Today is Christ born;
today the Savior has appeared;
today the Angels sing,
the Archangels rejoice;
today the righteous rejoice, saying:
Glory to God in the highest. Alleluia!
These are the words of the beautiful antiphon: Hodie Christus natus est, found originally at the end of the Lauds service for Christmas day. As I pondered what to share this week, surrounded by so much rich and meaningful music, this antiphon sprang to mind – a fairly simple but also more well-known piece. The text has been used by many composers over the centuries, Sweelink, Poulenc, and more recently Britten who used the Gregorian chant in its original version and helped make it a better know piece to many.
The melody starts with a sort of trumpet call – Hodie Christus natus est! – 3 notes rising. Each time the word Hodie (today) is restated we hear that same pattern, and as it builds to the final statement the tune rises to its highest point – today the righteous rejoice, saying: Glory to God in the highest. Alleluia!
Some images below show this antiphon’s history – the oldest written version found in the Hartker manuscript, Saint Gallen, Switzerland, 10th century. It was surely being sung even before that but passed on orally. The next version is from a 16th century manuscript, thought to be from a Latin American country, a piece likely brought over to the Americas with early missionaries. Finally we have the most current version, type-set as we’d see it today. It’s incredible to imagine all those over the centuries and across the globe joining in this prayer at Christmas! Enjoy the sound link below to hear the antiphon.
This past Sunday was the celebration of Christ the King, and for this next week we will be singing the Alleluia from Trinity Sunday. It is interesting to look at this piece as we come up to Advent. The text is a paraphrase taken from the three young men in the fiery furnace, and is full of praise: Blessed art thou, Lord God of our fathers, and to be praised for ever.
Looking at the music we see a melody rippling with joy. There are numerous repetitions of pitch and repeated 2- and 3-note patterns that give this bubbly feeling. Then at the start of each phrase we see a triumphant leap up – a fourth or fifth – sounding like a trumpet call. This is a little musical motive that we often see at special feasts through the year – Christmas, Palm Sunday, Pentecost. The Alleluia is fairly short but full of exuberance, and it gives us a vehicle through which to lift up our eyes and praise.
This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful that I am. Not for what I have, not for what I’ve achieved or hope to achieve, but simply because I am. I am opens immeasurable possibilities: participation in a sunrise, interaction with a friend, an occasion for laughter (or tears.) Today I might enjoy beautiful music, lucky dip a scripture that fits just right, or encounter kindness when I least expect it.
All because I was, I am, and will be forever. All because God extended his arms and invited me in.
One of my favorite stories is told by the Venerable Bede about Hilda (Abbess of Whitby from 657–680) and the servant Caedmon, who herded the monastery’s cows. Caedmon kept to himself, and usually left a room when “the harp was passed” for singing and reciting poetry. One night he fell asleep among the animals and dreamt that a man told him to get up and sing a poem about “the beginning of created things.” He told Abbess Hilda, who was as amazed as Caedmon was himself with the poem. The Abbess brought him into the monastery, where he continued to sing and write poetry for the rest of his life. His poem is the oldest in the English language, and he is now considered the “Father of English poetry.”
I think of Hilda as a very wise woman, Abbess of several monasteries of men and women, who nurtured the gifts of all that were under her care.
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.(Psalm 116:15)
All Saints Day is a celebration of the communion of saints—all those who have died in Christ, known and unknown. Like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, this feast honors everyone who has served.
The commemoration of saints began with the early Christian martyrs. Wanting to remember their slain brothers and sisters, churches began to celebrate a yearly remembrance of a martyr’s death. As Roman persecutions continued, and the numbers of martyrs increased, it became impossible to grant a feast day for each of them. So, as early as the fourth century, the church celebrated one day for all the martyrs, to ensure that all were properly honored. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III consecrated a chapel “to all the martyrs” in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome on November 1st. Since that day, November 1st has been the day that the western church celebrates “All Saints Day”—a celebratory and inclusive memorial, in thanksgiving for all the Christians who have gone before us.
November 1 is the Solemn Feast of All Saints – a holy day whose tradition dates back to the 4th century AD. In the earliest centuries it was celebrated during the Easter season and came originally from liturgies held in honor of the martyrs in those times. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory set the date as November 1 which in the Western church has continued up to today. In a number of countries it is still a national holiday and very much a part of life, with special services and family traditions.
