The Voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord; behold thy God!” In this world of ours grown now so cold, who can understand earth’s transports, at hearing these glad tidings so long expected? The promised God was not yet manifested; but already have the heavens bowed down, to make way for his passage. No longer was he “the One who is to come,” he for whom our fathers, the illustrious saints of the prophetic age ceaselessly called, in their indomitable hope. Still hidden indeed but already in our midst, he was resting beneath that virginal cloud compared with which, the heavenly purity of Thrones and Cherubim wax dim; yea, the united fires of burning Seraphim grow faint, in presence of the single love wherewith she alone encompasses him in her human heart, she that lowly daughter of Adam whom he had chosen for his mother. Our accursed earth, made suddenly more blessed far than yonder heaven so long inexorably closed to suppliant prayer, awaited only that the august mystery should be revealed; the hour was come for earth to join her canticles to that eternal and divine praise, which henceforth was ever rising from her depths, and which being itself no other than the Word Himself, would celebrate God condignly. But beneath the veil of humility where his divinity, even after as well as before his birth, must still continue to hide itself from men, who may discover the Emmanuel? who, having recognised him in his merciful abasements, may succeed in making him accepted by a world lost in pride? who may cry, pointing out the Carpenter’s Son, in the midst of the crowd: Behold Him whom your fathers have so wistfully awaited!
For such is the order decreed from on high, in the manifestation of the Messias. Comformably to the ways of men, the God-Man would not intrude himself into public life; he would await, for the inauguration of his divine ministry, some man who having preceded him in a similar career, would be hereby sufficiently accredited, to introduce him to the people.
That’s quite a sublime part for a creature to play, to stand guarantee for his God, witness for the Word! The exalted dignity of him who was to fill such a position, had been notified, as had that of the Messias, long before his birth. In the solemn liturgy of the Age of types, the Levite choir, reminding that the Most High of the meekness of David and of the promise made to him of the glorious heir, hailed from afar the mysterious lamp prepared by God for his Christ. Not that, to give light to his steps, Christ should stand in need of external help: he, the Splendor of the Father, had only to appear in these dark regions of ours, to fill them with the effulgence of the very heavens; but so many false glimmerings had deceived mankind, during the night of these ages of expectation, that had the true Light arisen on a sudden, it would not have been understood, or would have but blinded eyes now become well nigh powerless, by reason of protracted darkness, to endure its brilliancy. Eternal Wisdom therefore decreed that just as the rising sun is announced by the morning-star, and prepares his coming by the gently tempered brilliancy of aurora; so Christ, who is Light should be preceded here below, by a star, his precursor; and his approach be signalled by the luminous rays which he himself, though still invisible, would shed around this faithful herald of his coming. When in bygone days the Most High vouchsafed to light up, before the eyes of his prophets, the distant future, that radiant flash which for an instant shot across the heavens of the old covenant, melted away in the deep night, and ushered not in, as yet, the longed-for dawn. The “morning-star” of which the psalmist sings, shall know naught of defeat: declaring unto night that all is now over with her, he will dim his own fires only in the triumphant splendor of the Son of Justice. Even as aurora melts into day, so will he confound with Light Increated, his own radiance; being of himself, like every creature, nothingness and darkness, he will so reflect the brilliancy of the Messias shining immediately upon him, that many will mistake him even for the very Christ.
The mysterious conformity of Christ and his Precursor, the incomparable proximity which unites one to the other, are to be found many times marked down in the sacred scriptures. If Christ is the Word, eternally uttered by the Father, he is to be the Voice bearing this divine utterance whithersoever it is to reach; Isaias already hears the desert echoing with these accents, till now unknown; and the prince of prophets expresses his joy, with all the enthusiasm of a soul already beholding itself in the very presence of its Lord and God. The Christ is the Angel of the Covenant; but in the very same text wherein the Holy Ghost gives Him this title, for us so full of hope, there appears likewise bearing the same name of angel, the inseparable messenger, the faithful ambassador, to whom the earth is indebted for her coming to know the Spouse: Behold, I send my angel, and he shall prepare the way before my face. And presently the Lord whom ye seek, and the Angel of the testament whom you desire, shall come to his Temple; behold he cometh, saith the Lord of hosts. And putting an end to the prophetic ministry, of which he is the last representative, Malachias terminates his own oracles by the words which we have heard Gabriel addressing to Zachary, when he makes known to him the approaching birth of the Precursor.
