The Traditional Catholic Liturgy

Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger

The Liturgy of Christmas—First Vespers

Christmas Eve, with its own happy spirit, is drawing to a close. Already has the Church terminated all Her Advent Offices, by the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. In former times the fast of this day was often somewhat mitigated, though always observed.

But so great a Solemnity as that of tomorrow could not possibly be an exception to that usage of the Church whereby She anticipates all Her Feasts on their Eves. In the early evening, the Office of First Vespers, in which is offered to God the evening incense, would call the faithful to the Church, and the splendor of the function, and the magnificence of the chants, would open their hearts to those feelings of love and gratitude which would prepare them to receive the graces of this night.

Let us endeavor to gain a clear knowledge of the Mystery of this Feast; and let us absorb well the sentiments and spirit of the Church. We shall be assisted to do both by considering some of the principal traditions which attach to this joyful Solemnity.

Let us begin by listening to the Holy Fathers speaking of Christmas Day with an eloquence worthy of the Feast. A Father of the Latin Church, the devout St. Bernard, in his Sixth Sermon for Christmas Eve, pours forth his heart's joy in these fervent words:

"We have just heard the saying, which is full of grace, and worthy of all acceptation: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is born in Bethlehem of Juda. At these words my soul melts with love, yea, and my spirit that is within me burns with impatience to tell you, as in other years, of this joy, this thrilling joy. Jesus means Savior. And what so necessary to them that are lost? what so precious to them that are in despair? Besides, what salvation, what chance of salvation, was there in the law of sin, in that body of death, in so evil a day, and in such a place of affliction—had not a new an unlooked-for Salvation been born? Say not that thou dost indeed desire salvation, but that, knowing thy delicacy and the grievousness of thy sickness, thou fearest lest the cure be violent. No, fear not: this Jesus is Christ, that is, He is all sweetness: He is meek and plenteous in mercy; he is anointed with the oil of gladness above His fellows, that is, above them who, though they receive not the fullness, yet receive of His fullness. Yet lest thou shouldst think that because this Jesus is the Anointed with sweetness, He is therefore weak in power, it is added, He is the Son of God… Let us, then, be exceeding glad, as we think over within ourselves, or say to each other, this sweet sentence: Jesus Christ—the Son of God—is born in Bethlehem of Juda!"

Glorious day, indeed, is this of the Birth of the Savior! It had been looked forward to by the human race for four thousand years. The Church has prepared for it by the four weeks of Her Advent, a Season which has ever such a charm about it. Nature, too, longs for this day, when the sun begins his yearly victory over the dreary reign of wintry darkness. A Holy Doctor of the Syrian Church, St. Ephrem, has written the most admirable words on the beauty and fruitful virtue of this mysterious day. Let us borrow some of these and say them with his enthusiasm:

"Grant, O Lord! that we may now celebrate this the Day of Thy Birth, which today's Solemnity brings round to us. This Day is like Thyself—it is the friend of mankind. It comes to us in its regular course, visiting us each year. It grows old with the old; it is young and fresh with little children. We remember when we were young, how it came and passed away; and here it is again, faithful as ever in its welcome visit. It knows that nature could not do without it; here again like to Thee, it comes in search of our fallen race. The whole earth thirsts after Thy Birthday, O Jesus! It stands, as it were, between the past and the future, commanding all ages, as Thou dost. It is one, and yet it multiplies itself, as Thou dost. And since we behold Thy past Birthday in this present Feast, make the two resemble each other in this also—that as Thy Birthday brought Peace between Heaven and earth, when the infinitely High God descended to this low earth; so may this solemnity signify and give us Peace… And truly, if every day of the year be rich in Thy gifts, how much more ought not this to overflow with them?

"The other days of the year borrow their beauty from this, and the other Feasts owe to this all their solemnity and loveliness… Thy Birthday, O Jesus, is a treasure out of which we all take wherewith to pay our debts… Blessed be the Day which has brought us back the Sun, after we had been wandering in the dark night; which has brought us the Divine Sheaf that enriches us with fullness; which has given us the Vine-Branch that is to yield us, in due time, the cup of our salvation… In the bosom of that Winter which robs our trees of their fruit, the virgin Vine has given forth its divine growth. In the Season of frost, which strips our plants of their beauty, the Root of Jesse has given us its Bud. It is in December, which hides the seed sown in the earth, that the Wheat of our salvation appears from the Virgin's womb, into which He had entered in that fresh Springtime, when the lambs were skipping in our meadows." (Third Sermon on Our Lord's Nativity)

Baptism of King Clovis - Christmas, 496 It is not, therefore, to be wondered at, if this day, which, we may say, is an important one even to God Himself, has been made a privileged one above those of the rest of the year. The Holy Doctors, and the Church Herself in Her Liturgy, allude continually to the material sun being the symbol of Him Who is called the Sun of Justice. Then again, there is the venerable tradition which tells us that the Incarnation of the Son of God having been accomplished on a Friday, March 25, the Birth of Jesus, the Light of the World, on December 25 must have taken place on a Sunday. This gives a peculiar sacredness to Christmas Day when it falls on a Sunday, as it was on that day of the week that God began the Creation, and said: Let there be light! And on the same day, also, Our Lord rose from the tomb.

