Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Novena Starts

Christmas Novena Starts

Probably the most beloved practice of piety in Salesian communities around the world is the Christmas novena, which starts today (Dec. 16). It's not, strictly speaking, a liturgical practice but a devotional one--altho in most of our U.S. communities (and I'd guess, others around the world) it's adapted to include liturgical Evening Prayer.

The Salesian Boys Prayer Book for Use in Salesian Schools and Youth Centers (New Rochelle, 1954) introduced the novena thus:

The joyful chanting of a choice selection of messianic prophecies, canticle and hymn during the nine days preceding Christmas Day is traditional in Salesian Schools the world over. The custom was handed down by Don Bosco himself, who adopted it from his native province of Piedmont, Italy.

Then followed the official Latin text and, in a facing column, an English translation to help the youngsters understand what the cantors and the lads themselves were singing.
St. Peter's Square decorated for Christmas, 2006 (ANS)
Following Vatican II, two SDB seminarians--one from California, Bro. Roger Luna, and one from Canada, Bro. Marcel Savard--undertook a fresh translation of the novena and an appropriate transcription of the chants (Richmond, Calif., 1964), which is the basis for what we still use thruout our Eastern Province (and probably also in the West).

The 2 brothers introduced their booklet this way:

This Christmas Novena in Chant is an English translation and adaptation of a Latin original composed by Father Charles Vachetta, C.M., in 1721. Fr. Vachetta's novena became very popular in Northern Italy, where it was composed, and quickly spread to other parts of the world. Eventually, several slightly varying versions appeared. In making this English edition, the translators used a Latin version according to the Editio Vaticana.

Most of the materials found in the Christmas novena were originally taken from the liturgy of Advent, from the Roman Breviary and Missal. Ultimately, however, most of the materials in the breviary and missal were themselves taken from the Sacred Scriptures.
. . . .
In our age, when the festival of Christmas has been overcommercialized and paganized [they wrote this in 1964!], this Christmas Novena in Chant will help the faithful to prepare spiritually for the coming of Christ. Furthermore, the scriptural character of the novena service will deepen their knowledge and appreciation of Christ, the central, dominant figure in the Scriptures.

The director here at the provincial house assigned your humble blogger as the lead-off preacher for the novena this year. He used the Collect of the day, in the new translation of the Roman Missal, as his basic text. And here's what he said:

Homily for the
Christmas Novena
December 16, 2011
Collect
Provincial House, New Rochelle

“They’ve gone about as far as they can go,” a character sings in Oklahoma, with reference to the modern wonders of Kansas City: “Everything’s Up-to-date in Kansas City”—such wonders as 5-story buildings, indoor plumbing, and “a show they call the burley-Q.” And on Friday of the 3d week of Advent we’ve gone as far as we can go before we run into the Great Days that start on Dec. 17. So we run into liturgical texts at both the Hours and the Eucharist that we hardly ever use. 2011 is only the 4th year since Ken, Steve, and I were ordained to the presbyterate 33 years ago that we’ve gone so deep into the 1st part of Advent, and we won’t do it again until 2020.[1]

“May your grace, almighty God, always go before us and follow after, so that we … may receive your help both now and in the life to come,” we prayed at the Collect this morning at Mass.[2] Most of us were in the dining room 8 mornings ago when Steve asked, dare I say with a certain amount of exasperation, “What the heck is ‘prevenient grace’?” He was quoting from the Prayer over the Offerings, which referred to the Virgin Mary’s being “untouched by any stain of sin on account of [God’s] prevenient grace.” Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s a literal rendition of tua gratia praeveniente.

Richard dutifully consulted Wikipedia (as I did this afternoon, having failed to find anything in various printed dictionaries of theology or even in the New Catholic Encyclopedia). That worthy source (Wiki) informs us that “Prevenient grace … is divine grace that precedes human decision. It exists prior to and without reference to anything humans may have done. As humans are corrupted by the effects of sin, prevenient grace allows persons to engage their God-given free will to choose the salvation offered by God in Jesus Christ or to reject that salvific offer.” And a little further along, “prevenient grace … enables, but does not ensure, personal acceptance of the gift of salvation. . . . In modern English, the phrase preceding grace would have a similar meaning.”

All that is purportedly the Protestant understanding of “prevenient grace,” an understanding probably not intended by the translators of the Roman Missal. Wiki also offers us the Catholic understanding, quoting from the Council of Trent: “In adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace.” I trust that’s clear! (Makes our new Roman Missal seem simple and graceful, doesn’t it?)

All of which is bringing me to note that “prevenient grace” is the same idea expressed in the Collect today: “May your grace always go before us….” In fact, the Latin text is “Praeveniat nos tua gratia semper.”

We’re praying that God do some substantial spadework in the ground of our souls, preparing to receive the seed of his word; preparing them for the further working of his grace in us; preparing us to receive his forgiveness and be redeemed.

We’re praying that God’s grace go before us like the advance scouts and engineers of an army; they map a route, fill in the ruts and the holes, cut down obstructive trees and vines build bridges, so that an army may advance. We, pilgrims trying to find our way home to the Father, need a secure route, and one not too difficult.

This Advent season is a long prayer, if you will, begging God to help us get ready to receive his Son. It’s a long prayer for preparatory grace, anticipatory grace, preceding grace, so that when the Son comes into our presence—“we, who await with heartfelt desire the coming of your Only Begotten Son,” the Collect says—we’ll actually welcome him and actually enlist in the redemption he brings. Our readings during Advent often enuf speak of those who resisted the divine grace on offer, those whose hearts were closed tight. Was it because God’s grace hadn’t come beforehand to get them ready? We can’t say why so many resisted Jesus during his earthly ministry. We can’t know; it’s part of the divine mystery of grace and of human free will.

We can only note, as the Prayer over the Offerings today did, that “we have no merits to plead our cause,” and we dearly need God’s grace to come to us, to stay with us, to go ahead of us and, as the Collect also said, “follow after” us, so that we might receive God’s “help both now and in the life to come,” i.e., that his help now would safely bring us to eternal life, to the everlasting enjoyment of the redemption wrought by “the coming of [the] Only Begotten Son.”

May the Lord, indeed, take pity on his servants,[3] as we prayed in Psalm 135 (v. 14) this evening, so that in the life to come we may be part of that great heavenly choir proclaiming, “Mighty and wonderful are your works, Lord God Almighty!” (Rev 15:3), thanks to the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ and all his manifold grace.

[1] The next year in which Christmas will fall on Sunday, thus stretching Advent as long as it can possibly be.[2] Friday of Week 3 of Advent.[3] So phrased in the Grail translation used in the Liturgy of the Hours.

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