This week we use the second of the Advent Prefaces from the Roman Missal. I am puzzled by its third paragraph:
It is by his gift that already we rejoice
at the mystery of his Nativity,
so that he may find us watchful in prayer
and exultant in his praise.
What does ‘already we rejoice’ mean? Surely not that the joy of Christmas has already begun. The shops and streets may be full of decorations and carols, but the Church continues in purple vestments and without flowers, omitting the Gloria from the Mass until liturgical Christmas begins.
The culprit is the Latin verb ‘praevenio,’ the use of which in the Prayer over the Offerings for December 8th (‘prevenient grace’) has already occasioned comment. Ward and Johnson’s book on the Prefaces gives no source for the use of this word here, so presumably we owe the phrase ‘praevenire gaudentes’ to an author of the 1960s. What was (s)he trying to say? Surely not that Christmas has come early this year, but rather that we find joy in looking forward to it. ‘Praevenio’ here must mean ‘anticipate,’ not in the sense of doing something early, but of looking forward. Since the same Preface occurs in the Ambrosian Missal, it has been translated by Alan Griffiths, who sheds light on the meaning of the Latin:
Now for the feast of his Nativity
Christ fills us with the joy of expectation,
that his coming may find us ready,
eager and waiting with prayer and praise to greet him.
–Msgr. Bruce Harbert is former executive director of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).