Advent Prayer and the Incarnation

And More on Eucharistic Prayer IV

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ROME, DEC. 6, 2005 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

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Q: The opening prayer for Monday in the Second week of Advent asks: «prepare us to celebrate the incarnation of your son.» The Incarnation is celebrated March 25, not Dec. 25. There are many other mistakes of this kind during Advent. Should they not be corrected by Rome? A person I know uses this as a pro-abortion argument saying, «Even the Church recognizes that Christ became a man only at Christmas; before that it was not a man, not a human being in Mary’s womb.» He is wrong, of course, but he has a point. — C.A., Carlisle, England

A: I would demur before affirming that the Church makes «mistakes» in proposing the prayers to be proclaimed before God and the faithful.

When a particular prayer leaves us perplexed or nonplussed, our attitude should be to consider that perhaps we might be mistaken in our interpretation of the text or in our expectations of the function of liturgical prayers.

From a historical point of view the prayers used during Advent are taken from the ancient manuscripts known as the Scroll of Ravenna (fifth-sixth centuries) and the Gelasian sacramentary (seventh century). Their constant theme is the coming of Christ, both in the incarnation (first coming) and at the end of time (second coming).

In fact, both Christmas and the Annunciation celebrate different aspects of the mystery of the Incarnation and do so with relatively little attention to biological or chronological precision.

The feast of Christmas originated in the city of Rome and was first celebrated about the year 330, some 15 years after the end of the persecutions, and, perhaps, in the recently completed basilica of St. Peter’s.

The earliest traces of a feast of the Annunciation are found in Egypt in 624. The testimonies increase after that date in various areas of Christendom. From the beginning it was celebrated on March 25 due to the belief that the spring equinox was both the day of the creation and of the start of the new creation in Christ.

This date caused a difficulty for some Churches, such as the Spanish Mozarabic rite and the Ambrosian rite of Milan, due to their strict prohibition of all festivities during Lent. They thus opted for celebrating the Annunciation on Dec. 18, a practice that continues to this day.

Thus, it is clear that neither the liturgical calendar, nor any particular liturgical prayer, should be used for arguing questions such as abortion or the precise moment of life’s beginning.

The liturgy’s intention is not to address such issues but to magnify and praise God for the wonderful mystery that the Word was made Flesh and «became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man» for our salvation.

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Follow-up: When Eucharistic Prayer IV Can Be Used

Some interesting questions arose apropos of our discussion regarding the use of Eucharistic Prayer IV (see Nov. 22).

One reader asked: «What about Eucharistic Prayer II? It has been my experience that IV is almost never used by priests, III frequently on Sundays, Eucharistic Prayer I practically never. While II seems to be the Eucharistic Prayer of choice on weekdays, many Sundays, and other solemnities as well as feasts, but (almost) invariably without the Preface proper to Eucharistic Prayer II.»

It is true that Eucharistic Prayer II has a proper preface. But the rubric expressly indicates that it may, and often must, be substituted by any of the other ordinary or seasonal prefaces. This prayer may thus be used in exactly the same way as Prayers I and III, which have no prefaces of their own.

Because of its brevity it is especially recommended for weekday Masses. While not forbidden on Sundays and solemnities, it is preferable not to use it then as it easily creates an imbalance between the duration of the longer Liturgy of the Word and the shorter Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The reason why this prayer has its own preface lies in its origin. This prayer is an adaptation of the anaphora of St. Hippolytus of Rome (martyred A.D. 235). This is the oldest extant text of a developed Eucharistic prayer, so old in fact that it predates the introduction of the Sanctus to the liturgy.

Since the Sanctus is now considered as essential to the literary structure of the Eucharistic Prayer, it was decided to adapt the first, and theologically richest, part of this ancient prayer and transform it into a preface.

Other changes involved modifying the language in the light of later dogmatic developments. For example, the original spoke of «Your Servant Jesus Christ» — a perfectly orthodox statement a century before the Arian heresy broke out, but hard to understand in later centuries.

Some colorful expressions were — perhaps unfortunately — omitted such as in the institution narrative where it explains that Christ «freely accepted death, that he might … break the bonds of death and tread hell underfoot.»

A more delicate problem arose from an English reader who asks: «The difficulty that I, as a mere layman, have with this Preface [of Eucharistic Prayer IV] is that it clearly and most obviously, in English, denies the divinity of Our Blessed Lord and of the Holy Spirit. It starts: ‘Father in heaven, it is right that we should give you thanks and glory: you alone are God, living and true.’ Is not this heresy? I know good priests here in England who never use this Eucharistic prayer now. It has to be said, by the way, that all this kind of thing simply causes confusion among the poor laity. Priests and, indeed, bishops should remember the laity when they consider the liturgy. We do not all have degrees in theology; mine is in English and I can, therefore, understand the meaning of words in that language.»

Far be it from me to accuse the liturgy of heresy. But our reader certainly has a point that we are before a less-than-adequate translation.

Indeed, if I am not mistaken, this translation was corrected in the missals used in the United States and now reads «you are the one God, living and true.»

This new version might not fully satisfy our reader but it certainly attenuates the difficulty caused by the expression «you alone» which does not faithfully reflect the biblical background of the text.

This part of the preface emphasizes God’s transcendence by joining together several biblical expressions. He is «one» «living» «true» «eternal» «dwelling in unapproachable light,» but above all he is the Father, the God of Goodness, source of life, filling his creatures with all blessings.

Thus the point of the preface is not to make a dogmatic statement of the Father’s divinity with respect to the other two divine persons of the Blessed Trinity, but, through bold contrasts, to stress that God is at the same time transcendent and loving.

The biblical basis for the expression «you are the one God» lies in several texts: Deuteronomy 6:4; 1 Corinthians 8:4; and above all Ephesians 4:6 «one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all» (RSV).

As our reader says, it should not be necessary for all lay people to have degrees in theology in order to understand the liturgy. I believe, however, that changing the language would solve nothing and that the answer lies in formation, not in simplification.

No matter what language we translate the liturgy into, it will always and inevitably remain in Hebrew and Greek. By this I mean that the Christian message, and hence the liturgy, is inextricably rooted in the biblical and cultural background of the time of Christ, the time God himself choose for realizing the incarnation of the Word and the redemption of mankind.

Thus, living the liturgy always requires the mediation of some form of formation, even at the basic level, to open up the reality of salvation history.

If priests
desire to help the laity understand and live the liturgy, they must offer a true mystagogic formation and explain it in their homilies, and other formative opportunities, in such a way as to draw them ever deeper into the mystery.

Lay people, for their part, should see their ongoing formation as part and parcel of living a Christian life. Ongoing learning is usually considered essential to progress in all walks of business and life. It should be even more so in the business of the spiritual life.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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