In order to impress the nations of Europe, that is, of the favored portion of the Church, with the importance of this ever-blessed day, God, Who is the Sovereign Ruler of all things, has willed that on it should happen certain events of intense interest. We will select three of these. To begin with the first in order of time: it was on a Christmas Day that the Kingdom of the Franks was founded; for it was on this glorious Solemnity that King Clovis was baptized at Rheims by St. Remigius. The haughty Sicambrian, thus admitted into the Fold of Christ, became a meek and humble Christian, and the founder of the first Catholic monarchy, which later became the nation of France.

A century later, that is in the year 596, England was converted to the true Faith by the labors of St. Augustine of Canterbury, of whom St. Gregory the Great, who sent him, says: "He was a Monk of my Monastery." This holy missionary had baptized King Ethelbert, and travelled through the land, preaching everywhere the Name and Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Having reached York, he preached the word of Eternal Life to the people, and when he had ended, they sought baptism from his hands. Christmas Day was fixed upon for the regeneration of the Catechumens, and the river which flows through the city was chosen as the Baptismal Font. Ten thousand men, not counting women and children, went down into this stream, whose waters were to cleanse their souls. The severity of the season was unheeded by those fervent disciples of the Babe of Bethlehem, who, but a few days before, knew not so much as His Name. From the icy waters there came, full of joy and innocence, the long line of Neophytes, and the Birthday of Jesus counted, that year, one nation more as belonging to His Kingdom.

Coronation of Charlemagne Three hundred years after this, God gave us another glorious event in honor of the Birthday of His Son. It was on this divine Anniversary, in the year 800, and at Rome, in the Basilica of St. Peter, that the Holy Roman Empire was created, to which God assigned the grand mission of propagating the Kingdom of Christ among the barbarian nations of the North, and of upholding, under the direction of the Sovereign Pontiff, the confederation and unity of Europe. St. Leo III crowned St. Karl the Great Emperor. Here, then, was a new Caesar, a new Augustus, on the earth; not, indeed, a successor of those ancient Lords of Pagan Rome, but one who was invested with the title and power by the Vicar of Him Who is called, in the Sacred Scriptures, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Thus has God glorified, in the eyes of men, the Divine Babe Who is this day born; thus has He prepared, at various times, worthy anniversaries of that Birth which gave glory to God and Peace to men. Time will reveal in what other ways the Most High still wishes to magnify, upon this 25th of December, Himself and His Christ.

Impressed with the extreme importance of this Feast, and justly looking upon it as the beginning of the Era of the world's regeneration, the nations of the West, for a long time, began their year with Christmas Day, as we find in the ancient Calendars, in the Martyrologies of Usuard and Ado, and in numberless Bulls, Charts and Diplomas. It is evident, from a Council held at Cologne in 1310, that this manner of computing the year was still observed at that time. In several countries of Europe, the custom has been kept up of wishing a Happy Christmas, which was the ancient salutation when this Feast was the beginning of a new year. Hence, too, in these countries, the custom of giving gifts, of writing letters of good wishes, and other friendly acts. How many of our practices of everyday life have originated from Faith, and yet are looked upon as mere consequences of natural good-feeling, or even compliments which society requires us to pay to each other!

To encourage Her children in their Christmas joy, the Church has dispensed with the law of abstinence, should this Feast fall on a Friday. This dispensation was granted by Pope Honorius III, who ascended the Papal Throne in 1216. It is true that we find it mentioned by Pope St. Nicholas I, in the 9th century, but the dispensation was not then universal. That Pontiff was replying to the consultations of the Bulgarians, to whom he conceded this indulgence, in order to encourage them to celebrate these Feasts with solemnity and joy: Christmas Day, St. Stephen, St. John the Evangelist, the Epiphany, the Assumption of Our Lady, St. John the Baptist, and Ss. Peter and Paul. When the dispensation for Christmas Day was extended to the whole Church, those other Feasts were not mentioned.

In the Middle Ages, the Civil Law, also, contributed to the people's love of Christmas, by enacting that no creditor could demand any payment from his debtors during the entire Octave of Christmas, which was called, on that account, the week of remission—a name which it had in common with the weeks of Easter and Pentecost.

First Vespers of Christmas marks the first occasion for chanting the beautiful hymn, Jesu Redemptor Omnium, which is frequently repeated during the Christmas Season. It was composed by St. Ambrose:

Jesus, Redeemer of the world, Who, ere the earliest dawn of light,
Wast from eternal ages born, immense in glory as in might.

Immortal Hope of all mankind, in Whom the Father's face we see,
Hear Thou the prayers Thy people pour this day throughout the world to Thee.

Remember, O Creator Lord! That in the Virgin's sacred womb
Thou wast conceived, and of Her flesh didst our mortality assume.

This ever blest recurring day, its witness bears, that all alone,
From Thy own Father's bosom forth, to save the world Thou camest down.

O Day! to which the seas and sky, and earth and Heaven glad welcome sing;
O Day! which healed our misery, and brought on earth salvation's King.

We, too, O Lord, who have been cleansed in Thine own fount of Blood Divine,
Offer this tribute of sweet song on this blest natal day of Thine.

O Jesu, born of Virgin bright, Immortal glory be to Thee;
Praise to the Father infinite and Holy Ghost eternally. Amen.

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