Saturday, December 1, 2012

Fr. Andersen: Advent Mini-Retreat

Another gem from Fr. Eric M. Andersen, Church of St. Louis

December 1st, 2012
The Last Day of Ordinary Time. Saturday Week 34.
Advent Mini-Retreat

“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy 
from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, 
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.”

Our Lord says to be vigilant at all times. These are words we will hear for the next couple of weeks as we enter into Advent. What does it mean to be vigilant? We can look to the liturgy itself. What is a vigil? A vigil is simply the eve of a feast. Historically, it is an extended prayer that is made at night. It involves prayers, readings from the scriptures, and sometimes a sermon. It also involves fasting. The Church has always prayed at night. This is biblical. It was done by the Jews and it has been done by Christians. Many of our parishioners come to the adoration chapel throughout the night. They keep vigil. There is an entirely different quality of prayer in the middle of the night. We get sleepy in the middle of the night. But our Lord told Peter, James and John to stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemene and He tells us now to be vigilant.

What does a prayer vigil look like? As I said a moment ago, it involves prayers, readings from the Scriptures and a sermon. We can look at the Divine Office which is prayed throughout the Universal Church every day. The Night Office, called variously the Office of Matins, or Vigils, or the Office of Readings, is normally prayed either at Midnight, or at 3 am, or sometime between 4 and 5:30 am. When it is celebrated properly, the whole office is sung.  
The sung office of Matins can take up to 2 hours. It begins with the words, “O Lord, open my lips…and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” Psalm 95 is prayed, and this is called an invitatory psalm. Then a hymn is sung and those praying then settle in for a nice long liturgy.  
This is the Advent Hymn for Matins:

Hymn: Verbum supernum prodiens
Celestial Word, to this our earth
Sent down from God’s eternal clime,
To save mankind by mortal birth
Into a world of change and time;
Lighten our hearts, vain hopes destroy;
And in thy love’s consuming fire
Fill all the soul with heavenly joy,
And melt the dross of low desire.
So when the Judge of quick and dead
Shall bid his awful summons come,
To whelm the guilty soul with dread,
And call the blessed to their home,
Saved from the whirling, black abyss,
Forevermore to us be given
To share the feast of saintly bliss,
And see the face of God in heaven.
To God the Father and the Son
Our songs with one accord we raise;
And to the Holy Spirit, One
With Them, be ever equal praise. Amen
(Trans. Matthew Britt OSB)

After the hymn a series of three nocturnes is prayed. Each nocturne is structured in the same way. The first nocturne properly belongs to a three hour period from 9 pm until Midnight. This first nocturne begins with three psalms which are chanted. These three psalms are followed by the Pater Noster, then by three readings from the Holy Scriptures. In between each reading is a chant called a responsory. It is a meditative chant sung by a small group or by an individual cantor so that the others praying can listen and meditate upon the reading that was just chanted. Then after the three readings and three responsories are chanted, there is silence and the nocturne is finished.

The second nocturne begins and another three psalms are chanted, followed by the Pater Noster, then a sermon from a Church father is read. The sermon is broken up into three parts with chanted responsories in between each part of the sermon. Thus ends the 2nd nocturne with silence.

The third nocturne begins with another three psalms followed by the Pater Noster and then either the gospel for the Mass of the Day and a homily on the Gospel divided into three parts with responsories sung in between the first two parts. This responsory ends with the Gloria Patri, or Glory Be, and in place of the last responsory, the Te Deum is sung. The Te Deum is an ancient hymn of thanksgiving to the Holy Trinity. It is a song currently sung in the Divine Office, but among the laity it is probably not well known.

The office of Matins ends with a collect from the Mass of the day. Thus ends the liturgical vigil, usually about the time of the dawn. The liturgical vigil, when sung, can last up to 2 or even 2 and a half hours. It is not a Mass. It is a liturgy of the hours. It prepares for the Mass. Those praying are keeping vigil for an extended period of time in the night as a preparation for the Mass of the day.

Advent is like an extended vigil. It is winter and so it is dark. The nights are long this time of year. So much of Advent is prayed in the dark. So if Advent is like a night vigil – like the Office of Matins just described – then we can say that it is a journey from night into morning, from darkness into light.

So how do we experience that vigil during Advent? Well, we first deprive ourselves of things. Nighttime is simple. It does not have the brilliance of daytime. It is deprived of light. So liturgically, the vestments worn are dark violet. The Church asks that we deprive ourselves of decorations in the church and the altars are not to be decorated with flowers. Also, historically, Advent has been a time when instrumentation was not allowed. Today, the Church asks that we limit the use of instruments during Advent and simplify the music. This is a time of the liturgical year when Gregorian Chant is most appropriate. It is simple. But we omit the singing of the Gloria at Mass.

