Amidst all this activity the Advent liturgy mounts steadily and with increasing intensity along the path towards the divine condescension of Christmas night. For food for contemplation in this beautiful season he monk need not look much further than to his Antiphonale Monasticum and breviary.
The third Sunday of Advent, “Gaudete” Sunday as it is known from the Introit of tomorrow’s Mass, provides proper antiphons for the different hours, as do the other Sundays of Advent. As we prepare to rejoice with the Church in rose vestments this Sunday, I wish to ponder these antiphons a little.
Veniet Dominus et non tardabit, et illuminabit abscondita tenebrarum et manifestabit se ad omnes gentes. (Habakuk 2:3) “The Lord will come and will not delay. He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will manifest Himself to all nations.”
There are foreboding facts here. The Lord will come. He will expose hidden things of darkness. He will show Himself to all nations.
Very few of us wish our hidden, dark acts to be exposed. We are rightly ashamed of our sins, of our unconverted lives. And before the Lord this shame simply intensifies the more we come to understand that it is He who loves us so much that we have offend when we choose darkness as opposed to His light.
And yet, the second antiphon sings: Jerusalem gaude gaudio magno quia veniet tibi salvator. (Zachariah 9:9) “Rejoice, Jerusalem, with great joy, for thy saviour will come to thee.” It is our saviour who is coming. We are to rejoice. In spite of the hidden things of darkness that blacken our souls, the Lord is coming. He is coming precisely to save us. The foreboding our shame evokes should give rise to joy. He will do what is necessary for our salvation. Our hidden things of darkness are brought to light – they are brought into the light of Christ. It is in this sense that the Church adds “Alleluia” to the first four of these antiphons.
The third antiphon, Dabo in Sion salutem, et in Ierusalem gloriam meam. (Isaiah 46:13) “I will give salvation in Sion, and My glory in Jerusalem,” indicates where this salvation is to be found: in the Holy City of the People of God, in the One True Church founded by the Saviour Himself. We must enter into that covenental and ecclesial relationship with God in order to enjoy His gifts.
The fourth antiphon – and let us be careful not to miss its import given that it is sung only at Lauds – speaks of the effect of the coming of our Saviour: Montes et omnes colles humiliabuntur et erunt prava in directa et aspera in vias planas. Veni Domine et noli tardare. (Isaiah 40:4) “Mountains and hills shall be levelled; crooked paths shall be made straight and rough ways smooth.” And it prays “Come, Lord, and delay not.”
Of course this requires the levelling of the mountains we ourselves have erected, the straightening of the crooked paths we have walked or down which we have even led others, the smoothing of the surfaces our sins have made rough. Amidst the rightful rejoicing at the coming of our Saviour we have work to do: the examination of our consciences, the making of a good confession – the very welcoming of the person and the power of the Saviour into my heart and soul.
The fifth antiphon exhorts us in the words of St Paul: Iuste et pie vivamus, exspectantes beatam spem et adventum Domini. (Titus 2: 12,13) “Let us live justly and piously looking for the blessed hope and the coming of the Lord.” This sober exhortation – which enjoys no “Alleluia” - is surely the standard for every day of Christian life and is surely even more apposite in the busy days leading up to Christmas, particularly if we allow the content of the Sacred Liturgy of these days to penetrate our hearts and souls.
One further note: Just as we need to take time to lean the chant of these antiphons and their associated tones, so too it will take time for our minds and our hearts – indeed each small and large aspect of our lives - to accord with what we sing (cf. Rule ch. 19). One of the great and fecund joys of living the monastic liturgy is the annual revisiting of the liturgical rites, of singing them each year not only with the ease that increasing familiarity brings, but with that ever more profound contemplation of the truths that their words and melodies convey so that our monastic lives – our Christian lives – are as beautiful as the chant we sing.
To that challenge, with the help of the manifold graces given us in this beautiful season of Advent, let us lift up our heads and rise! +