Advent Prayer and the Incarnation

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Advent Prayer and the Incarnation

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 liturgical prayers.

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. Peter's.

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 this day.

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 salvation. ZE05120621

* * *

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, [29] 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 intellectual.

"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 God's word.

"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 introduction.

"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." ZE05122026

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe
or email: with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field