New Liturgical Movement: Great Rites Think Alike!

On Christmas Eve, an old and dear friend of mine asked an interesting question on a Facebook discussion group for the Breviary and Divine Office, of which I am a moderator. On the same day, I happened to discover a very interesting parallel between the Roman and Byzantine Rites which ties in with his question.

New Liturgical Movement: Great Rites Think Alike!

My friend asked, “Does anyone know a particular significance to the ‘cras(tina die)’ in most of today’s Little Hours, while Terce and the Mass have ‘hodie (scietis)’? Why do Prime, Sext and None focus on tomorrow, while Terce and the Mass focus on today?”

The first two antiphons of Lauds of the vigil of Christmas, Judaea et Jerusalem and Hodie scietis, in an antiphonary made in 1757 for the Swiss abbey of St Gallen. (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1762: antiphonary, winter part, p. 45; https://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/list/one/csg/1762).

As a premise to the answer: from the absence of Advent in the so-called Leonine Sacramentary and the oldest list of Roman Gospel readings, from the fact that the most ancient Roman liturgical books all start with the vigil of Christmas, and from the fact that the oldest Roman sacramentary puts Advent at the end of the Sanctorale, rather than in the Temporale, it seems clear that the season was added to the Roman Rite sometime between the compilation of the Leonine Sacramentary in the mid-6th century, and the days of St Gregory the Great, who died in 604. This would mean that originally, the vigil of Christmas did ALL the liturgical work of preparing for Christmas, just as the other great solemnities (Ss Peter and Paul, Lawrence, Assumption) only have the one day of preparation.

All of the HODIEs on the vigil of Christmas (Today ye shall know that the Lord will come) are joined to the statement “et mane videbitis gloriam ejus – and in the morning ye shall see His glory.” Which is to say, today, on the vigil, you shall know that God’s salvation is revealed in the Birth of Christ, but you will not actually see it until tomorrow. This forms a parallel with the vigil of Easter, at which we know that the Lord will rise, but we only come to see Him risen on Easter morning.

The verses of which “Hodie scietis” is a paraphrase, Exodus 16, 6-7, are part of the Epistle added in the post-Carolingian era to the blessing of palms on Palm Sunday. As I explained in an article last year, in the context of that blessing, the precise words of that verse, “Vespere scietis quod Dominus eduxerit vos de Aegypto – In the evening you shall know that the Lord hath led you out of Egypt”, refer to the Gospel of the Easter vigil, Matthew 28, 1-7, which begins with the words “Vespere autem Sabbati – on the eve of the Sabbath.” The second part of it, “et mane videbitis gloriam Domini – and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord,” look forward to the second verse of the Gospel of Easter morning, Mark 16, 1-7, “Et valde mane una sabbatorum – And very early in the morning, the first day of the week.” And indeed, we may reasonably guess that the medieval cleric who added this Epistle to the blessing of Palms was inspired not only by the reference to palms at its beginning, but also by the use of this verse on the vigil of Christmas.

The contrast of Hodie and Cras, today and tomorrow, therefore expresses the vigil’s purpose, which is not an early show of the feast itself, but a day of preparation; today we make ready for what we know is coming tomorrow.

The Introit of the Vigil of Christmas

Later in the day, I just happened to take a look at the Byzantine liturgical texts for December 24th, and made a fascinating discovery of a similar parallel between the vigil of Christmas and Holy Saturday. The Hour of Orthros, the longest and most complex part of the Divine Office, has every day one or more Canons, a group of chants based on a series of Biblical canticles called Odes. (I explained this feature in greater detail on the feast of the Transfiguration.) The Canon of Holy Saturday is rightly considered one of the finest masterpieces of this liturgical genre; on the vigil of Christmas, it is partly rewritten to make it appropriate for that occasion. For example, these are the first chants from the two versions of the Canon sung with the first Ode, Exodus 15, 1-19, the song which Moses sang at the crossing of the Red Sea. A decent English translation requires changing the word order, but the parallels are even more evident in the original Greek.Holy Saturday, First Ode: The children of them that were saved hid beneath the earth Him that of old hid the persecuting tyrant beneath the wave of the sea. But let us, like the young women, sing to the Lord, for He is greatly glorified. (This is a poetic way of saying that the Israelites buried Christ, who had saved them from Pharaoh at the crossing of the Red Sea; the “young women” are Miriam and the other Israelite women who repeat the Song of Moses in Exodus 15, 20-21.)Christmas Eve, First Ode: Herod seeketh to kill Him that is hidden in the manger, who of old hid the persecuting tyrant beneath the wave of the sea. But let us sing with the Magi, let us sing to the Lord, for He is greatly glorified.

