In the early ages of the Church, every great Feast was prepared for by long Vigils; during which the people deprived themselves of their usual rest, and spent the hours in the Church, fervently joining in the Psalms and Lessons which made up that part of the Divine Office which we now call Matins. The night was divided into three parts called Nocturns. At dawn of day they resumed their chants in a part of the Office which was even more solemn than Matins: it was one of praise, and from this characteristic, was called by the name of Lauds. This Service, which occupied a very considerable part of the night, was still kept up in later times, though at an hour less trying to nature. Matins and Lauds are by far the longest portion of the Divine Office, which is still recited by the true Catholic clergy in Major Orders. With the passage of time, the lack of the old spirit of devoted appreciation of the Liturgy made the laity indifferent to being present at the celebration of Matins. Thus, there were very few places where the people assisted at Matins, excepting four times in the year: namely, on the last three days of Holy Week (the Office of Tenebrae), and before Christmas Midnight Mass. It was only on the last named that the Office was chanted at the same hour as anciently; for with regard to Tenebrae, they were generally anticipated in the early evening preceding each of the three days.
The Office of Christmas Night has always been said or sung with extraordinary solemnity. Firstly, it was so just that the moments immediately preceding the Hour when the Holy Mother gave birth to Her Jesus, should be spent in the most fervent prayers and watchings! But, secondly, the Church is not satisfied tonight with saying Her Matins—She does so every night—She follows them by the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, that so She may the better solemnize the Divine Birth; and She begins Her Mass at Midnight, for it was at that silent hour that the Virgin Mother gave us the Blessed Fruit of Her Womb. We cannot be surprised that the faithful, in many parts of Christendom, used to spend the whole Night in church.
In Rome, for many centuries—at least from the 7th to the 11th—two Matins were sung, the first in the Basilica of St. Mary Major. They commenced immediately after sunset. There was no Invitatory. As soon as they were ended, the Pope celebrated the first or midnight Mass. No sooner was it finished, than the people accompanied him to the Church of St. Anastasia, and there he sang the second Mass, or, as it was called, of the Dawn. Again, the Pontiff and people formed a procession—this time it was to St. Peter's—and having entered the Basilica, the second Matins were begun. They had an Invitatory, and were followed by Lauds. After the other Hours (Prime and Terce) had been recited, the Pope said the third and last Mass at about 9 o'clock.
How lively was the faith of those olden times! To people who lived unceasingly amidst the Mysteries of Religion, Prayer was a tie which knit them closely together, and made them pass hours in the Church without weariness. They understood the value of the Prayers of the Church; and the Ceremonies of the Liturgy, which complete the tribute of man's inward worship of his Creator, were not looked upon as a mere show, or at best as unmeaning poetry introduced for effect, as unfortunately they so often were in later times. What, in our days, are found only in a few individuals, were then in the mass of the people—faith, and a keen sense of the supernatural.
How charming it is to see the old Catholic customs still kept up in some families! In former times, one of the most pleasant recollections of childhood was that of Christmas Eve—families seated together after the frugal evening meal, round a blazing fireside, waiting for the hour to come when the whole household was to go to the midnight Mass. A plain but savory supper, which was to be eaten on their return home, and so add to the joy of the holy Christmas Night, was prepared beforehand. A huge piece of wood, called the Yule-log, was burning cheerfully on the hearth; it would last till the Mass was over, and warm the old men and the little children, as they came in chilled by the sharp frost. Meanwhile, till it was time for Mass, their conversation was upon the Mystery of this much-loved Night. They compassionated their Blessed Mother and the sweet Babe, exposed to the inclemency of wintry weather, and with no other shelter than that of a wretched stable. Then, too, there were the Christmas Carols, in the practice of which they had spent many a pleasant evening of Advent. Their whole soul was evidently in these dear old melodies, and many a tear would fall as the song went on to tell how the Angel Gabriel visited Mary, and declared to Her that She was to be the Mother of the Most High God; how Mary and Joseph were worn with fatigue, going from street to street in Bethlehem, trying to find a lodging, and no one would take them in; how they were obliged to shelter in a stable, and how the Divine Child was born in it; how the loveliness of the Babe in His little crib was above all the beauty of the Angels; how the Shepherds went to see Him, and took their humble gifts, and played their rude music, and adored Him in the faith of their simple hearts. And thus they spent the happy Eve, passing from conversation to song, and from one song to another, and all was on Mary or Jesus, Joseph or Bethlehem. Cares of life were forgotten, troubles were gone, melancholy was a sin; but it was time to leave; the village clock had just struck eleven; and of the happy group, there was a little one who had been too young in previous years, and this was his first Midnight Mass. There was no brighter face in the procession than his. He would never forget that beautiful Night!
