A new year is aborning – a new church year, a new liturgical year. Which is important to note and to observe because, among other things, it stands as a powerful reminder that we believers march to the beat of a different drummer. Sadly, the Season of Advent has been eclipsed in our secular culture as nutty people start decorating for Christmas, even before Thanksgiving; not surprisingly, the same people start taking down those decorations before sundown on Christmas and radio stations quit the Christmas repertoire at the same time. CWR readers will remember (I hope) a piece I offered a few years back on the proper way to celebrate both Advent and Christmas, so no need to repeat myself here.
“Advent” comes from the Latin adventus which, in the ancient Roman world, referred to the arrival of the Emperor. As in many instances, the Church “baptized” both the word and the concept. Most people, including most practicing Catholics, if asked the purpose of Advent, would reply that it is the time of preparation for the coming of the Baby Jesus. And they would be half-right, but not completely so. Actually, Advent has a two-fold dimension to it, divided into two unequal parts: the first part is to ready us for the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the age; the second part leads us to celebrate the nativity of the Babe of Bethlehem (which encompasses the entire mystery of the Incarnation), starting in earnest on December 17, with the stirring “O Antiphons”,
St. Augustine, in his wonted fashion, gives us a brilliant and inspiring reflection on those two “comings” or “advents”:
He has come the first time, and he will come again. At His first coming, His own voice declared in the Gospel: Hereafter you shall see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds. What does He mean by hereafter? Does He not mean that the Lord will come at a future time when all the nations of the earth will be striking their breasts in grief? Previously, He came through His preachers, and He filled the whole world. Let us not resist His first coming, so that we may not dread the second.1
St. Bernard suggests yet another “coming,” a middle “advent” in and through the Church:
We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him. In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty.2
We live in that “interim” period, linking the other two. Mother Church offers us the Season of Advent, with Word and Sacrament, so that we not only not “resist His first coming” but so that we not “dread the second” coming, but truly look forward to it with joy. Adopting that attitude, however, calls for a spirit of repentance. And so, we take seriously the Parousia, whether that comes to us personally at the moment of our own death or at the end of time; regardless, we shall meet Him as Judge. Interestingly, the Church ends her year with scriptural passages that warn us of Christ as Judge (not Jesus as Buddy), immortalized in that fearsome depiction in the apse of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Similarly, the Church presents us with the figure of the powerful and enigmatic John the Baptist, who stands astride both Testaments.
It is significant that as the ecclesiastical year wanes, the Church focuses our attention on the “end times” and the Lord’s Second Coming; she begins her new year with exactly the same focus. As T. S. Eliot reminds us in his “Four Quartets,” “in my beginning is my end.”
The call to repentance dominates the first phase of the Season, which is how the Church always operates: fasting before the feasting. If Christians have difficulty in experiencing a joyous Christmas, it is largely due to their failure to live Advent according to the mind and heart of the Church.
Last year, in these pages, we considered how the four canticles in St. Luke’s Gospel3 gave us substantial food for thought, taking as our motto St. Augustine’s mantra: Qui cantat bene, bis orat (The one who sings well, prays twice). This year, we shall continue to take his adage as our rallying cry, however, we shall reflect on the abundant patrimony of Advent hymnody, recalling yet another adage, lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing). Simply put, the words we pray reflect what we believe and likewise teach us what we ought to believe – and hymns are prayers set to music. In addition to the time-honored Latin hymnody of the Season, we are particularly fortunate to have a surfeit of Advent hymns in English.
If it is true (and it is) that what we sing in church has an invaluable catechetical aspect, what do those sacred songs teach us?
Creator Alme Siderum/Creator of the Stars of Night
The Latin original of this hymn has a pedigree going back to the seventh century, for which numerous English versions abound. However, caveat emptor (let the buyer beware): Attempting to take a poetic text from one language and transposing it into another is fraught with difficulties. Hence, the Italian proverb: Ogni traduttore, traditore (Every translator is a traitor)!
Conditor alme siderum
aetérna lux credéntium
ómnium, exáudi preces súpplicum
Qui cóndolens intéritu
mortis períre sáeculum
salvásti mundum languidum
donas reis remedium.
Vergénte mundi véspere
uti sponsus de thálamo
Virginis matris cláusula.
Cuius forti poténtiae
genu curvántur ómnia
nutu faténtur súbdita.
Te, Sancte fide quáesumus,
venture iudex sáeculi,
consérva nos in témpore
hostis a telo pérfidi.
Sit, Christe rex piissime
tibi Patríque glória
cum Spíritu Paráclito
in sempitérna sáecula.
