Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Our Participation in Angelic Worship

"God... by the Incarnation brought together the heavenly and earthly realm" (Solemn Blessing of Christmas).

Fr Paul, O.P., the visiting priest at the Launceston Carmel and an old friend of mine, preached at the Dawn Mass on sacred music as our share in angelic worship. He noted that the Gospel of the Midnight Mass ended with a great throng of the heavenly host singing Gloria in excelsis (St Luke ii, 14), while the Dawn Gospel began by speaking of what the shepherds next did, the angels having gone back to heaven (ibid., verse 15): it thus appears that the celestial choirs were engaged in chanting hymns of adoration all the night long.  Indeed, ceaseless is their worship; many a Preface makes reference to this fact: how appropriate, therefore, to take us this liturgical hint and contemplate it in the new light of Christmas morn.

God the Word having taken on our mortal flesh, heaven is joined to earth; so, too, we men of earth may lift our voices in company with the angels, and join – here and now in foretaste, in all liturgical worship and, above all, at Mass; one day, please God, in endless fulfilment in the kingdom of heaven – in their unending praise of the Most High and Thrice-Holy.  They sing, fundamentally, in adoration of God as He Is, Triune, a Communion of infinite Love, Three Persons in One God evermore; they sing in praise of His mighty work of Creation; they sing, having beheld the Christmas Mystery and its completion at Easter, of God's still more prodigious work whereby the Almighty united heaven to earth for the salvation of mankind, that on earth there may be pax hominibus bonæ voluntatis.  In the words of the eschatocol of the first, the traditional Christmas Preface:
And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of [God's] glory, as without end we acclaim...
Inter alia, I was amused that Fr Paul mentioned Pope Telesphorus as the Supreme Pontiff to whom is attributed the command to sing Gloria in excelsis at Christmas.  For I recall only one other priest who ever mentioned Telesphorus – it was my old parish priest Fr Jarrett, now a bishop, who, when years ago I, yes, too pedantically, queried why there had been no Gloria at Mass that Sunday, replied, firmly tongue in cheek (having been momentarily forgetful at Mass, and begun the Collect directly the choir finished the Kyrie that day), that I ought really recall that Pope Telesphorus had died on that day, and therefore Holy Mother Church sings no Gloria on his anniversary!

The Gloria in excelsis, the Angelic Hymn or Greater Doxology, begins of course by making our own the song of the angels recorded in Holy Writ, and then adds many phrases drawn from Sacred Scripture and Tradition.  At Mass at Carmel (as always when it is sung, and likewise the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) the Gloria had been chanted in the age-old Latin; Fr Paul reminded us that it is good and proper to value highly and rediscover the Church's patrimony of sacred music, especially in this Year of Faith, for Vatican II, fifty years ago, by no means called for a neglect of what it itself named and lauded as a great treasure; he reminded us that the Supreme Pontiff now gloriously reigning, no less than the Zeitgeist active among younger Catholics, seeks to cultivate and reconnect with these immemorial harmonies as a most fitting mode wherein to praise God, Who inspires all beauty.

Most of both Masses at Midnight and Dawn – certainly the Collect, the Preface, and so forth, but also the Gospel itself – were chanted by priest and people, thus singing to the Lord, in consonance with our morning homily.  Hearing the Nativity Gospels sung made one listen more carefully to each phrase; the texts' solemnity impressed on the mind by their ceremonial presentation as itself a ritual act, a principal part of Divine service. Worship is a lifting of the whole person to God by His grace, and this necessarily involves our minds, our hearts, our voices, our bodies and all that is ours, for we are both flesh and spirit in complex unity.

At the end of Mass, the Solemn Blessing reminded us that "God... by the Incarnation brought together the heavenly and earthly realm".  Last night, driving home after Midnight Mass, I spontaneously sang over the words of the recessional hymn, "O little town of Bethlehem", with its quiet assurance of salvation for those who receive the Christ Child in faith and truth:

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. 
For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth! 
How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in. 
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

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