in all of which, words themselves are employed to convey the sentiments which we have been explaining; the other consists of external rites peculiar to this holy time, which, by speaking to the outward senses, complete the expressiveness of the chants and words.
First of all, there is the number of the days of Advent. Forty was the number originally adopted by the Church, and it is still maintained in the Ambrosian liturgy, and in the eastern Church. If, at a later period, the Church of Rome, and those which follow her liturgy, have changed the number of days, the same idea is still expressed in the four weeks which have been substituted for the forty days. The new birth of our Redeemer takes place after four weeks, as the first nativity happened after four thousand years, according to the Hebrew and Vulgate chronology.
As in Lent, so likewise during Advent, marriage is not solemnized, lest worldly joy should distract Christians from those serious thoughts wherewith the expected coming of the sovereign Judge ought to inspire them, or from that dearly cherished hope which the friends of the Bridegroom [St. John iii. 29] have of being soon called to the eternal nuptial-feast.
The people are forcibly reminded of the sadness which fills the heart of the Church, by the sombre colour of the vestments. Excepting on the feasts of the saints, purple is the colour she uses; the deacon does not wear the dalmatic, nor the sub-deacon the tunic. Formerly it was the custom, in some places, to wear black vestments. This mourning of the Church shows how fully she unites herself with those true Israelites of old who, clothed in sackcloth and ashes, waited for the Messias, and bewailed Sion that she had not her beauty, and ‘Juda, that the sceptre had been taken from him, till He should come who was to be sent, the expectation of nations.’ [Prov. viii. 31]. It also signifies the works of penance, whereby she prepares for the second coming, full as it is of sweetness and mystery, which is realized in the souls of men, in proportion as they appreciate the tender love of that divine Guest, who has said: ‘My delights are to be with the children of men.’[Gen. xlix. 10]. It expresses, thirdly, the desolation of this bride who yearns after her Beloved, who is long a-coming. Like the turtle dove, she moans her loneliness, longing for the voice which will say to her: ‘Come from Libanus, my bride! come, thou shalt be crowned. Thou hast wounded my heart.’ [Cant. iv. 8, 9].
The Church also, during Advent. excepting on the feasts of saints, suppresses the angelic canticle, Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis; for this glorious song was sung at Bethlehem over the crib of the divine Babe; the tongues of the angels are not loosened yet; the Virgin has not yet brought forth her divine Treasure; it is not yet time to sing, it is not even true to say, ‘Glory be to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men of good will.’
Again, at the end of Mass, the deacon does not dismiss the assembly of the faithful by the words: Ite missa est. He substitutes the ordinary greeting:
Benedicamus Domino! as though the Church feared to interrupt the prayers of the people, which could scarce be too long during these days of expectation.
In the night Office, the holy Church also suspends, on those same days, the hymn of jubilation, Te Deum laudamus.’ [The monastic rite retains it. Tr.] It is in deep humility that she awaits the supreme blessing which is to come to her; and, in the interval, she presumes only to ask, and entreat, and hope. But let the glorious hour come, when in the midst of darkest night the Sun of justice will suddenly rise upon the world: then indeed she will resume her hymn of thanksgiving, and all over the face of the earth the silence of midnight will be broken by this shout of enthusiasm: ‘We praise Thee, O God! we acknowledge Thee to be our Lord! Thou, O Christ, art the King of glory, the everlasting Son of the Father! Thou being to deliver man didst not disdain the Virgin’s womb!’
On the ferial days, the rubrics of Advent prescribe that certain prayers should be said kneeling, at the end of each canonical Hour, and that the choir should also kneel during a considerable portion of the Mass. In this respect, the usages of Advent are precisely the same as those of Lent.
But there is one feature which distinguishes Advent most markedly from Lent: the word of gladness, the joyful Alleluia, is not interrupted during Advent, except once or twice during the ferial Office. It is sung in the Masses of the four Sundays, and vividly contrasts with the sombre colour of the vestments. On one of these Sundays, the third, the prohibition of using the organ is removed, and we are gladdened by its grand notes, and rose-coloured vestments may be used instead of the purple. These vestiges of joy, thus blended with the holy mournfulness of the Church, tell us, in a most expressive way, that though she unites with the ancient people of God in praying for the coming of the Messias (thus paying the debt which the entire human race owes to the justice and mercy of God), she does not forget that the Emmanuel is already come to her, that He is in her, and that even before she has opened her lips to ask Him to save her, she has been already redeemed and predestined to an eternal union with Him. This is the reason why the Alleluia accompanies even her sighs, and why she seems to be at once joyous and sad, waiting for the coming of that holy night which will be brighter to her than the most sunny of days, and on which her joy will expel all her sorrow.
SS. Nicasius and His Companions
Ninth Archbishop of Rheims, Martyrs
(† 407 AD)
IN the fifth century an army of barbarians from Germany ravaging part of Gaul, plundered the city of Rheims. 1 Nicasius, the holy bishop, had foretold this calamity to his flock. When he saw the enemy at the gates and in the streets, forgetting himself, and solicitous only for his dear spiritual children, he went from door to door encouraging all to patience and constancy, and awaking in every one’s breast the most heroic sentiments of piety and religion. In endeavouring to save the lives of some of his flock, he exposed himself to the swords of the infidels, who, after a thousand insults and indignities, (which he endured with the meekness and fortitude of a true disciple of God crucified for us) cut off his head. Florens his deacon, and Jocond his lector, were massacred by his side. His sister Eutropia, a virtuous virgin, seeing herself spared in order to be reserved for wicked purposes, boldly cried out to the infidels, that it was her unalterable resolution rather to sacrifice her life, than her faith or her integrity and virtue. Upon which they despatched her with their cutlasses. St. Nicasius and St. Eutropia were buried in the church-yard of St. Agricola. Many miracles rendered their tombs illustrious, and this church was converted into a famous abbey, which bears the name of St. Nicasius, and is now a member of the congregation of St. Maur. The archbishop Fulco, in 893, translated the body of St. Nicasius into the cathedral, which the martyr himself had built, and dedicated to God in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. His head is kept in the abbey of St. Vedast at Arras. See St. Gregory of Tours, and Gall. Chr. Nov. t. 9. p. 6. The Acts of St. Nicasius in Surius (14 Dec.) were written before Hincmar, probably in the seventh century, but are of small importance, as Dom. Rivet observes.
The Lives of the Saints. Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). December. Volume XII: 1866.
Bishop and Confessor
SPIRIDION, or SPIRIDON, was a native of Cyprus, was married, and had a daughter named Irene, who lived always a virgin. His employment was that of keeping sheep, which in the patriarchal times even kings thought not beneath their dignity. In this retired state simplicity and innocence of heart engaged the Almighty to furnish him with extraordinary lights in the paths of virtue, which it was the more easy for him safely to pursue, as he shunned the company of those whose example and false maxims might have induced him to take the same liberties they did, and fall into a worldly course of life. For there is no more dangerous snare to our souls than the conversation of that world which is condemned by the gospel; that is to say, that society and commerce of men who are animated with the spirit of irregular self-love, and that corruption of the heart which all men inherit from their first birth from Adam, and by which they live who have not vanquished it by grace, and put on the spirit of Christ. It is not enough for a Christian to guard himself against this contagious air abroad: he has an enemy at home, a fund of corruption within his own heart, which he must resist and purge himself of; and this not in part only, but entirely. They deceive themselves, who desire to be saved through Christ, without taking pains to put on perfectly the spirit of Christ; they who are willing to give alms, fast, and spend much time in prayer, but with all this are for reserving and sparing this or that favorite passion, this vanity, this pleasure, or this spirit of revenge. Spiridion made such use of the advantages which his state afforded him for virtue, as to seem to rival the Macariuses in their deserts: and he was honoured with the gift of miracles.