The Church also recommends during Advent that parishes hold missions, or that people listen to sermons and that priests preach at daily Mass. Interestingly enough, priests are not required to preach at all during daily Masses throughout the year. They are only required to preach during Sunday Mass and on major feast days. So daily Mass could normally be celebrated without a homily. But during Advent and Lent, priests are asked to preach every day. This is so that the people can hear sermons during Advent and Lent as a means of more fruitfully preparing for the year’s two big Solemnities of Christmas and Easter.

When we pray in the night, we keep ourselves awake by prayer so that we may not become spiritually drowsy. Remember our Lord’s words in the Gospel: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.” When we become spiritually drowsy, we are susceptible to temptation and falling into grave sin. Advent is a time to prepare our souls so that we have something beautiful and pure to offer to Jesus at Christmas. We prepare our souls by listening to sermons, going to daily Mass, attending a parish mission, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, reading the Holy Scriptures, and by making a good confession before Christmas.

Since Advent is a time for reflection, simplicity and prayer, we as Christians should avoid parties as much as we can. It is certainly not a time for drunkenness and carousing as our Lord says in today’s Gospel. It is not a time for indulgence. That is reserved for Christmas. We want the twelve days of Christmas to be festive. In preparation, we might make a retreat during Advent. We should fast and abstain during Advent. It is difficult to avoid the parties, and open houses, and early Christmas gatherings, and we might have to make appearances at such things, but we can do so with a sense of restraint. We can certainly gather during Advent for prayer and for simple meals.

The more restraint we exercise now, the more glorious will Christmas be when it arrives. The more we exercise restraint, the more we armor ourselves against temptations of all sorts. When we fast and keep vigil, it helps to purify us and make the sacraments more fruitful in us. We owe that to God. He has a great gift in store for us in this Mass. Every Mass is an advent of our Lord. At every Mass, our Lord comes again on this altar. The Eucharist is a great sign of the Advent we await at the end of all time. Let us celebrate the Advent of our Lord in this Mass, and let us now prepare to enter into the great season of Advent at sundown today.

We begin Advent in the darkness and we journey into the light. As we begin in this lowest place, let us meditate now on the words of a sequence originally sung during the Mass for the First Sunday of Advent. The Dies Irae is a dynamic piece that communicates the full spectrum of this season: fear of judgment for the wicked at the second coming, hope in God’s mercy towards us the faithful, and the triumph of His Eternal Majesty Jesus Christ over sin and death:

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!
O what fear man’s bosom rendeth
When from heav’n the judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth!
Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth;
Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth;
All before the throne it bringeth.
Death is struck, and nature quaking,
All creation is awaking,
To its judge an answer making.
Lo! the book, exactly worded,
Wherein all hath been recorded:
Thence shall judgment be awarded.
When the judge his seat attaineth
And each hidden deed arraigneth,
Nothing unavenged remaineth.
What shall I, frail man, be pleading?
Who for me be interceding,
When the just are mercy needing?
King of majesty tremendous,
Who dost free salvation send us,
Fount of pity, then befriend us!
Think, good Jesus, my salvation
Cost thy wondrous incarnation;
Leave me not to reprobation!
Faint and weary, thou hast sought me,
On the cross of suff’ring brought me.
Shall such grace be vainly brought me?
Righteous judge! for sin’s pollution
Grant thy gift of absolution,
Ere the day of retribution.
Guilty, now I pour my moaning,
All my shame with anguish owning;
Spare, O God, thy suppliant groaning!
Thou the sinful woman savedst;
Thou the dying thief forgavest;
And to me a hope vouchsafest.
Worthless are my prayers and sighing,
Yet, good Lord, in grace complying,
Rescue me from fires undying!
With thy favored sheep O place me
Nor among the goats abase me,
But to thy right hand upraise me.
While the wicked are confounded,
Doomed to flames of woe unbounded,
Call me with thy saints surrounded.
Low I kneel, with heart submission:
See, like ashes my contrition;
Help me in my last condition.
Ah! that day of tears and mourning!
From the dust of earth returning,
Man for judgment must prepare him;
Spare, O God, in mercy spare him! Amen.

So here we are at the threshold of Advent. We begin in the darkness and we set out toward the light. Each week of Advent will become increasingly lighter and lighter.  


  1. Beautiful reflection! Thank you Jay!

  2. HSE, Fr. Andersen's reflection also included an invitation to those present to come next Saturday for part II. I'll be watching for him to post that one on Face Book as well!


Please be courteous and concise.