Quick Note on the Christmas Proclamation

I have a post to post in the next day or two on my initial meeting with the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music and my thoughts coming out of that. In the meantime, a topic has popped up on the Society of Catholic Priests list that might be edifying beyond that group.

A question was asked about the Christmas Proclamation—what kind of beast is it, what is to be done with it, and where is the best place and time to use it?

Here’s my take…

This proclamation was originally part of the martyrology. In the intentional liturgical communities of the medieval period—monastic establishments, priories, cathedrals, etc—the office of Chapter functioned both as a quasi-business meeting and a liturgical office. One of the components was the reading of the martyrology which informed those present of the saints who would be celebrated on the coming liturgical day. Outside of these environments (and even there over time) it was collapsed into the Office of Prime. So—this was the proclamation’s original habitat. It’s properly an Office “thing” rather than a Mass “thing.” Hence, you’ll not find it in the missals.

What do we do with it? I’m personally in favor of re-purposing good liturgical material as long as it’s done within the scope of prayer book theology and does not do violence to the rite. As was noted, the classical form of this is based on a faulty understanding of biblical dating and geological science. While I appreciate the intention and poetry of the original form, it ties us liturgically to a stance on the Bible and science that we just don’t believe. The version put out by the US Council of Catholic Bishops adheres much better to our own theology and biblical understanding.  The St Meinrad version mentioned by Fr. Steve Rice is different but takes the same factors into account: http://www.saintmeinradmusic.org/downloads/ChristmasProclamation.pdf

The notes in the bishops’ version suggest putting the proclamation after the initial greeting. That’s one option. I think a better option is to include it with any para-liturgical devotions before the service. For instance, a common custom is a Christmas carol hymn-sing before the Midnight Mass concluding with a blessing/censing of the creche—this would fit in perfectly and naturally at that point.

Fr. Tobias Haller recommended that his usual practice was to sing it (or have it sung by the deacon if you have a deacon who can sing) at the door before the processional hymn which is an excellent place for it as well.

4 Replies to “Quick Note on the Christmas Proclamation”

  1. Dererk, you make some excellent points here. I used to love the singing of the Martyrology at Prime on Christmas Eve. What touched me most deeply was the transition from the biblical dates to the secular, “In the One Hundred Ninety-Fourth Olympiad, etc.” This really brought home for me the fact that the Incarnation was an event in history, and not merely a theological concept, or some sort of mythological occurrence. Over time, however, I began to realize that, in spite of my undergraduate work in physics and my life-long passion for science, I had started believing that the world was created just over 7,000 years ago, that a world-wide flood had exterminated virtually all living creatures about 5,000 years ago, etc., etc. How appalling! And that’s not all, as it turns out. Did you know that many popular carols sung in churches refer to particular circumstances of Our Lord’s birth that modern scholarship has conclusively shown are entirely inaccurate? And that some even suggest that it occurred during the winter, with snow on the ground, and pretend to know at what time of day it occurred? How absurd! So obviously if we’re going to have this Christmas Proclamation then it needs to be in a form that is in accord with the most up-to-date understanding of Holy Scripture and of the physical sciences. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Look at all of the cribs and manger displays with oxen and donkeys and “kings” and camels. What is being done about them? I know it’s a lot, but hopefully someday we’ll have a Christmas that can be celebrated properly, without all of these fantastical elements that distract from what’s really important.

  2. I agree that the turn into secular time is a cool moment in the proclamation and does quite a lot to ground the Incarnation.

    I’ve also served in parishes in places where the age of the earth is a live issue. Clearly my objection to the older form seems silly to you, but in a world where people are looking for excuses to write off religion in general and Christianity in particular as a clueless superstition, I don’t feel it’s my role to hand them ammunition…

  3. Derek, I hope you weren’t offended by the snark; certainly I meant no offense. It’s not that I think your objections are silly; rather I believe that they’re prompted by an understanding of the interface between the sacred and secular worlds that is incorrect. Like many laymen, I’ve spent the last twenty-some years of my life with a foot in both camps. As a Christian, and more specifically as an Anglo-Catholic, I was a part of a community where our understanding of the true nature of universe was almost diametrically opposed to that of my professional colleagues in the secular world. What I’ve learned is that, similar to what Hauerwas and Yoder have said, Christendom is largely defunct, and that most people have already written off Christianity, and pretty much all religion, as clueless superstition. They are, by and large, very nice about it, and my interest in the practice of religion is accorded the same sort of respect as someone would get who had an interest in philately, trainspotting, or Civil War re-enactment. That boat has sailed, even if we still have an institutional church which we have to support and pay for.