There are three places on this earth of ours which we should visit this night. For two of them, it can only be in spirit. The first is Bethlehem, and the Cave of the Nativity, which is Bethlehem's glory. Let us approach it with respectful awe, and contemplate the humble dwelling which the Son of the Eternal God chose for His first home. It is a Stable in the hollow of a rock, just outside the city walls. It is about forty feet long by twelve in width. The ox and the ass, as spoken of by the Prophet, are there, standing near the Manger, mute witnesses of the Divine Mystery to which man refused to lend his own dwelling.
Joseph and Mary enter into the Stable-Cave. It is night, and all nature is buried in silence; but these two Hearts are sending up their praise and adoration to God, Who thus deigns to atone for man's pride. The Virgin-Mother prepares the Clothes which are to swathe the limbs of the Divine Infant, and longs, though with a most tranquil patience, for the blissful moment when She shall have the first sight of the Blessed Fruit of Her womb, kiss Him, caress Him and feed Him.
Our Jesus, on His part, now that He is about to leave the sanctuary of His Mother's womb, and make His visible entrance into this world of sin, adores His Heavenly Father, and, according to the revelation of the Psalmist, which is commented by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Hebrews, thus speaks: Sacrifice and oblation Thou willedst not; but a Body Thou hast fitted unto Me. Holocaust for sin did not please Thee. Then said I, behold I come. In the head of the Book it is written of Me that I should do Thy will, O God! (Heb. 10: 5, 6, 7)
All this was happening in the Stable at Bethlehem, about this very hour of the night. The Angels of God were singing their anthems of praise to this His incomprehensible mercy towards His rebel creatures. They looked down with admiration upon the Mother of their God, the Mystical Rose, whose hidden beauty was soon to bloom and fill the world with its fragrance.
O happy Cave of Bethlehem! scene of these stupendous Mysteries! Who is there that can forget it tonight? Who is there that does not love it above the richest palaces of kings? From the very commencement of Christianity it was the object of men's deepest veneration. When later on, God sent the great St. Helena to resuscitate in His Church the knowledge and love of the Holy Places of Palestine, one of the works of the holy Empress was to build a magnificent Basilica over the spot, where stands this trophy of God's love for His creatures.
Let us go in spirit to this venerable Basilica (and to an earlier time); we would have found there groups of infidels and schismatics, but we would also have found the Religious who had the care of it, preparing to sing the same Matins, and in the same Latin tongue as the rest of the Roman Church. These Religious were the Children of St. Francis, heroic followers of the poverty of their Divine Master, the Infant of Bethlehem. Because they were poor and humble, they therefore had for hundreds of years the honor of being the sole guardians of these Holy Places, which the Crusaders grew tired of defending. Let us pray in union with them tonight; and go with them in spirit to kiss that sacred spot of the Cave, where was written in letters of gold: Here was Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary (Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est).
In vain, however, would we seek at Bethlehem for the holy Crib in which the Infant Jesus lay. The curse of God had struck that unhappy country, and deprived it of this precious relic, which since the 7th century has been venerated in the center of Catholicity—Rome, the favored Spouse of Christ.
Rome, then, is the second place we must visit in spirit on this blessed Night. And in the Holy City itself there is one special Sanctuary which claims all our veneration and love. It is the Basilica of the Crib, the splendid Church of Saint Mary Major. Of all the Churches which the people of Rome have erected in honor of the Mother of God, this is the grandest. It stands on the Esquiline hill, rich in its marble and gold, but richer still in possessing, together with the Portrait of Our Lady painted by St. Luke, the humble yet glorious Crib of Jesus, of which the inscrutable designs of God have deprived Bethlehem. In times past, an immense concourse of people would assemble in the Basilica this night, awaiting the happy moment when this monument of the love and the humiliation of God would be brought in, carried on the shoulders of the Priests, as an Ark of the New Covenant, whose welcome sight gives the sinner confidence, and makes the just man thrill with joy. Thus has God willed that Rome, which was to be the new Jerusalem, should be also the new Bethlehem; and that the children of the Church should find, in this the center of their Faith, the varied and exhaustless nourishment of their Love.