Creator of the stars of night,
Thy people’s everlasting light,
Jesu, Redeemer, save us all,
and hear Thy servants when they call.
Thou, grieving that the ancient curse
should doom to death a universe,
hast found the medicine, full of grace,
to save and heal a ruined race.
Thou camest, the Bridegroom of the Bride,
as drew the world to evening tide,
proceeding from a virgin shrine,
the spotless Victim all divine.
At whose dread Name, majestic now,
all knees must bend, all hearts must bow;
and things celestial Thee shall own,
and things terrestrial Lord alone.
O Thou whose coming is with dread,
to judge and doom the quick and dead,
preserve us, while we dwell below,
from every insult of the foe.
To God the Father, God the Son,
and God the Spirit, Three in One,
laud, honor, might, and glory be
from age to age eternally.
Several key Advent themes are proposed for our prayerful reflection.
• In the northern hemisphere, we find ourselves in the darkest time of year, very congenial to the notion that a life without God is indeed dark. And so, we are offered Christ, who proclaimed: “I am the Light of the world” (Jn 9:5).
• How dark indeed was the world before Christ’s appearance due to the fall of our first parents, bringing about “the ancient curse.” However, even in the midst of that tragic fall, God gives good reason for hope: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen 3:15). This divine promise is known as the “protoevangelium” (the first proclamation of the Gospel). Thus, there is no reason to wallow in despair for, as St. Paul would remind us centuries later, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20).
• And what of the “ruined race”? Here is a prime example of how a translation can lead us astray. The Latin adjective is “languidus,” from which we get our English “languid,” for which a dictionary offers the following synonyms: sickly · weak · faint · feeble · frail · delicate · debilitated · flagging · drooping · tired · weary · fatigued · enervated. Any and all of those would be a more apt description of humanity after the Fall. “Ruined” corresponds much more to a Lutheran understanding of post-lapsarian man. Catholic theology, on the other hand, holds that the original sin has weakened us but did not corrupt us. And Christ comes to us as “the medicine” to heal our languid state.
• The next verse is replete with critical doctrines. Old Testament imagery (which is taken wholesale into New Testament thought) features the divine Bridegroom coming to the rescue of His people, His Bride, even as the world devolved further into the abyss of sin (eventide). The rescue comes about as the “spotless Victim all divine” deigns to inhabit “a virgin shrine,” that is, Mary’s spotless womb.
• We then return to the judgment theme and that of the universal kingship of Jesus Christ, echoing St. Paul’s hymn celebrating the divine condescension or kenosis, which merits universal adoration (Phil 2:5-11). Christ is uniquely Judge because He is uniquely King; we celebrate the latter reality on the final Sunday of the liturgical year and open the new year on the former reality.
• The penultimate verse sums up the judgment theme, with a heartfelt petition that we might be found blameless on the Day of the Judgment because Christ would “preserve us” from the attacks of “the foe,” namely, the Evil One. Again, we have a translation difficulty as “insult” is used to render the Latin “telum,” which is a weapon, not an insult. Hence, my rendering it as an “attack” or “assault.”
• The hymn ends, as is often the case in traditional hymnody, with a doxology or praise of the Triune God.
Wake, awake, for night is flying
“Wake, awake, for night is flying,”
the watchmen on the heights are crying,
“awake, Jerusalem, at last!”
Midnight hears the welcome voices,
and at the thrilling cry rejoices:
“Come forth, ye maidens, night is past!
The Bridegroom comes; awake,
your lamps with gladness take; alleluia!
And for his marriage feast prepare,
for you must go to meet him there.”
Zion hears the watchmen singing,
and all her heart with joy is springing;
she wakes, she rises from her gloom,
for her Lord comes down all-glorious,
the strong in grace, in truth victorious;
her Star is ris’n, her Light is come!
Ah, come, thou blessed Lord,
O Jesus, Son of God, alleluia!
We follow ’til the halls we see
where thou hast bid us sup with thee.
Now let all the heav’ns adore thee,
and men and angels sing before thee,
with harp and cymbal’s clearest tone;
of one pearl each shining portal,
where we are with the choir immortal
of angels round thy dazzling throne;
nor eye hath seen, nor ear
hath yet attained to hear what there is ours;
but we rejoice, and sing to thee
our hymn of joy eternally.
• The hymnographer wants us to focus our attention on several biblical images: Jerusalem and Zion (so often representing the entire body of the Chosen People) and the wise and foolish virgins of the Lord’s parable. Equally stressed is the image of the union of God and His People as a marriage, hence, the solemnization of that union in a marriage feast. The Book of Revelation glories in that notion as we are told: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (7:9); that line is echoed in every Mass as the celebrant invites the faithful to the ultimate act of union – Holy Communion.
• However, we cannot jump the gun. The parable warns us of the need for vigilance, preparedness, readiness to greet the Lord, for we “know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13). This concerns not only the Final Judgment but our own particular judgment for, as St. Paul pointed out, “death comes like a thief in the night” (1 Th 5:2). Thus, the need always to “be ready” (Mt 24:44).
• The next verse moves our focus back to the state of ancient Israel in exile, “in gloom.” She returns from exile, but still languishes as she awaits the Messiah, who eventually arrives but whose arrival is not universally accepted by the Chosen People and so, St. Paul tells us that God – for a time – turns His merciful attention to the Gentiles (see Rom 11). Those Gentiles (we!) become the Church, wherein the Lord Christ will sup with us, and we with Him (see Rev 3:20); that is fulfilled in every celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Banquet. And so, it is no accident that the early Christians believed that the Lord Christ would return in glory, precisely within the context of the Holy Eucharist, which anticipates even now His glorious return. That yearning for the fulfillment of the days made our forebears in the Faith make as their constant prayer: “Marantha” (Come, Lord Jesus) (Rev 22:20).4
• At hymn’s end, we are brought back to the Parousia as all creation acknowledges the universal Lordship and Kingship of Christ (which we celebrated in grand style on the last Sunday of the ecclesiastical year), with our mind’s eye brought to the visions of the seer of the Apocalypse of the Heavenly Jerusalem, dazzling in splendor with gates of pearl and streets of gold – poetic language to describe what St. Paul would put into mystical terms: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).
All of this talk about the Second Coming might cause us to be in a state of confusion or undue concern. And so, we need to heed the wise counsel of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman in this regard:
. . . though Christians have ever been expecting Christ, ever pointing to His signs, they have never said that He was come. They have but said that He was just coming, all but come. And so He was and is. Enthusiasts, sectaries, wild presumptuous men, they have said that He was actually come, or they have pointed out the exact year and day in which He would come. Not so His humble followers. They have neither announced nor sought Him, either in the desert or in the secret chambers, nor have they attempted to determine “the times and seasons, which the Father has put in His own power.” They have but waited; when He actually comes, they will not mistake Him; and before then, they pronounce nothing.5
As we move closer to Christmas, preparing well by a spirit of conversion and works of charity, we realize that St. Augustine got it right fifteen centuries ago: “Let us not resist his first coming, so that we may not dread the second.”
I thought it might be a worthwhile and enjoyable exercise to offer an Advent challenge. Below is another hymn that can guide our thoughts into a spiritually rewarding reflection. I would encourage Catholic school religion teachers to “dissect” this hymn with their students to glean yet greater depths of holy anticipation. It might also be useful for priests to fashion their homilies for the entire first week of Advent from the beautiful and scripturally rooted lyrics.
Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates
Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates;
Behold the King of glory waits!
The King of kings is drawing near;
The Savior of the world is here.
O blest the land, the city blest,
Where Christ the ruler is confest!
O happy hearts and happy homes
To whom this King of triumph comes!
Fling wide the portals of your heart;
Make it a temple, set apart
From earthly use for heav’n’s employ,
Adorned with prayer and love and joy.
So come, my Sov’reign; enter in!
Let new and nobler life begin;
Thy Holy Spirit guide us on,
Until the glorious crown be won.
1Commentary on Psalm 95, found in the Liturgy of the Hours for the Office of Readings on the Thirty-third Sunday per annum.
2Sermon 5 on the Coming of the Lord, found in the Liturgy of Hours for the Office of Readings on Wednesday of the First Week of Advent.
3The Benedictus of Zechariah; the Magnificat of Mary; the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon; the Gloria of the Christmas angels.
4Another lovely hymn encapsulates the sentiments of the hymn presently under consideration, worthy of reflection at each reception of Holy Communion:
Draw us in the Spirit’s tether,
For when humbly in Thy name,
Two or three are met together
Thou art in the midst of them;
Touch we now Thy garment’s hem.
As the brethren used to gather
In the name of Christ to sup,
Then with thanks to God the Father
Break the bread and bless the cup,
So knit Thou our friendship up.
All our meals and all our living
Make as sacraments of Thee,
That by caring, helping, giving
We may true disciples be.
We will serve Thee faithfully.
5PPS VI, 246 (29 November 1840).
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