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Black Lamb

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Celebrating the light

December 1st, 2004

christmaswreath.jpgBY JEREMY DRISCOLL, O.S.B.

Advent. I have passed more than thirty Christmases in the monastery. What a marvelous time of the year it is. We prepare for the feast with four weeks of a season called Advent. Ancient and special melodies, reserved only to that season, are sung in the dark church. The vestments of the liturgy are a sober purple, and there is no decoration in the church at all: nothing at all like all the Christmas lights that go up in the cities at Thanksgiving or before. In the monastery the sign that Christmas is coming is the dark and empty church and the sparse melodies that define that time. One verse from the hymn we sing each evening at Vespers could be rendered in English (translating also its spirit) like this:

Advent Vespers

The world on the verge of its last evening —
when suddenly, breaking out from the womb
of a most pure virgin,
comes running the Word,
the Bridegroom!
(as if out from some bridal chamber)
and courses like the Sun through the sky,
A Champion and
Day bursting out
from the verge of night.

(Inspired by a tenth century Latin Vespers hymn:
Vergente mundi vespere
Uti sponsus de thalamo
Egressus honestissima
Virginis matris clausula.)

Christmas eve day. Beginning early in the morning on December 24th, the mood of Advent quickly begins to change. We are feeling already the morrow. When morning prayers are over, the monks divide into groups and elaborately decorate the church and the major common rooms of the monastery: the refectory, the living room, the long cloister walk. These are filled with greens and bright ribbons and lights, waiting for sundown, when the feast officially begins. I like that the feast begins in the night. We will spend the night praying, singing, and feasting.

Christmas Eve Day

The earth asleep a season
and birdsong few

the gliding clouds
and the immense quiet

soggy soil yet
already the noiseless
push of the green.

This afternoon the light
was clearly longer than
yesterday
and the day
before.

Let us celebrate the light
tonight.
let us light a candle
and a tree.

Far stars shall see
our hopeful signals
and let down mercies
and skyly strengths

waking the earth
stirring the birds
drying the soil
and pulling the green.

Octave. The feast that begins in the night of the 24th is continued for eight days. This is called an octave. It is eight days in which all the prayers and songs of the liturgy maintain the intensity of Christmas day. It is during the octave that all the lights and decorations and songs and parties make sense. I love this sensible way of life where I arrive at Christmas not exhausted by a round of parties before the feast, but ready to begin a round once the feast has begun. The feast is the memory of the birth of Jesus Christ. Reflecting on his life in the world, I always remember an obscure fresco I saw in an out-of-the-way part of a church in Rome where no one ever went anymore.

Faded Fresco

From a thousand years ago
but
the child’s intent gaze
still delivers an unnerving grace.

Divine Boy in the chapel’s wing,
you are come to stay
and bless. •

This is Fr. Jeremy’s last column for Black Lamb.

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Christmas Issue, Driscoll | Link to this Entry

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