There are over 30 examples of these parallel texts between the two Canons, so I will give only the first from each set. (The second of the Biblical Odes, Deuteronomy 32, 1-43, is only sung in Lent, and has no corresponding chants for the Canon on either of these days, which is why we skip from first to third.)

The canticle of Anna, 1 Samuel, 2, 1-10Holy Saturday, Third Ode: Beholding Thee, who without restraint hung the whole earth upon the waters, hanging upon Golgotha, it was seized with much amazement, crying out “There is none holy beside Thee, o Lord!”Christmas Eve, Third Ode: Beholding Thee, who without restraint hung the whole earth upon the waters, being born in the cave, it was seized with amazement, crying out “There is none holy beside Thee, o Lord!”

The canticle of Habbakuk, 3, 1-19Holy Saturday, Fourth Ode: Foreseeing Thy divine emptying upon the Cross, Habakkuk was astonished and cried out, “Thou didst break the might of the powers (i.e. of hell), o Good one, speaking to those in hell, as the Almighty.”Christmas Eve, Fourth Ode: Foreseeing Thy coming from the Virgin, Habakkuk was astonished and cried out, “Being incarnate, Thou didst come from Theman (vs.), o Redeemer, to call back Adam who had been rejected.” (Here there is a something of a pun between “Adei – hell” and “Adam” in Greek.)

The canticle of Isaiah, 26, 9-20Holy Saturday, Fifth Ode: Isaiah, having seen the light that knows no setting of Thy manifestation, o Christ, which was made unto us in Thy compassion, he woke before done from the night and cried out, “The dead shall rise, and they that are in the tombs shall be raised up, and they that are on the earth shall rejoice.”Christmas Eve, Fifth Ode: Isaiah, having seen the light that knows no setting of Thy manifestation, o Christ, which was made unto us in Thy compassion, he woke before done from the night and cried out, “Behold the Virgin shall conceive, and shall bear the Word made flesh, and they that are on the earth shall rejoice.”

The canticle of Jonah, 2, 3-10Holy Saturday, Sixth Ode: Jonah was caught but not held in the belly of a whale, for bearing the type of Thee, who suffered and wast given to burial, he leapt up from the beast as from a bridal chamber, and cried out to the guards, “Ye who keep guard falsely and in vain have forsaken your own mercy.”Christmas Eve, Sixth Ode: Jonah was caught but not held in the belly of a whale, for bearing the type of Thee, who wast born and made manifest in the flesh, he leapt up from the beast as from a bridal chamber; for having been begotten according to the flesh, and undergone burial and death in the flesh, Thou shalt rise up on the third day.

The Prayer of Azariah, Daniel 3, 26-56Holy Saturday, Seventh Ode: O ineffable wonder! He who in the furnace delivered the Holy Children from the fire, being dead in the tomb, is laid down without breath for the salvation of them that sing, “O Redeemer, Thou art the blessèd God.”Christmas Eve, Seventh Ode: O ineffable wonder! He who in the furnace delivered the Holy Children from the fire, as an infant is laid down in a poor manger for the salvation of them that sing, “O Redeemer, Thou art the blessèd God.”The Song of the Three Children, Daniel 3, 57-88Holy Saturday, Eighth Ode: Be astonished and shudder, o heaven, and let the foundations of the earth be shaken; for behold, He is reckoned among the dead, who dwelleth on high, and received as a stranger in a small tomb; whom do ye bless, o children, and lift up in song, ye priests; exalt Him above all, ye people, unto all ages.Christmas Eve, Eighth Ode: Be astonished and shudder, o heaven, and let the foundations of the earth be shaken; for behold, He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, who beareth all things in His hand, and received as a stranger in a small manger; whom do ye bless, o children, and lift up in song, ye priests; exalt Him above all, ye people, unto all ages.The Magnificat, Luke 1, 46-55Holy Saturday, Ninth Ode: Weep not over me, Mother, as Thou beholdest me in the tomb, Thy Son whom Thou didst conceive in the womb without seed; for I shall rise and be glorified, and as God, shall unceasingly exalt in glory them that magnify Thee in faith and love.Christmas Eve, Ninth Ode: Be not now astonished, Mother, as Thou beholdest me an infant, whom the Father begot from the womb before the daystar (Ps. 109, 3); for of this counsel to raise up glorified with me the fallen nature of mortals, that magnifieth Thee in faith and love.

A Greek icon of the Nativity of Christ, by Moskos Ilias, 1658. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

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