Since about September this year, at the start of the Sung Mass on Sundays here at Holy Family we have replaced the opening hymn with a chant that changes each week. If you come to Mass on a weekday you will hear, even before the Priest says “In the Name of the Father,” a similar short text very often taken from the psalms or some other part of scripture. This text, whether sung or said, very often presents the ‘theme’ of the Mass. For instance at a Mass for the Dead we sing, “Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.” And on Christmas Day, “Today Christ is born, today the Saviour has appeared.” The text is called the Entrance Antiphon or Introit, because it is supposed to be sung as the Sacred Ministers enter the church for the start of the Mass.
Here at Holy Family we sing these texts in English, but the original is in Latin. This is not only because Latin is the language which reinforces the universal nature of the liturgy (i.e., what we do here is the same as what other Christians will do today in Rome, or Krakow, or Manila), but also because the texts and their accompanying chants are very ancient indeed. Many of them stretch back to at least the ninth and tenth centuries, and so by using these texts even in the simpler forms used here at Holy Family our worship is immediately connected with the Church throughout time, and throughout the world today.
So important are the texts of the Introit, in fact, that in some cases the day or Mass that is celebrated has taken its name from the first word of the text, called the incipit. How often do we hear the phrase “Requiem Mass” used to describe a Mass for the Dead simply because the Entrance Antiphon at that Mass begins with the words Requiem æternam, dona eis Domine ? In Advent, too, the Rorate Mass celebrated early in the morning by candlelight begins with the antiphon Rorate cæli desuper. Some of these titles have even made their way into literature and popular culture. Think of the novel or film The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the main character of the hunchback called “Quasimodo,” because he was found as a baby on the steps of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on the Sunday after Easter, when the Entrance Antiphon at Mass is Quasi modo genti infantes.
The Third Sunday of Advent, which we keep today, is an example of exactly this and is often referred to as Gaudete Sunday because (as we know from the Entrance Antiphon we sang at the start of Mass) the text that opens the liturgy today is, “Rejoice in the Lord always;” a text that in Latin begins with the word Gaudete, which means “Rejoice.” So the character of today—given us in just that very first word of the Mass—is one of rejoicing, albeit in the context of Advent, so marked by restraint, penance, and prayer as we await the coming of Christ.
If this characteristic of joy is so central to our worship today that the whole day takes its name from it, what (we might ask) is the cause of our celebration? Here it is helpful to look over to our Advent Wreath where, today, we see the third of five candles burning brightly. This means that for the first time since the start of Advent, light has now overtaken the darkness. The symbolism of the wreath is not strictly liturgical, but it helpful because it shows us that light of Christ that comes at Christmas is now so near, so definite, that it evokes a certain anticipation and excitement in us about at what is around the corner. One commentator on the texts for today writes: “Who can be near so burning a fire, and yet be cold? Do we not feel that He is coming to us, in spite of all the obstacles?” And so Christians are today filled with a kind-of nervous joy as we glimpse the end of the tunnel, and the light of Christ awaiting us there.
But although for this reason our joy today is real, come tomorrow morning we will return to the restraint and penance that is proper to this Advent time. If we are so close to Christmas that we can feel the warmth and see the light of the Christ Who will come why does the Church ask us to go back to our penitential ways? Perhaps it is a little like this: just as athletes who have turned the corner in their race see the finishing line just ahead, we who are running the race of Advent now glimpse with certainty the coming of Christ, feel an extra twinge of excitement but still know that if we are to reach our goal we must push ourselves to reach the end. We are filled today with a new zeal, but at the same time we are encouraged to increase our devotions, and the intensity of those devotions, so that come Christmas we may be truly ready to receive the Lord of life.
And so I want to suggest two simple but important ways to power through, as it were, these last few days of Advent, in order to reach Christmas truly ready to welcome Christ anew. First, I want to encourage you to come to, and pay attention to the texts at, the Mass on these final weekdays of Advent. The liturgy in these final days of Advent reaches a new intensity in which the Church at prayer calls out to Her Lord with added fervour and devotion. I want to invite you to come and to hear the voice of the Church and to prepare with us for the coming of Christ through the power and beauty of Her worship. Set aside time this week to come to Mass, and prioritise your spiritual preparation for Christmas with at least the same seriousness (if not more!) as the last minute shopping, gift wrapping, and preparations for the turkey.
Secondly, I want to encourage you to prepare for and to make a good confession of your sins through the Sacrament of Confession. Use the intensity and joy of today as a starting point and springboard for a new desire for holiness in your life, and see this final push of Advent as a necessary way to reach the goal of being truly ready to receive Christ when He comes. If you’ve been away from confession for a while, make this week the time to return. It is the greatest Christmas gift for any priest to hear of someone returning to the sacrament after a time away. Make this poor priest’s Christmas, and at the same time imitate the Christ Child who comes in humility, recognising that we also need to be humble in order to be true children of God, and to live always in His love. God who calls us to Himself is faithful; be faithful to Him as He comes to share with us His divine life.
My friends, today we rejoice because we know with a new certainty and conviction that Christ will come to save His people, to save us, from sin and death. As we turn now to watch for His coming in these final days of the season of Advent, may we do all that is necessary to be truly prepared to receive Him.