Sozomen, who wrote in the beginning of the fifth century, tells us that a gang of thieves attempting one night to carry off some of his sheep, were stopped by an invisible hand, so that they could neither perpetrate the intended theft, nor make their escape. Spiridion finding them the next morning thus secured, set them at liberty by his prayers, and gave them a ram; but exhorted them seriously to consider the danger of their state, and amend their lives; observing to them that they had taken a great deal of unnecessary pains, and ran great hazard for what they might have made their own by asking for it. The same historian says, that it was the saint’s custom to fast in Lent with his whole family for some days together, without eating any thing; at which time, when he had no bread in his house, a traveller called upon him to rest and refresh himself on the road, according to the rule of hospitality which he practised. Spiridion having nothing else in his house, ordered some salt pork to be boiled; for he saw the traveller was extremely fatigued. Then having prayed some time, he asked the divine pardon, that is, prayed that the dispensation which he judged necessary, might be agreeable to God. After this he invited the stranger to eat, who excused himself, saying that he was a Christian. Spiridion told him, that no meats being by their own nature unclean, the rule of fasting admitted a dispensation. St. Spiridion was chosen bishop of Tremithus, a city on the sea-coast near Salamis, and continued the same rural exercise which he had before followed, yet so as to attend his pastoral functions with great assiduity and devotion. His diocess was very small, and the inhabitants were poor, but the Christians very regular in their manners; though there remained among them several idolaters. St. Spiridion divided his revenue into two parts; the one of which he gave to the poor, the other he reserved for his church and household, and for a loan to lend to such as were in necessity, never being solicitous for the morrow. In the persecution of Maximian Galerius he made a glorious confession of the faith. The Roman Martyrology tells us he was one of those who lost their right-eye, had the sinews of their left-hand cut, and were sent to work in the mines. He was one of the three hundred and eighteen prelates who composed the first general council of Nice, and was there distinguished among the holy confessors who had suffered much for the faith of Christ. About that time died his daughter Irene. A certain person had deposited in her hands a thing of great value, that it might be the more secure. This he demanded of the bishop after her death; but it was not to be found, nobody knowing where it was hid. The person whose loss it was appeared extremely afflicted. Socrates and Sozomen says, that the good bishop, moved with compassion, went to the place where his daughter was buried, called her by her name, and asked her where she had laid what such a person had left in her hands. They add, that she answered him, giving directions where she had hid it in the ground, that it might be mare safe; and that it was found there. Though our holy prelate had very little acquaintance with human sciences, he had made the scriptures his daily meditation, and had learned what veneration is due to the word of God. The bishops of Cyprus being on a certain occasion assembled together, Triphillius, bishop of Ledri in that island, (whom St. Jerom commends as the most eloquent man of his time,) was engaged to preach a sermon; and mentioning that passage, Take up thy bed, and walk, he made use of a word to express the sick man’s bed, which he thought more elegant and beautiful than in the original text. 3 Spiridion, full of a holy resentment at this false nicety, and attempt to add graces to what was more adorned with simplicity, arose and asked whether the preacher knew better the right term than the evangelist? Our saint defended the cause of St. Athanasius in the council of Sarbida in 347, and shortly after passed to eternal bliss. The Greeks honour his memory on the 12th, the Latins on the 14th of this month.
Sacred learning is necessary in a minister of the church; but sanctity is not less necessary. Nothing is so eloquent, or so powerfully persuasive as example. A learned man may convince; but to convert souls is chiefly the privilege of those that are pious. There have been few ages in which polite literature has been cultivated with greater ardour than the present wherein we live. How many great orators, how many elegant writers have made their appearance in it! If these were all saints, what a reformation of manners should we see among the people! It is sanctity that possesses the art of softening the heart, and subduing all the powers of the soul. An edifying life proves the preacher sincere, and is alone a sermon which obstinacy itself will find it hard to hold out against: it stops the mouth of the enemies of truth and virtue. The life, vigour, and justness of a discourse are the fruit of wit, genius, and study; but unction in words is produced only by the heart. A man must be animated with the spirit of God to speak powerfully on divine things; the conversion of hearts is the work of God. A father and a mother are surprised that their instructions seem thrown away upon their children; but let them remember, that if they spoke the language of men and angels, if they have not themselves charity, or true piety, they are only a sounding trumpet. Children, in their most tender infancy, observe with incredible penetration and sagacity every word and action of others, especially of those whom they revere and love; in these they naturally discern and read the spirit of all the passions with which such persons are actuated, deeply imbibe the same, learn to think and act from them, and are entirely moulded upon this model. The children of worldly parents will probably differ from them only in this, that their passions, by being strengthened so early will become with age more blind and headstrong.
The Lives of the Saints. Volume XII: December. 1866. Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73).