How the Church Awaits Christmas
Dom Prosper Guéranger
Initially let us consider the number of the days of Advent. Forty was the number originally adopted by the Church, 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 that replaced the 40 days.
The new birth of our Redeemer takes place after these four weeks, as the first Nativity happened after 4,000 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 that the friends of the Bridegroom [Jn 3:29] have of being soon called to the eternal nuptial-feast.
The people are forcibly reminded of the sadness that fills the heart of the Church, by the somber color of the vestments. Excepting on the feasts of the saints, purple is the color 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 Messiah, and bewailed Sion that she had not her beauty, and “Judah, that the scepter had been taken from him, till He should come who was to be sent, the expectation of nations.” (Prov 8: 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. 49:10)
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 that will say to her: “Come from Libanus, my bride! Come, thou shalt be crowned. Thou hast wounded my heart.” (Cant 4: 8, 9)
Excepting on the feasts of saints, during Advent the Church also suppresses the angelic canticle, Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntati. For this glorious song was sung at Bethlehem over the crib of the Divine Babe, and 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. N.T.] It is in deep humility that she awaits the supreme blessing that is to come to her; and, in the interval, she presumes only to ask, 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!” …
But, there is one feature that 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 somber color 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-colored 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 although she unites with the ancient people of God in praying for the coming of the Messiah (thus paying the debt that 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 sunniest of days and on which her joy will expel all her sorrow.