The presence of Gabriel, on this occasion, of itself shows with what intimacy with the Son of God, this child then promised shall be favored; for the very same Prince of the heavenly hosts, came again, soon afterwards, to announce the Emmanuel. Countless are the faithful messengers that press around the throne of the Holy Trinity, and the choice of these august ambassadors usually varies, according to the dignity of the instructions, to be transmitted to earth by the Most High. Nevertheless, it was fitting that the same archangel charged with concluding the sacred Nuptials of the Word with the Human Nature, should likewise prelude this great mission by preparing the coming of him whom the eternal decrees had designated as the Friend of the Bridegroom. Six months later, on his deputation to Mary, he strengthens his divine message, by revealing to that purest of Virgins, the prodigy, which had by then already given a son to the sterile Elizabeth; this being the first step of the Almighty towards a still greater marvel. John is not yet born; but without longer delay, his career is begun: he is employed to attest the truth of the angel’s promises. How ineffable this guarantee of a child hidden as yet in his mother’s womb, but already brought forward as God’s witness, in that sublime negotiation which at that moment is holding heaven and earth in suspense! Illumined from on high, Mary receives the testimony and hesitates no longer. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, says she to the archangel, be it done unto me according to thy word.
Gabriel has retired, bearing away with him the divine secret which he has not been commissioned to reveal to the rest of the world. Neither will the most prudent Virgin herself tell it; even Joseph, her virginal Spouse, is to receive no communication of the mystery from her lips. Yet fear not; the woeful sterility beneath which earth has been so long groaning, is not to be followed by an ignorance more sorrow-stricken still, now that it has yielded its fruit. There is one from whom Emmanuel will have no secret, nor reserve; it were fitting to reveal the marvel unto him. Scarce has the Spouse taken possession of the sanctuary all spotless, wherein the nine months of his first abiding amongst men, must run their course, yea, scarce has the Word been made Fleth, than Our Lady, inwardly taught what is her Son’s desire, arising, makes all haste to speed into the hill country of Judea. The voice of my Beloved! Behold he cometh, leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills. His first visit is to the “Friend of the Bridegroom,” the first outpour of his graces is to John. A distinct feast will allow us to honor in a speciall manner the precious day on which the divine Child, sanctifying his Precursor, reveals himself to John, by the voice of Mary; the day on which Our Lady, manifested by John, leaping within the womb of his mother, proclaims at last the wondrous things operated within her by the Almighty, according to the merciful promise which he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever.
But the time is come when the good tidings are to spread, from children and mothers, through all the adjacent country, until at length they reach the whole world. John is about to be born and, while still himself unable to speak, he is to loosen his father’s tongue. He is to put an end to that dumbness with which the aged priest, a type of the old law, had been struck by the angel; and Zachary, himself filled with the Holy Ghost, is about to publish in a new canticle, the blessed visit of the Lord God of Israel.
Let us usher in the gladness of this great solemnity by chanting the first Vespers thereof, together with our Mother the Church. First of all, let us notice the white color of the vestments wherein the Bride is clad today.
These Antiphons recall the promises concerning the holy Precursor. He himself, in the Capitulum, invites us to sing the sublime preventions of grace from the hand of the Most High, in his regard. The hymn which follows furnishes the Church with a beautiful formula of prayer and praise. There are few pieces so famous as this, in the holy liturgy.
Its composition is attributed to Paul the Deacon, a monk of Monte Cassino, in the eighth century; and the story attached to it is particularly touching. Honored with that sacred order the very title of which remains through the course of ages inseparably linked with his name, Paul Warnefrid, the friend of Charlemagne and the historian of the Lombards, was on a certain occasion deputed to bless the paschal candle, the triumphal appearance whereof yearly announces to Holy Church the Resurrection of the Spouse. Now it happened that while he was preparing himself for this function, the most solemn of those reserved to the Levites of the New Testament, he suddenly lost his voice, until then clear and sonorous, so that he was powerless to sound forth the glad notes of the Exsultet. In this extremity, Paul recollected himself; and turning to Saint John, patron at once of the Lombard nation and of that Church built by Saint Benedict at the top of the holy mount, he invoked him whose birth had put a stop to the dumbness of his own father, and who still preserves his power of restoring to “vocal chords their lost suppleness.” The son of Zachary heard his devout client. Such was the origin of the harmonious strophes which now form the three hymns proper to this feast.
What is still better known, is the importance which the first of these strophes has acquired in the history of Gregorian chant and of music. The primitive air to which the hymn of Paul the Deacon was sung possessed this peculiarity, namely, that the initial syllable of each hemistich rose just one degree higher than the preceding, in the scale of sounds; thus was obtained, on bringing them together, the series of fundamental notes which form the basis of our present gamut. The custom was afterwards of giving to the notes themself, the names of these syllables: Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La. Guido of Arezzo, in his method of teaching, originated this custom; and by completing it with the introduction of the regular lines of the musical scale, he was the cause of an immense stride being made in the science of sacred music, until then so laborious to render, and so tedious to acquire. He thus acknowledged that the divine Precursor, the Voice whose accents reveal to the world the harmony of the eternal canticle, ought to have the honor of having attached to his name the organization of earth’s melodies.
(Listen to the Chant: The Hymn to St. John the Baptist)
Ut queant laxis resonare
Nuntius celso veniens
Ille promissi dubius su-
Ventris obstruso recubans
Sit decus Patri, genitæ-
Since thy servants desire to
Lo! a messenger coming
Dubious he of heavenly
Yet lying in the secret of
Glory be to the Father, and