The Coming of Christ: In Time, In Mass And In The End Times
A Reflection on Advent Carols
One of my main endeavors each year as Advent begins is to seek out music suitable for the season to fill my home with joy and inspiration. Christmas carols and winter songs are overwhelmingly prevalent at this time, but there are a few melodies that are splendidly Advent. We have the ultimate Advent carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” the ancient piece “Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding,” the joyful ballad “O Come, Divine Messiah,” the cheerful chorale “Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People,” and the exquisite canticle, “Holy is His Name,” among others.
Amidst the handful of Advent carols and hymns is one that provides much fodder for inspiration and contemplation: “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” Written in about the third century as a reflection on the words from Habakkuk 2:20, “Let all the earth keep silence before him,” it was composed in Greek as a Eucharistic chant--the Cherubic Hymn for the Offertory of the Divine Liturgy of St. James. It is striking that this hymn, which in modern times is commonly used during the Advent season to spark a spirit of expectation for Christmas, was originally written to inspire holy anticipation of Christ’s coming in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass:
King of kings, yet born of Mary, As of old on earth He stood, Lord of lords, in human vesture, In the body and the blood; He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven Spreads its vanguard on the way, As the Light of light descendeth From the realms of endless day, Comes the powers of hell to vanquish As the darkness clears away.
Both at Christmas and at the coming of Christ at the Consecration, “the Light of light descendeth from the realms of endless day” to vanquish the powers of hell and clear away all darkness from our hearts. Another song, “On Jordan’s Bank” also inspiringly resonates Eucharistic sentiment in it’s urging: “Oh, let us all our hearts prepare, for Christ to come and enter there.” Perfectly apt is the relationship that such songs draw between Christ’s First Coming and His Eucharistic coming, as this link appears to be the obvious intention of Our Lord in choosing Bethlehem, meaning “House of Bread,” and a manger (a feeding trough) as the locus of His First Coming.
Another of the inspiring elements of the truly Advent carols is their anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ. “Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding,” written in the fifth century, urges the “earthbound soul [to] arise” as Christ is dawning and to “haste, with tears of sorrow…to be forgiven” so that “when next He comes in glory, and the world is wrapped in fear, with His mercy He may shield us, and with words of love draw near.” The traditional Advent hymn “The Coming of Our God” uses the expectation of Christmas to remind us:
In glory from His throne
Again will Christ descend,
And summon all that are His own
To joys that never end.
These musical pieces aid the faithful in accomplishing the true purpose of the Advent season: attentively preparing spiritually for Christmas and in so doing prepare the heart and soul for Christ’s final coming and seeing God face to face.
In the Mass, when we “Do this in remembrance…” we know that the events of Christ’s suffering and death do not occur over and over in time, but instead, we are brought into participation of the one Sacrifice. The events of Christ’s offering Himself at the Last Supper, and of His suffering, death, and Resurrection which occurred once in time are made present to people in every time and place by the Mass, which transcends time. How wonderfully marvelous and splendid is our Catholic Faith that we can participate in the magnificent mysteries of God from the perspective of eternity even now. From the viewpoint of eternity, “all is present”: both “the past and the future [are within] the eternal present.”1 It is no wonder that the realm of eternity is in some way made present to us here and now since God Himself brought the Kingdom of Heaven with Him to earth at the moment of the Incarnation and on the first Christmas. Subsequently, by deigning to enter our very hearts, specifically through the Eucharist and the Sacraments, He brings to our souls the Kingdom of Heaven and in so doing allows us to enter the eternal mysteries even now. (See also: Augustine, Confessions XI.x-xxii; Augustine, City of God XI.xxi.3; St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, 14, 13).
If we participate in Advent from this perspective, we can actually join Mary spiritually in her loving adoration of her Son within her as she awaits His birth. It is this mystery that the Advent songs described above reveal and inspire in their listeners. These carols and hymns help us to longingly and lovingly expect Christ to come into our hearts at Christmas, in the Eucharist, and finally, for all eternity in heaven. As we enter into the waiting for Christ’s coming at Christmas, may we be brought into the mystery of it and be raised into rapturous participation in our hearts, minds, and souls.
Words: Latin, Vox clara ecce intonate, sixth century; Translator: John Mason Neale, 1851. Tune: Veni Emmanuel (fifteenth century).
Words: French, Venez, Divin Messie by Abbe Simon J. Pellegrin (1663-1745); Translator: Sister Mary of St. Phillip, 1877.
Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People
Words: Troestet, troestet meine Lieben by Johann Olearius, 1671. Versification of Isaiah 40:1-8. Translator: Catherine Winkworth, 1863. Tune: "Freu dich sehr."
An appealing rendition of this song is the version by Catholic musicians Maureen and Bill Hayes, Comfort and Joy: A Family Christmas (Hayes Studios, 2005).
Versification of Luke 1:46-55. John Michael Talbot, Spirit and Song (OCP Publications, 1999).
Words: Liturgy of St. James; Translator: Gerald Moultrie, 1864. Tune: Picardy.
Taken from original chant, Jordanis oras praevia. Adapted by Charles Coffin (d. 1749); Translator: John Chandler (d. 1876).
Words: Latin, sixth century; Translator: Edward Caswall (1814-1878). Tune: Merton by William H. Monk (1823-1889).
Words: Latin, Instantis adventum Dei by Charles Coffin, 1736. Translator: Robert Campbell (1814-1868) et al.
1 Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1961) XI.xi.1.