The Vigil of the Nativity
The Liturgical Year
Dom Prosper Guéranger
“At length,” says St. Peter Damian in his sermon for this holy eve, “we have come from the stormy sea into the tranquil port; hitherto it was the promise, now it is the prize; hitherto labor, 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 seemingly reproachful tone, thus sings his lamentation to God: ‘But thou hast rejected and despised us; Thou hast deferred the coming of Thy Christ’ (Ps. 138). At another time he assumes a tone of command and thus prays: ‘O Thou that sittest upon the Cherubim, show Thyself!’ (Ps. 129) 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. 138); 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. 38). Rend Thy heavens and come down, and turn the eyes of Thy mercy upon us Thy miserable supplicants, and forget us not unto the end!
Isaiah Prophesies the Messiah
Isaias prophesies the coming of the Messiah.
“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 Savior come and 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; be ready, by your earnest devotion, for tomorrow’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 Savior.
“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 does not rend the heavens, and come down to you, and cast 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 Office and the Mass of the Vigil should take precedence over the Office and Mass of the 4th 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 no earlier then First Vespers, and until then the Church restrains Her joy, and celebrates the Divine Office and Mass of most vigils 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 violet vestments are used at the Mass, but the rubrics are less somber than on the Advent ferias.
Let us enter into the spirit of the Church, and prepare ourselves, in all the joy of our hearts, to meet the Savior 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 lie down to rest, we shall have seen Him born, in the solemn midnight, 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 Savior. It is one of the last vestiges of the piety of ancient days, and God forbid it should ever be effaced!
Let us, in a spirit of prayer, look at the principal portions of the Office of this beautiful Vigil. First then, the Church makes a mysterious announcement to Her children. It serves as the Invitatory of Matins, and as the Introit and Gradual of the Mass. They are the words which Moses addressed to the people of God when he told them of the heavenly manna, which they would receive on the morrow. We too are expecting our Manna, our Jesus, the Bread of Life, Who is to be born in Bethlehem, which translated means the “House of Bread”:
This day you shall know that the Lord will come, and in the morning you shall see His glory.
The Responsories are full of sublimity and sweetness. Nothing can be more affecting than their lyric melody, sung to us by our Mother the Church, on the very night which precedes the night of Jesus’ Birth:
R. Sanctify yourselves this day, and be ready: for on the morrow you shall see * the Majesty of God amongst you. V. This day you shall know that the Lord will come, and in the morning you shall see * the Majesty of God amongst you.
R. Be constant; you shall see the help of the Lord upon you: fear not, Judea and Jerusalem: * Tomorrow you shall go forth, and the Lord shall be with you: V. Sanctify yourselves, children of Israel, and be ready. * Tomorrow you shall go forth, and the Lord shall be with you.
R. Sanctify yourselves, children of Israel, saith the Lord: for on the morrow, the Lord shall come down: * And He shall take from you all that is languid. V. Tomorrow the iniquity of the earth shall be cancelled, and over us shall reign the Savior of the world. * And He shall take from you all that is languid.
At the Office of Prime, in cathedral chapters and monasteries, the announcement of tomorrow’s Feast is made with unusual solemnity. The lector, who frequently is one of the dignitaries of the choir, sings with a magnificent chant the following lesson from the Martyrology. All the assistants remain standing during it, until the lector comes to the word Bethlehem, at which all genuflect, and continue with bended knee until all the glad tidings are told:
Monks in solemn prostration at the announcement of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Eighth of the Calends of January. The year from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created Heaven and earth, five thousand one hundred and ninety-nine: from the deluge, the year two thousand nine hundred and fifty-seven: from the birth of Abraham, the year two thousand and fifteen: from Moses and the going out of the people of Israel from Egypt, the year one thousand five hundred and ten: from David’s being anointed king, the year one thousand and thirty-two: in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel: in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad: from the building of the city of Rome, the year seven hundred and fifty-two: in the forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus: the whole world being in peace: in the sixth age of the world: Jesus Christ, the eternal God, and Son of the eternal Father, wishing to consecrate this world by His most merciful coming, being conceived of the Holy Ghost, and nine months since His conception having passed, in Bethelehem of Juda, is born of the Virgin Mary, being made Man: The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to the Flesh!
Thus have passed before us, in succession, all the generations of the world. (It should be noted that on this one day alone, and on this single occasion, does the Church adopt the Septuagint chronology, according to which the Birth of our Savior took place five thousand years after the Creation; whereas the Vulgate version, and the Hebrew text, place only four thousand years between the two events. This shows us the liberty which the Church allows us on this question.) Each generation is asked if it may have seen Him Whom we are expecting, and each is silent; until the Name of Mary is pronounced, and then is proclaimed the Nativity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God made Man. St. Bernard, speaking of this announcement, says: “The voice of joy has gone forth in our land, the voice of rejoicing and of salvation is in the tabernacles of the just. There has been heard a good word, a word that gives consolation, a word that is full of gladsomeness, a word worthy of all acceptance. Resound with praise, ye mountains, and all ye trees of the forests clap your hands before the face of the Lord, for He is coming. Hearken, O ye heavens, and give ear, O earth! Be astounded and give praise, O all ye creatures! But thou, O man, more than all they! Jesus Christ the Son of God, is born in Bethlehem of Juda! O brief word of the Word abridged (Rom. 9: 28), and yet how full of heavenly beauty! The heart, charmed with the honeyed sweetness of the expression, would fain diffuse it and spread it out into more words; but no, it must be given just as it is, or you spoil it: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is born in Bethlehem of Juda!” (Second Sermon for Christmas Eve)
The Gospel of today’s Mass is the passage which relates the trouble of St. Joseph and the visit he received from the Angel. This incident, which forms one of the preludes to the Birth of our Savior, could not be omitted from the Liturgy for Advent; and so far, there was no suitable occasion for its insertion. The Vigil of Christmas was the right day for the Gospel, for another reason: the Angel, in speaking to St. Joseph, tells him that the Name to be given to the Child of Mary is Jesus, which signifies that He will save His people from their sins.
St. Joseph’s Dream
Let us contemplate our Blessed Lady, and Her faithful Spouse St. 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 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 enrollment 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!” (Is. 1: 3) O Savior of men, Emmanuel, Jesus! We too, will go to this stable of Bethlehem. Thy new birth, which is tonight, 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!” (Cant. 5: 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. 22: 20)