But the Basilica of the Crib is not the only sanctuary in Rome which has an attraction for us tonight. An imposing ceremony, which embodied a profound mystery, used to take place, at this very hour, in the palace of the Vatican, near the Tomb of St. Peter.
The Divine Infant, Who is to be born amongst us, is the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace, Whose government is upon His shoulders (Is. 9: 6), as the Church sings tomorrow. We have already seen how the God of Hosts has honored this power of Emmanuel, by leading powerful Nations to acknowledge Him Who lay in the Crib of Bethlehem as the Lord to Whom they owed their adoring fealty. The same recognition of that Babe as the Mighty God was made by the ceremony to which we allude. The Sovereign Pontiff, the Vicar of our Emmanuel, blessed, in His Name, a Sword and Helmet, which were to be sent to some Catholic warrior who had served well the Christian world. In a letter addressed to Queen Mary of England and to Philip, her husband, Cardinal Pole gave an explanation of this solemn rite. The sword was sent to some Prince, whom the Vicar of Christ wished to honor in the Name of Jesus, Who is King; for the Angel said to Mary: The Lord will give unto Him the Throne of David His father (Luke 1: 32). It is from Him alone that the power of the sword comes (Rom. 13: 3,4); for God said to Cyrus: I have girded thee (with the sword) (Is. 45: 1, 5); and the Psalmist thus speaks to the Christ of God: Gird Thy Sword upon Thy thigh, O Thou most Mighty! (Ps. 44: 4). And because the Sword should not be drawn save in the cause of justice, it is for that reason that a Sword is blessed on this Night, in the midst of which rises, born unto us, the divine Sun of Justice. On the Helmet, which is both the ornament and protection of the head, there is worked, in pearls, the Dove, which is the emblem of the Holy Ghost; and this to teach him who wears it that it is not from passion or ambition that he must use his sword, but solely under the guidance of the divine Spirit, and from a motive of spreading the Kingdom of Christ.
How beautiful is this union of energy and meekness under the one symbol and ceremony! What a grand list it would be, had we the names of all those glorious Christian Warriors, who were thus created Knights of the Church, at this solemn hour, when we celebrate the Birth of Him Who came to vanquish our enemy! We are going to adore this Babe in His Crib; let us think of our Mother's teaching, and pay homage to Him as Prince and King, and beseech Him to humble the enemies of His Church, and vanquish those who are leagued against both our perfection and salvation.
And now to the third of the sanctuaries, wherein is to be effected, this Night, the mystery of the Birth of Jesus. This third Sanctuary is near us—it is our own heart, the Bethlehem that Jesus desires to visit, and in which He would be born, there to live and grow unto a perfect man, as St. Paul expresses it (Eph. 4: 13). Why, after all, was He born in the stable of the city of David, but that He might make sure of our heart, which He loved with an everlasting love, and so ardently that He came down from Heaven to dwell in it? Mary's virginal womb held Him but for nine months; He wishes us to keep Him forever in our dwelling!
O heart of man, thou living Bethlehem, hold thyself in readiness, and keep a glad feast! Already, thou hast prepared thyself for this union with thy Jesus by the confession of thy misdeeds, by the contrition of thy sins, and by the satisfaction thou hast made for them. Now, therefore, be all attention: He is coming in the Midnight. Let Him find everything ready—ready as were the Stable, the Crib and the Swaddling-clothes. True, thou hast nothing to offer Him like what Mary and Joseph had—She, a Mother's caresses; and he, the most solicitous and tender care; but thou hast an adoration and a love like those of the poor Shepherds, and these thou must offer. Like the Bethlehem yonder in the far east, thou art living in the midst of heresy, of infidelity, and of men who ignore the mystery of Divine Love: secret then, but hearty, must be thy prayers, like those which used to ascend this Night to Heaven from the few faithful ones who were assembled in the Holy Cave with the Sons of St. Francis in that unfortunate Palestine—the slave to the most degrading errors for so many centuries. On this glad Midnight, let thy soul become like that splendid Basilica of Rome, which possesses the two treasures, the Holy Crib and the venerable Portrait of the Virgin Mother. Let thy affections and thoughts be pure as the white marble of its pillars; thy charity bright as the gold which glitters on its ceiling; thy deeds shining as the countless tapers which light up its beauty, and turn this Night into the glare of a summer noon. Thou must learn, too, O soldier of Christ, to use a Christian's weapons; thou must fight thy way to the Crib of thy Jesus; thou must fight for thy position there, and maintain it by the unbroken loyalty of thy love; thou must fight for the happy consummation of thy victory—eternal union with Him. Treasure up these holy sentiments, and let them console and sanctify thee during these moments which precede the coming of Emmanuel into thee. O living Bethlehem! there is a word which Heaven gave thee for these moments; take it up, and let it be thy ceaseless prayer: Come, Lord Jesus, come! (Apoc. 22: 20)
It is time for us to depart; let us go in spirit back to happier times when the Church bells would waken up Bethlehem in the hearts of the faithful. How strange this joyous pealing at this midnight hour! But is not everything strange in this mysterious night of the Birth of God? He is going to show Himself to us—but it is to be in a Crib, and as a little Child. When He came on Sinai, it was surrounded with thick clouds of smoke, and amidst thunder and lightning: now, there is nothing but humility, stillness and loveliness beyond measure. The Moon, emblem of the brightness reflected from Jesus upon Mary, is shedding its soft light on our path. The stars are twinkling in the firmament, and make us think of the Star which is so soon to rise and guide the Magi to our Savior's Crib.