There are many pieces of Gregorian chant connected with this Feast – Litanies, Masses, Propers, and Antiphons – too numerous to mention them all! One lovely and well-known Antiphon that has a connection with this day is “In Paradisum” a chant traditionally sung at funerals as part of the Mass for the Dead. It is a very simple piece, Mode VII, composed as a mainly syllabic melody with a clivis or pes interspersed at points. The lack of ornamentation draws our focus right to the text: “May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem.” The melody lofts upwards from the very start and hovers in the higher range giving a heavenly sense. There is a sweetness and feeling of reassurance to the prayer being offered up for those who have now become Saints. Below is a link to this chant sung by Gloriae Dei Cantores schola members.
We rediscovered this treasure from last year — especially appropriate in the middle of this season of hurricanes, when so many are suffering, and are now preparing for the next storm. We continue to pray for God’s protection for all of those in the path of the storm.
The waters have risen and severe storms are upon us, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand firmly upon a rock. Let the sea rage, it cannot break the rock. Let the waves rise, they cannot sink the boat of Jesus. What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of our goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world’s threats; I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good.
I have his promise; I am surely not going to rely on my own strength! I have what he has written; that is my staff, my security, my peaceful harbor.
The Feast of John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople
“If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.”
“Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.”
“We must not mind insulting men, if by respecting them, we offend God.”
The saint we know as John Chrysostom, was not called Chrysostom (which means “golden-mouthed) until after his death. It was his golden-mouthed preaching and writing that made him a great teacher of the early church, but also caused him great personal grief. His feast day is celebrated on September 13.
As a result of his reputation as an orator, John was kidnapped from his church in Antioch in 398 and made the Archbishop of Constantinople, the center of the Roman Empire at the time. He accepted the position as the will of God, but denounced many important leaders (including clergy) in the city for their extreme wealth and corruption. His denouncements of Roman citizens by name led to his banishment more than once, the last resulting in his sickness and death in 407.
To put John Chrysostom’s life in perspective: Emperor Constantine issued his edict decriminalizing Christianity (the Edict of Milan) in 313. John was born in 349, just 36 years later. It was not until 380, when he was 31, that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. He became a deacon in Antioch the following year.
On September 8 we celebrate the Nativity of Mary, a feast that was established as early on as the 6th century. Once again we have a collection of beautiful hymns, antiphons, and Propers, all written very specifically for this day. The hymn for Lauds is especially lovely: O gloriosa Domina, taken from the second half of a larger hymn written by Fortunatus in the mid 500s. The four verses used at Lauds have many wonderful descriptions of Mary: glorious Lady; gentle one; door of the high king; shining gate of light….
The melody of the hymn has a very simple and gentle feeling. While it covers a range greater than an octave, it moves largely in step-wise motion or leaps of a third. The second and fourth quarters of each verse have a lovely cascading pattern of pedes and clivi rippling from re to sol and landing finally on the home-tone, la.
It’s amazing to think of this piece being sung annually on this date for close to 1500 years. Several sources state that it was the favorite hymn of St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231), that the song was always on his lips, even on his deathbed (Catholic Encyclopedia).
Here below is a visual sample of the first two verses as well as a recording of Gloriæ Dei Cantores Men’s Schola singing the hymn (from the CD, The Chants of Mary).
The Feast of the Nativity of Mary (or Mary’s birthday) has been celebrated on September 8th for at least 15 centuries.
We know this because of “Romanos the Melodist,” a Jewish convert to Christianity from Syria in the late 5th century. He became a deacon in Constantinople, the center of the Christian faith at the time.
There is a story told about Romanos that he felt very inadequate when it came to music, and did not like his own voice. When he was asked to lead a special service, the All-Night Vigil, he pleaded with the Mother of God to help him, and fell asleep in his prayers. He dreamt that Mary came to him with a scroll, and said, “Here, eat this.” He woke up full of joy, and the next night, at the All-Night Vigil, he sang with such a strong, clear voice that everyone was amazed. After this he wrote many hymns, including one for the Feast of Nativity of Mary on September 8th, which is how historians date this feast.