    I realize that one response to this problem, and it is a problem in terms of mission, is to make Christianity as intellectually respectable as possible, and that’s the position that prompts some Christians to want to “clean up” our beliefs and practices so that we don’t seem as outre as we otherwise would. I feel that this is a grave, grave error. In the first place it simply won’t work. Sure, we can say that we’ve fixed this song that we sing once a year, and gotten rid of the poetry that implied that we didn’t believe the earth was actually created about four and a half billion years ago, but you still have to believe that virgins get pregnant and that a dead man came back to life so that we can all go to this place that doesn’t exist (from a scientific perspective) when we die. Talk about straining at gnats and swallowing camels! No, I don’t think that things like this will persuade anyone, unless you want to turn Christianity into something entirely different, where all of our traditional beliefs are simply metaphors that teach us how to live. And I’ve never gotten that impression from you.

    So if it’s not going to bring anyone new in, does it at least help us as Christians, to eliminate poetry that implies a faulty scientific understanding of the world? No, I don’t think that it does. In fact, it deprives us of traditional cultural memes that reinforce our entire philosophical approach to reality. I realize that this approach has been building up steam for a long time now, and it was one of the hallmarks of the liturgical revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s that we’re only just now starting to recover from. Christians were told that the churches were going to make all of these changes that would help us reach out to the masses of modern, educated people. Did it work? No, not at all, although more than a few people keep trying, thinking that if we make just these few doctrinal, or architectural, or liturgical changes, then the churches will be filled, and we’ll be able to keep paying our bills. It hasn’t been working for, in some ways, over a hundred or more years now, and it’s not going to start anytime soon.

    I’ll hold on to “The snow lay on the ground” and the traditional Martyrology text. They are both comforting, in the proper sense of that word, and are no more irrational than angels and demons, miracles, or a God who made everything and loves all of us.

  4. Derek, This is really helpful – thanks so much. I had been going back and forth about using the proclamation right when I noticed this post in my RSS reader.

    Just a technical note: there are two USCCB English versions of the Proclamation floating around and worth having –

    The first is the one that I’m guessing was linked to in the post (dead link now), but which the USCCB has hidden away – largely, I would imagine – because it used the language from the (now deauthorized) 2nd Edition of the Roman Missal rather than the new 3rd edition. That address is now old.usccb.org/liturgy/christmasproclamation.pdf . Either way, it is worth snaggging a copy now, because I have the suspicion it’ll be purged from the web soon.)

    The second is the language of the 3rd Edition of the Missal. It’s been revised in accordance with the principles that created the 3rd Edition released in 2011 (which were outlined in Liturgiam authenticam back in 2001) – so the creation account returns to man being made in God’s image instead of “man and woman”, the reference to Sarah is gone and Ur of the Chaldees is back in, and Rome is two years older! That version is posted on the USCCB main site: http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-resources/christmas/christmas-proclamation.cfm.

    Chant tones are the same for both; I’m happy to provide a scanned copy of the later, pointed, if anyone needs it. You can also find it by Googling “roman missal 3rd edition pdf” and then looking in the appendix. (Not sure of copyright issues of posting a PDF of the new edition.)

    We’ll be using the 2nd Edition text at my parish on Christmas Eve, before the beginning of mass. Both the 2nd Edition and 3rd Edition forms are more in line with your points about what we believe about biblical time; I think the 2nd Edition’s language is more comparable, however, to a Prayer Book Rite II mass. (I’d likely use the 3rd Edition form if I were celebrating Rite I.)

    David Sibley

Comments are closed.