Many commentators have mused about today’s liturgical observance. It’s the Octave (Eighth Day) of Christmas. It’s been observed as the Circumcision of the Lord, as a World Day of Peace, and now, as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Placing Mary in relationship to Christ makes sense in the season of the Nativity. And the Lectionary readings support this.
In the Roman Antiphonary, two refrains and three texts are given as options for Entrance. In my parish, as with most in North America, there are attachments to Christmas songs and carols. I found the text of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” suggestive of the second antiphon below, so I generally have programmed it for today’s feast.
But the Bible passages given for the antiphons are quite interesting, and deserving of good settings. I’m less impressed with the first option, a biblically unreferenced (composed) refrain, “Hail, Holy Mother, who gave birth to the King who rules heaven and earth for ever,” which is directed to be used with three verses of Psalm 45: 2, 11-12. This psalm is a song for a wedding of the King to a Gentile princess. I suppose one could ponder the marriage of Christ to his Church, but that seems out-of-place on a day like today. Or maybe the Annunciation. But there’s another feast for observing that.
A superior text for the feast is the following antiphon suggested by Isaiah 9: 1, 5 and Luke 1: 33:
Today a light will shine upon us, for the Lord is born for us;
and he will be called Wondrous God,
Prince of peace, Father of future ages:
and his reign will be without end.
(Psalm 92: GR, p. 44; or Isaiah 9: 1-3, 5-6: GR, Praenotanda, no. 1)
The 93rd is one of the shorter pieces in the Psalter. It starts off with a bang, in praise of God as King:
The LORD is king, robed with majesty;
the LORD is robed, girded with might.
The world will surely stand in place,
never to be moved.
Your throne stands firm from of old;
you are from everlasting.
From there, the psalmist reminds us of God’s triumph over flooding and over the sea. Verse 5 concludes with a suggestion of the Law, as well as God’s mastery of time–which may be appropriate for the first day of a new year:
Your decrees are firmly established;
holiness belongs to your house, O LORD,
for all the length of days.
If I were using this option, I would probably trim verses 3 and 4 if I didn’t need them. That’s easily done if the entrance proper is set up with the people on the longish antiphon and a psalmist or choir on the verses. If I had the resources of a choir, verses 3 and 4 rendered by the choir might make a good contrast with a smaller group or single psalmist on verses 1, 2, and 5.
And option two? What was a Lectionary for Christmas Mass in the Night is now a canticle:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
Upon those who lived in a land of gloom
a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
and great rejoicing;
They rejoice before you as people rejoice at harvest,
as they exult when dividing the spoils.
For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
The rod of their taskmaster,
you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.
(For every boot that tramped in battle,
every cloak rolled in blood,
will be burned as fuel for fire.)
For a child is born to us, a son is given to us;
upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
His dominion is vast
and forever peaceful,
Upon David’s throne, and over his kingdom,
which he confirms and sustains
By judgment and justice,
both now and forever.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this!
This is a more intriguing text. I’ve included verse 4 above so you can see the Antiphonary editors determined that we don’t want the images of army boots and bloodied cloaks ringing in the new year. Maybe they’re on to something.
I like the reprise of the Christmas Night reading here. This is more a lyrical text than a prophecy in prose, and deserves a brilliant musical setting, as has been done many times in the classics. I’m not aware of any metrical paraphrase of this whole text, however. If we had one, perhaps those insisting on using the proper text could bracket singing the hymn with two presentations of that antiphon.
When it comes to Christmas, I’m something of a liturgical scrooge. I don’t care much for composing for Christmas–not sure why. I don’t feel quite up to this text either, not at this point in my life. Maybe when I reach seventy–who knows? I would love to see this antiphon and Isaiah passage set to a dialogue piece for assembly and choir. But then again, who might be prepared to prepare it after a heavy season of anticipation and the Western climax of the Nativity?
Thoughts on the text or musical settings of it?