|ROME, 6 DEC. 2005 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
* * *
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
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.
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
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
* * *
Follow-up: Advent Prayer and the Incarnation [12-20-2005]
After our comments on the Incarnation (Dec. 6) some readers asked
specific questions regarding the liturgy at Christmas.
A Pennsylvania reader asked: "I'd appreciate some direction on the
appropriate degree of altar flowers during the Advent and Christmas
season and the location of a Christmas crèche. Is it acceptable to have
a crèche within the sanctuary? If so, is there a preference for directly
in front of the altar or off to the side, about 15 feet from the altar?"
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 305, gives the
following indications regarding flowers:
"Moderation should be observed in the decoration of the altar.
"During Advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a
moderation suited to the character of this season, without expressing
prematurely the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord. During Lent it is
forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Laetare Sunday
(Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts are exceptions.
"Floral decorations should always be done with moderation and placed
around the altar rather than on its mensa."
There is a very widespread custom of using poinsettias (usually red or
white) during the Christmas season.
There are no official norms regarding the crèche, or crib. Most churches
seem to place it to one side of the sanctuary or in some other part of
the Church, such as a side chapel. It very much depends on the church's
size and architecture.
I have occasionally seen a crib in front of an altar but it is probably
not the best position.
On the one hand, placing it within the sanctuary makes it difficult for
the faithful to get close and spend some time contemplating the mystery
of Bethlehem. On the other, it can easily become an obstacle to the
smooth realization of the liturgical functions.
A more delicate question came in from a Californian correspondent: "I've
been asked to organize a Children's Christmas Vigil Mass that includes
children dressed as Mary, Joseph, angels, and shepherds entering after
the Gospel. The priest will narrate the Nativity story with the children
singing songs at certain points. I've already deleted all lines to be
delivered by the children. Do you have suggestions as to what should be
considered distracting elements that just don't belong?"
I suppose that our reader refers to a Mass at which the vast majority of
the participants are pre-adolescent children and not a mixture of older
children and adults.
In the latter case the whole project should probably be dropped, as the
special norms regarding children's Masses are specifically tailored to
young children. Some form of dramatization by children might be allowed
before Mass begins but not during the celebration itself.
Even in the case of the majority being young children, the norms do not
appear to lend support for any forms of dramatization even though some
special elements may be included.
Below, I present a selection of some of the norms from the directory for
Masses for children at which some adults attend; these norms should help
our reader prepare a celebration in conformity with the mind of the
Church. The full text may be found at a Web site called
"Chapter III, Part 1. Offices and Ministries in the Celebration
22. The principles of active and conscious participation are in a sense
even more significant for Masses celebrated with children. Every effort
should therefore be made to increase this participation and to make it
more intense. For this reason as many children as possible should have
special parts in the celebration: for example, preparing the place and
the altar (see no. 29), acting as cantor (see no. 24), singing in a
choir, playing musical instruments (see no. 32), proclaiming the
readings (see nos. 24 and 47), responding during the homily (see no.
48), reciting the intentions of the general intercessions, bringing the
gifts to the altar, and performing similar activities in accord with the
usage of various peoples (see no. 34).
"To encourage participation, it will sometimes be helpful to have
several additions, for example, the insertion of motives for giving
thanks before the priest begins the dialogue of the preface.
"In all this, it should be kept in mind that external activities will be
fruitless and even harmful if they do not serve the internal
participation of the children. Thus religious silence has its importance
even in Masses with children (see no. 37). The children should not be
allowed to forget that all the forms of participation reach their high
point in eucharistic communion, when the body and blood of Christ are
received as spiritual nourishment.
"23. It is the responsibility of the priest who celebrates with children
to make the celebration festive, familial, and meditative. Even more
than in Masses with adults, the priest is the one to create this kind of
attitude, which depends on his personal preparation and his manner of
acting and speaking with others ...
"24. Since the Eucharist is always the action of the entire ecclesial
community, the participation of at least some adults is desirable. These
should be present not as monitors but as participants, praying with the
children and helping them to the extent necessary ...
"Even in Masses with children attention is to be paid to the diversity
of ministries so that the Mass may stand out clearly as the celebration
of the community. For example, readers and cantors, whether children or
adults, should be employed. In this way a variety of voices will keep
the children from becoming bored.
"Chapter III, Part 5. Gestures
"33. In view of the nature of the liturgy as an activity of the entire
person and in view of the psychology of children, participation by means
of gestures and posture should be strongly encouraged in Masses with
children, with due regard for age and local customs. Much depends not
only on the actions of the priest,  but also on the manner in which
the children conduct themselves as a community ...
"34. Among the actions that are considered under this heading,
processions and other activities that involve physical participation
deserve special mention.
"The children's entering in procession with the priest can serve to help
them to experience a sense of the communion that is thus being created.
The participation of at least some children in the procession with the
Book of the Gospels makes clear the presence of Christ announcing the
word to his people. The procession of children with the chalice and the
gifts expresses more clearly the value and meaning of the preparation of
the gifts. The communion procession, if properly arranged, helps greatly
to develop the children's devotion.
"Chapter III, Part 6. Visual Elements
"35. The liturgy of the Mass contains many visual elements and these
should be given great prominence with children. This is especially true
of the particular visual elements in the course of the liturgical year,
for example, the veneration of the cross, the Easter candle, the lights
on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, and the variety of colors
and liturgical appointments.
"In addition to the visual elements that belong to the celebration and
to the place of celebration, it is appropriate to introduce other
elements that will permit children to perceive visually the wonderful
works of God in creation and redemption and thus support their prayer.
The liturgy should never appear as something dry and merely
"36. For the same reason, the use of art work prepared by the children
themselves may be useful, for example, as illustrations of a homily, as
visual expressions of the intentions of the general intercessions, or as
inspirations to reflection.
"45. In the biblical texts "God is speaking to his people ... and Christ
is present to the faithful through his own word." Paraphrases of
Scripture should therefore be avoided. On the other hand, the use of
translations that may already exist for the catechesis of children and
that are accepted by the competent authority is recommended.
"46. Verses of psalms, carefully selected in accord with the
understanding of children, or singing in the form of psalmody or the
Alleluia with a simple verse should be sung between the readings. The
children should always have a part in this singing, but sometimes a
reflective silence may be substituted for the singing ...
"47. All the elements that will help to explain the readings should be
given great consideration so that the children may make the biblical
readings their own and may come more and more to appreciate the value of
"Among such elements are the introductory comments that may precede the
readings and that by explaining the context or by introducing the text
itself help the children to listen better and more fruitfully. The
interpretation and explanation of the readings from the Scriptures in
the Mass on a saint's day may include an account of the saint's life,
not only in the homily but even before the readings in the form of an
"When the text of the readings lends itself to this, it may be helpful
to have the children read it with parts distributed among them, as is
provided for the reading of the Lord's passion during Holy Week."