Mgr Andrew Wadsworth says this year's Advent marks a double beginning
Advent is a time for new beginnings. It is the start of the Church’s liturgical year, and this Advent also marks the implementation of a new English translation of the Roman Missal throughout the world. Exactly 38 years ago, the first-ever edition of the Roman Missal, entirely in English, rolled off the printing presses and on to the altars of the English-speaking Catholic world. Its advent signalled the resolution of almost 10 years of flux, during which the liturgy of the Mass had made a transition from a Latin text established by the universal practice of centuries to vernacular translations of a newly assembled missal prepared by scholars following the Second Vatican Council.
The missal contains a wealth of liturgical treasures with many orations dating from the first millennium, together with prayers of more recent composition. The texts of the Advent season are particularly rich and are predominantly taken from ancient sources. A striking theme which emerges in the first days of Advent sets the tone for the whole season. It is the notion that we are hastening to meet Christ. The liturgy makes frequent reference to the three comings of Christ: first, in time, in the Incarnation which we recall during the Advent/Christmas cycle; secondly, at his Second Coming and for each person at the moment of their death; and thirdly, for us all continually by his grace.
The collect which begins Advent expresses this well:
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
with righteous deeds at his coming,
so that, gathered at his right hand,
they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom.
– Collect of the First Sunday of Advent
As we begin the Advent journey this oration, which is taken from the eighth-century Gelasian Sacramentary, asks that God will strengthen our resolve to press forward in the process of our conversion and that the fruits of our sanctification will be righteous deeds. In this way we can nourish the hope that we will be harvested by Christ when he comes again and so enter his eternal kingdom.
In the second week of Advent, in another ancient prayer from the same source, we admit that this process is far from straightforward and we ask for help with those things that still seem to hold us back and bar our way. We all recognise that so often our “earthly undertakings” just do not point us heavenwards and they frustrate us in reaching our true goal. We also pray that through this process we will learn something of the wisdom of heaven even here and now and so be more fittingly made ready to be admitted to eternal life. The wisdom of heaven is that which truly liberates us, unlike earthly wisdom which so often holds us captive.
Almighty and merciful God,
may no earthly undertaking hinder those
who set out in haste to meet your Son,
but may our learning of heavenly wisdom
gain us admittance to his company.
– Collect of the Second Sunday of Advent
In the final line of this prayer we are introduced to the notion that our hope of heaven is in a real sense the possibility of being made worthy to share all things with Christ. It is the notion of divinisation so prevalent in the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, that process whereby the human heart is expanded by the action of grace until it is able to bear receiving God himself.
This idea is central not only to this prayer but to the whole of the Advent season and indeed the entire Christian life. All things, insofar as they are good, are for our sanctification. It is an idea we hear on Christmas Day in the words of a collect which comes from the sixth-century Veronese Sacramentary:
who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature
and still more wonderfully restored it,
grant, we pray,
that we may share in the divinity of Christ
who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
– Collect of the Mass during Christmas Day
This prayer, which reminds us of the centrality of the Incarnation in God’s plan for our sanctification, also finds an echo at every Mass in the words said by the priest or deacon as he mixes the chalice:
By the mystery of this water and wine
may we come to share in the divinity of Christ
who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
A drop of water is added to a quantity of wine. The water becomes lost in the wine and in a real sense becomes part of it. Such is the hope that we can have as a consequence of the coming of Christ in the flesh. If this is to be a possibility, there is a process implied and there has to be a willingness on our part to see it happen. The first stage is being vigilant, a very common theme in the prayers of Advent:
Grant that your people, we pray, almighty God,
may be ever watchful
for the coming of your Only-Begotten Son,
that, as the author of our salvation himself has
we may hasten, alert and with lighted lamps,
to meet him when he comes.
– Collect of Friday of the Second Week of Advent
This collect, once again taken from the Gelasian Sacramentary, evokes the familiar Gospel image of the bridesmaids going out to meet the bridegroom as a prelude to the Wedding Feast. Readiness for change, willingness to act and vigilance at all times are key concepts in Advent and greatly evidenced in its texts. Advent teaches us a wonderful lesson for life: our watchful waiting, contrary to our instinct, is in fact part of the plan. This theme occurs frequently and is beautifully expressed in a collect from the Veronese Sacramentary which we pray on the Friday of the first week of Advent:
O God, who sent your Only Begotten Son into this world
to free the human race from its ancient enslavement,
bestow on those who devoutly await him
the grace of your compassion from on high,
that we may attain the prize of true freedom.
As Advent moves towards its climax the process intensifies as the goal of celebrating the great feast of Christmas comes into view. This prayer found in both the Gelasian and Veronese sacramentaries expresses the haste of Advent’s early days in terms of eagerness and even excitement:
Having received this pledge of eternal redemption,
we pray, almighty God,
that as the feast of our salvation draws ever nearer,
so we may press forward all the more eagerly
to the worthy celebration
of the mystery of your Son’s Nativity.
– Prayer after Communion for the
Fourth Sunday of Advent
The liturgical year is a year-long presentation of the mysteries of salvation made accessible to us and applied to us each individually, across the distance of time and space. As we welcome the new translation of the Roman Missal let us all hasten to meet the Lord with a new sense of the richness of the journey.
Mgr Andrew Wadsworth is executive director of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy