The Office of Lauds is finished: the Canticles of joy wherewith the Church thanks the Eternal Father for His having made to rise upon us the Divine Sun of Justice are ended. It is soon time, after the recitation of Prime, to offer the second Sacrifice, or, as it is called, the Mass of the Aurora. In the first, the Church celebrated the temporal Birth of the Word according to the flesh. In this, She is going to honor the second Birth of the same Son of God; a Birth full of grace and mercy; that which is accomplished in the heart of the faithful Christian.
See then, how at this very hour, Shepherds are told by the Angels to go to Bethlehem, and how they hasten thither. With great eagerness they enter the Stable, which is scarcely large enough to hold them. Obedient to the warning received from Heaven, they are come to see the Savior, Who, they have been told, has been born unto them. They find all things just as the Angels have said. Who could tell the joy of their hearts, and the simplicity of their faith? They are not surprised to find, in the midst of poverty greater even than their own, Him Whose Birth has made the very Angels exult. They find no difficulty in acknowledging the wonderful mystery; they adore, they love the Babe that lies there before them. They are at once Christians, and the Christian Church begins in them; the mystery of a God humbled for man finds faith in these humble souls. Herod will plot the death of this Babe; the Synagogue will rage; the Scribes and Doctors will league together against the Lord and His Christ; they will put this Savior of Israel to death; but the faith of the Shepherds will not be shaken, and will find imitators in the wise and powerful ones of this world, who will come at last, and bow down their reason to the Crib and the Cross.
What is it then that has come over these poor Shepherds? Christ has been born in their hearts; He dwells in them by faith and love. They are our Fathers in the Church. They are our Models. Let us imitate them, and invite the Divine Infant to come into our souls, which we will so prepare for Him, as that He may find nothing to prevent His entering. It is for our sakes, also, that the Angels speak; it is to us also, that they tell the glad tidings; for the Mystery that has this Night been accomplished, is too grand to have the pastoral slopes of Bethlehem for its limits.
In order to honor the silent coming of the Savior into the souls of men, the celebrant is preparing to go to the altar, and a second time to offer the Spotless Lamb to the Father, Who hath sent Him.
As the Shepherds fixed their eyes on the Crib, so let ours be on the Altar, where we are soon to behold the same Jesus, hidden under appearances, that are humbler even than the swathing-bands. These rustic swains enter into the Cave, not yet knowing Him, Whom they are going to see; but their hearts are quite ready for the revelation. Suddenly, they see the Infant; and as they gaze upon Him in speechless wondering, Jesus looks at them from His Crib, and smiles upon them. They are changed men, full of light, and the Sun of Justice has made Day in their souls. It is to be the same with us: the words of the Prince of the Apostles are to be verified in us: the Light, that shineth in a dark place, has been our one desire and attention—now the Day will dawn, and the Day-Star arise in our hearts (2 Peter 1: 19).
This long longed-for Aurora has come! The Divine Orient has risen upon us, to set now no more; for we are firmly resolved to keep from the night of sin, which His grace has destroyed. His mercy has made us to be children of light and children of the day (1 Thes. 5: 5). There must be no more sleep of death for us. We must watch in ceaseless vigilance, remembering how the Shepherds were keeping their watch, when the Angel came to speak to them, and Heaven opened over their heads. All the chants of this Mass of the Aurora speak to us of the brightness of this Sun of Justice; they must be sweet to us, as is to captives, long buried in the cold darkness of their dungeon, the ray of that morning which is to set them free. See, Christians, how this God of Light shines upon us from His Crib! The face of His Mother is lit up with the immense brightness, on which She looks with all the fixedness of Her contemplating love; and Joseph, too, has the shining vivid on his features, which makes them more beautiful and venerable than we have ever seen them. Passing by the ungrateful Bethlehem, which deserves to be left in darkness—this same Divine Light breaks upon the whole world beyond the Cave, and gradually enkindles within millions of hearts, a burning love for this glorious Sun of Justice, Who delivers man from the labyrinth of his errors and passions, showing him, and giving him, the sublime end for which he was created.
In the very midst of Her celebration of this Mystery of the Birth of Jesus, the Church offers us another object of admiration and joy—it is one of Her own children. Whilst solemnizing the divine Mystery of today’s Feast, She commemorates, in this Second Mass, one of those glorious heroines, who preserved the Light of Christ within their souls, in spite of all the attacks made to rob them of it. Her name is Anastasia. This Holy Widow of Rome suffered martyrdom under the persecution of Diocletian, and had the privilege of being thus born to eternal life on the Birthday of Jesus, for Whom she suffered death.
She had been married to a pagan of the name of Publius, himself also a Roman; who, being irritated against her on account of her great charities to the Christians, treated her with every sort of cruelty. She endured all with admirable patience; and when this heavy trial was removed from her by the death of her husband, she devoted herself to visiting and solacing the holy Confessors, who had been cast into the prisons of Rome for the Faith. Being at length apprehended as a Christian, she was tied to a stake and burned to death. Her Church in Rome, which is built on the site where formerly stood her house, is the Station for this Second Mass. The Sovereign Pontiffs used formerly to say it here, and the ancient custom was observed, in more modern times, by Pope Leo XII.
How admirable is this delicate considerateness of our Holy Mother the Church! Wishing to associate one of Her Saints with the glory of this present Solemnity, on which the Virginity of Mary receives its triumphant recompense—it is a holy Widow that is chosen for this signal honor; that it might hereby be shown how the Married State, though inferior in merit and holiness to the State of Virginity, is not excluded from the blessings, which the Birth of the Son of Mary merited for the world. There was a Virgin, St. Eugenia, that might so well have been selected; for she suffered a glorious martyrdom under Galerian, on this same Feast, and in the same City, as did the wife of Publius; but no—the preference is given to Anastasia, the Widow. This choice of the Church—which is dictated by Her heavenly wisdom, and by the love She has for all Her children—forcibly reminds us of a beautiful passage in one of St. Augustine's Sermons for Christmas Day:
"Exult, O ye Virgins of Christ, for the Mother of Christ is your companion. You could not be His mother; but for His sake, you would be Virgins: He that is not born of you, is born to you. And yet remember His words: 'Whosever shall do the will of My Father, is My brother, and sister, and mother' (Matt. 12: 50). Now, have you not done the will of His Father?
"Exult O ye Widows of Christ, for you have vowed a holy continency to Him, that made Virginity fruitful. And thou, too, O nuptial chastity; you, I mean, that are faithful in the married state, you also may exult; for what you lose in the body, you do not lose in your hearts. Let your soul be virginal in its Faith, for it is by Her Faith that the Church is a Virgin. Jesus is Truth, and Peace, and Justice; conceive Him by your Faith, give Him birth by your good works; in order that what the womb of Mary did in the Flesh of Jesus, your heart may do in the Law of Jesus. Believe me, you yourselves are children of virginity, for are you not the members of Christ? Mary is the Mother of Jesus, Who is our Head; and the Church is the Mother of you, who are His members. Yes, the Church is, like Mary, both Mother and Virgin: She is Mother, by Her tender charity; and Virgin, by the purity of Her Faith and holiness" (Serm. 9 on the Nativity).
But the Holy Sacrifice is about to commence. The Introit tells us of the Birth of Jesus, our Sun of Justice. The brightness of His first rising, is the presage of His midday splendor. Strength and Beauty are His. He is armed for victory, and His name is Prince of Peace:
A light shall shine upon us this day; because the Lord is born for us: and His name shall be Wonderful, God, the Prince of Peace, the Father of the world to come; of Whose reign there shall be no end. (Ps. 92: 1): The Lord hath reigned, He is clothed with beauty: the Lord is clothed with strength, and hath girded Himself. V. Gloria Patri... A light shall shine upon us this day...
The Oration of the Church in this Mass of the Aurora, begs God to pour upon our souls the rays of the Sun of Justice, that so we may become fruitful in works of Light, and be no more the slaves of darkness:
Grant, we beseech Thee, O Almighty God, that as we are enlightened by the new light of Thy Word become flesh, we may show in our actions the effects of that Faith, which shines in our minds. Through the same Jesus...
Grant, we beseech Thee, O Almighty God, that as we celebrate the solemnity of Blessed Anastasia, Thy Martyr, we may feel within ourselves the effects of her prayers to Thee on our behalf. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ...
The Lesson is from the third chapter of St. Paul's Epistle to Titus. It reminds us of the graces we have received in Baptism and Confirmation:
Dearly beloved: when the goodness and kindness of God our Savior appeared, then not by reason of good works that we did ourselves, but according to His mercy, He saved us through the bath of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Ghost; Whom He has abundantly poured out upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior, in order that, justified by His grace, we may be heirs in the hope of life everlasting, in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This Sun which has appeared on our earth, is God our Savior, full of tenderest mercy. We were far off from God, and were sitting in the shadows of death—the rays of the divine Light had to reach down to us in the deep abyss of our sins; and now, praise be to this Infinite Mercy! we are set free, and with our freedom we have received regeneration, justification, and inheritance to eternal life. Who shall henceforth separate us from the love of this Infant Jesus? Is it possible that we ourselves can ever frustrate the designs of that love, by rendering all that it has done for us useless, and becoming once more the slaves of darkness and death? May God forbid it, and grant us grace to maintain our hope of everlasting life, which the Mystery of our Redemption has purchased for us.
Gradual: (Ps. 117: 26, 27, 23): Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord: the Lord is God, and He hath shone upon us. V. This is the Lord's doing: and it is wonderful in our eyes. Alleluia, alleluia. V. (Ps. 92: 1): The Lord hath reigned, He is clothed with beauty: the Lord is clothed with strength and hath girded Himself with power. Alleluia.
The Gospel is taken from the second chapter of St. Luke:
At that time, the shepherds were saying to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste, and they found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in the manger. And when they had seen, they understood what had been told them concerning this Child. And all who heard marvelled at the things told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept in mind all these things, pondering them in Her Heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, even as it was spoken to them.
Let us imitate the earnestness of the Shepherds in hastening to Jesus. No sooner do they hear the Angel's words, than they start for the holy Stable in Bethlehem. Once in the presence of the Divine Infant, they know Him by the sign that had been given them by the Angel; and Jesus is born in their souls by His grace. These happy men delight now in their poverty, for they find that He too is poor. They feel that they are united to Him forever, and their whole lives shall testify to the change that this December Night has worked in them. They do not keep the great event to themselves; they tell everyone about the Babe of Bethlehem, they become His apostles, and their burning words fill their listeners with astonishment. Like them, let us glorify the great God, Who, not satisfied with calling us to the admirable Light, has set it in the very center of our hearts by uniting us to Himself. Let us often think of the Mysteries of this glorious Night, after the example of Mary, who keeps unceasingly in Her most pure Heart the wonderful things that God has been accomplishing by Her and in Her.
During the Offertory of the sacred oblations, the Church extols the power of Emmanuel, Who, that He might reform this fallen world, humbled Himself so far as to have a few poor Shepherds for His courtiers, He Whose Throne and Divinity are from eternity:
God hath established the world, which shall not be moved: Thy throne, O God, is prepared from of old; Thou art from the beginning.
The Secret Prayers include another commemoration of St. Anastasia:
May the offerings, O Lord, which we make, be agreeable to the mystery of this day's Birth, and always pour forth peace upon us: that as He Who though born Man, showed Himself also God, so may this earthly substance give us that which is divine. Through the same Our Lord Jesus Christ...
Graciously receive, O Lord, we beseech Thee, our offerings, and grant, by the merits of Blessed Anastasia, Thy Martyr, that they may avail to our salvation. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ...
After both the Celebrant and faithful have received Holy Communion, the Holy Church, all illumined with the sweet Light of Her Spouse, to Whom She has just been united, applies to Herself the words which the Prophet Zachary formerly addressed to Her, when he announced the coming of the King, Her Savior:
Rejoice, O daughter of Sion; shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold thy King will come to thee, the Holy One, and the Savior of the world.
St. Anastasia is again commemorated in the Postcommunion Prayers:
May we, O Lord, always received new Light from this Sacrament, which renews to us the memory of that wonderful Birth which destroyed the old man. Through the same Our Lord Jesus Christ
Thou hast fed, O Lord, Thy family with these sacred oblations; we beseech Thee to always comfort us with her intercession, whose feast we celebrate. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ...
As we have related in the Mystery of Christmas, the theme of Jesus' Birth as the rising of the Sun of Justice is signified by this very day—December 25 being the first, after the winter solstice, when the sun shines noticeably longer. He is also the Light of the World, so it is not surprising that this theme is mentioned, not only in the Mass of the Aurora, but also in many ancient liturgies from throughout the Christian world. Prudentius, the prince of Christian poets, wrote this Christmas hymn near the turn of the fifth century:
Why is it that the Sun, which rises today, leaves his narrow path? Is it not that there is born on our earth Christ, Who comes to widen the way of Light?
Ah, how speedily did the rapid Day turn his sweet face from us! How, each time, shorter was his stay, preparing us for total night!
But now let the heavens wear brighter looks, and the glad earth be happy, for the Sun begins once more to mount the longer path.
Dear Infant Jesus, all things, however hard and senseless, feel that Thou art born: the very stones relent, and verdure comes from rocks.
The flinty mountainside drips now with honey; the oak’s stiff trunk now sweats its sappy tears; and balsam oozes now from the humblest shrub.
How holy is Thy cradle-crib, O King eternal! How sacred ever to mankind! Nay, the very Ox and Ass stand over it as their own!
St. Ephrem wrote this hymn for the Church in Syria, the country nearest to that where the Great Event took place:
The Son of God is born—Light has shone forth, darkness has fled from the earth, and the world is enlightened; let it praise the New-Born Babe, that gave it light.
He has risen from the Virgin’s womb; the shades of night have seen Him and fled; the darkness of error has been scattered; let the whole earth sing praise to Him, by Whom it has been illumined.
The holy Roman Church, by the mouth of St. Leo the Great, in his Sacramentary, thus celebrates the mystery of the divine Light:
It is truly meet and just, right and salutary, that we should give thanks to Thee, O Eternal God: because this day has risen the true Light of our Savior, whereby all things are made clear to our intellect and sight: that thus by His own brightness He might not only direct us in this our present life, but bring us to the very vision of Thy divine Majesty.
And again, the same Church thus invokes upon Her children the Light of Christ: She uses the words of the Sacramentary of St. Gregory the Great:
Grant unto us, O Almighty God, that the Savior Whom Thou dost send for the world’s salvation on this day's solemnity, whereon the heavens are renewed in light, may ever rise in our hearts and renew them.
The Church of Milan, in its Ambrosian Liturgy, also celebrates the new Light and the joys of the Virgin-Mother:
When Our Lord came, He dispelled all the darkness of night; and where had been no light, there was made brightness, and the day appeared.
Rejoice and be glad, O Mary, Thou joy of the Angels! Rejoice, O Thou Virgin of the Lord, and joy of the Prophets! Rejoice, Thou Blessed One, the Lord is with Thee. Rejoice, Thou that didst receive, at the Angel’s announcing, Him Who is the joy of the world. Rejoice, Thou that didst give birth to Thy Creator and Lord. Rejoice, in that Thou wast worthy to be made the Mother of Christ.
The Gothic Church unites her voice with that of all these others, and in her Mozarabic Breviary thus hails the rising of the Divine Sun:
Today has risen the Light of the world: today has shone forth the earth's salvation: today the Savior of Israel has come down from the heavenly country, that He may set free all the slaves Whom the old enemy and robber had enslaved by the sin of our first Parent; that He might also restore, by His preventing grace, light to the blind of heart, and hearing to the deaf. For the benefits of this so great mystery, let the mountains and hills leap with joy, and the very elements of the world be exceeding glad on this day, and sing sweet melody. Therefore, let us, in humblest prayer, suppliantly beseech our most merciful Redeemer; that we who are beset by the darkness of our sins, may, by this our hearts' acclamation, be speedily delivered; that He appearing among us, the brightness of His glory may more joyously and abundantly gleam in our souls, and the happiness of salvation gladden them with never-ending sweetness.
Let us end this our tour of ancient Liturgies, by culling a flower from Erin. The Church of Ireland, in the seventh century, used to sing this Antiphon on Christmas Day. Here again we find the idea so often alluded to: the triumph of the Sun's light, which begins today, considered as the image of the Birth of Jesus:
From this Day, night decreases, day increases, darkness is shaken, light grows longer, and the loss of night shall make the gain of day.
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