Treasures of the Liturgy Advent & Christmas

From Liturgical Catechism by Rev. M. S. Canon McMahon (1930)


What are the prevailing thoughts of the Advent liturgy?

The Mystery of the Incarnation, the thought of the second coming of Christ, for which all our life is a preparation, the remission of sin through penance to prepare the way of the Lord, and the longing for Christ to be spiritually born in our hearts on Christmas Day. This longing is at once an echo and a prolongation of the longing of the Patriarchs and Prophets for the coming of the Redeemer. The mystery of Christ's birth is renewed in our souls.

How does the Missal express these thoughts?

Compare especially the Gospel of Wednesday and Friday of Quarter Tense [the Ember Days]; the Gospel of the first Sunday, the Gospel of the second, third and fourth Sundays, and the Collect of the first Sunday; the Collects of the second and third Sundays and the “ O’s.” of Advent viz., the Antiphons of the Magnificat from 17 to 23 December, in which is expressed a very ecstasy of longing that reaches its climax in the Introit of Christmas Eve.

What great examples are set before us during Advent?

Isaias, the prophet of the Incarnation; St. John the Baptist, the Precursor of the Lord, and all through Advent the Mother of God is invoked, her Divine Maternity exalted, and her example set before us. The first part of the Hail Mary finds its first liturgical utterance in the Offertory of the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

What great Feast of Our Blessed Lady occurs in the Advent season?

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which, however, has no special relation to the Advent liturgy. The date of the feast has been determined by the Feast of the Nativity of Our Blessed Lady on 8 September, just as the date of the Annunciation has been determined by the date of Christmas. The thought of Mary's sinlessness, however, cannot but enforce the preaching of St. John the Baptist and incite us to prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus.

What is special to the Quarter Tense [Ember Days] of Advent?

For a long time the Ordination of priests and deacons was reserved to the Saturday of the December Quarter Tense. The service was held on the vigil and lasted well into the Sunday. And so it came to pass that on the Sunday—the fourth of Advent—no Special Station was held, the Sunday being then a Dominica vacans (a vacant Sunday). The Ordination service, later on, was held not on Saturday night but on Saturday morning, and then a Station Mass was assigned to Sunday. The original identity between the Vigil Mass and the Sunday Mass is maintained in the identity of the Gospels in the present Masses of Saturday of December Quarter Tense and the Fourth Sunday of Advent (cf. the Second Sunday in Lent).


What is the most striking feature of the liturgy of Christmas Day?

On that day every priest may celebrate three Masses assigned respectively for midnight, dawn, and broad daylight.

What is the accepted symbolism of these three Masses?

They are said to celebrate respectively the temporal birth of Our Lord (cf. Collect, Gospel, Offertory), His spiritual birth in the hearts of the faithful (cf. the Epistle, Collect, Secret, and Post-communion), the eternal birth of the Son of God in the bosom of the Father (cf. Gospel and Offertory). But all three symbols may be traced in each of the three Masses. It would be more accurate to state that in the first Mass, Christ is honoured as the “Light of the world,” in the second as the “Prince of Peace”, and in the third as both the “Son of God” and the “Bringer of the glad tidings of our adoption as sons".

What is the historical origin of these three Masses?

At the Christmas Vigil held at St. Mary Major’s, where the relic of the manger of Bethlehem is preserved, Mass was celebrated, and, as we have seen, up to the sixth century it was only at this Mass that the Gloria in excelsis was sung. On the feast itself the regular Station Mass was said at St. Peter’s (now at St. Mary Major’s). These were the only Masses that referred to the festival. But Mass was also said by the Pope before the Station Mass at St. Peter's, in the Church of St. Anastasia, whose feast fell on 25 December. The Church of St. Anastasia was paid this signal honour because it was the “Chapel Royal” of the Imperial family. This Mass at St Anastasia’s, in the course of time, became a festival Mass of Christmas, with a commemoration of St. Anastasia. The privilege of saying three Masses spread beyond Rome and became universal by the sixth century.

What is the character of the Christmas feast?

It is a festival full of joy. The longing of Advent is fulfilled; Christ is born, and we adore Him with the shepherds at the manger. Christ is born to us and His Christmas gift is to make us to "be as little children,” and to warm our hearts with the spiritual gladness that suffused the heart of His Mother, Mary.

What is notable in the ceremonies of High Mass upon Christmas Day?

The sacred minister—and the congregation with them—kneel while the choir sing the Et incarnatus of the Nicene Creed. This ceremony takes place also on the Feast of the Annunciation. It is an act of homage to the adorable Mystery of the Incarnation.

How does the Preface of the Nativity express the purpose of the Christmas festival?

For by the mystery of the Word made flesh the light of Thy glory hath shone anew upon the eyes of our mind; so that while we acknowledge Him a God seen by men, we may be drawn by Him to the love of things unseen.

What feasts follow immediately upon the Feast of the Nativity?

The three feasts of the so-called companions of Christ: St. Stephen the Protomartyr, martyr in will and in fact; St. John the Evangelist, martyr in will; and the Holy Innocents, martyrs in fact.

What feast falls on the Octave of Christmas?

The Feast of the Circumcision which opens the civil year when Our Lord, eight days after His birth, was, in accordance with Jewish law, enrolled among the children of Israel and when He received the name Jesus.

Is the Name of Jesus honoured by a special feast?

The Feast of the Holy Name is celebrated on the Sunday, if such fall, between 1 and 6 January when not impeded by an office of nobler rite; if it be so impeded or if no Sunday intervene between the 1 and 6 January, the Feast of the Holy Name is attached to 2 January. It is the desire of the Church that every Christian begin the year in the Name of Jesus.

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