And whilst thus thinking over all these strange mysteries, we have reached, in spirit, the porch of the church. The Sanctuary sends its light down even to the threshold of the holy place. Beautiful sight, indeed! What wonder that King Clovis, as he entered the Church of Rheims on his first Christmas Night, stood dazzled with the blaze of light, and trembling with emotion said to St. Remigius, who had just baptized him: "Father, is this the Kingdom thou didst promise me?" "No, my son," replied the Bishop, "it is but the way that will lead thee to it."
Matins begin with the Invitatory—whereby the Church invites Her children every morning to come and adore the Lord. Tonight the invitation is made by the Angels, who call us to the Crib of the Redeemer; they speak to us in the words of Holy Church and the Royal Prophet: Christ is born unto us, come, let us adore! There follows the same Hymn intoned at First Vespers— Jesu, Redemptor Omnium.
Thus far are the preludes to the solemn Night Office which now commences. It is divided into three vigils, or Nocturns, each of which is composed of three Psalms with Antiphons, three Lessons, and three Responsories. These last are a sort of interlude after each Lesson; but the third Lesson of the Third Nocturn is followed by the Te Deum, which takes the place of a Responsory. The interpreters of the Liturgy thus explain the three Nocturns of tonight's Matins. The First signifies the time which preceded the Written Law, given by God to Moses. In the Middle Ages it was the custom to veil the Altar in black during this Nocturn, to express the sentence of condemnation pronounced by God against our first Parents, and the long ages which would then have to pass before the Redeemer came. The Second Nocturn signifies the time under the Written Law; and during this Nocturn the Altar was covered with a white veil, to denote that, under the Law, men received a greater degree of light, by the figures and prophecies of the Old Testament. And lastly, the Third Nocturn signifies the time under the Law of Grace. During this Nocturn the Altar was covered with a red veil, to symbolize the love of God for His Spouse the Church, whereby the Son of God and our souls are mystically united.
At Rome, if there were present in the Holy City the Knight who had received the Helmet and Sword, blessed, as we have described, by the Sovereign Pontiff, the Fifth Lesson was given to him to sing, because it speaks of the great Battle between Christ and Satan in the glorious mystery of the Incarnation. Whilst the Choir was singing the Responsory O magnum mysterium, the Knight was taken by the Master of Ceremonies to the Pope. Standing before the Holy Father, he drew his Sword, thrice setting its point on the ground, thrice brandishing it in the air, and then wiped the blade upon his left arm. He was taken to the Ambo, or reading-desk, took off his Helmet, and having vested the Cope over his armor, he sang the Lesson. These ceremonies of our Holy Mother, the Roman Church, were drawn up in days when might was not the same as right, and brute force was made subservient to moral power and principle. The Christian Warrior, cased in his steel armor, was resolved, as indeed he was bound, never to draw his sword save in the cause of Christ, the conqueror of Satan; therefore there was nothing strange in his expressing this by a sacred ceremony.
The three Lessons of the Third Nocturn are homilies commenting upon each of the three Gospels from the three Masses of Christmas. The last Lesson is followed, as we have said, by the Te Deum, which on this night expresses the jubilee of Holy Church at the arrival of the long-expected, ever-sacred hour of Midnight—the hour of the Birth of the Divine Infant Jesus. Matins are usually followed by the Hour of Lauds; but on this Holy Night, the anniversary of the Birth of our Savior is marked by the first of the three Masses—the Mass of Midnight.
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