Second Advent preface

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).


  1. Here is what ICEL and the bishops had as of early 2008.

    …who has granted us to anticipate with joy
    the mystery of his birth,
    so that he might find us watchful in prayer
    and joyful in his praises.


    1. That’s not quite what my record of 2008 has, Anthony. Some would find the sequence ‘who has granted . . . so that he might’ at best informal and at worst ungrammatical. They would prefer either ‘who granted . . . so that he might’ or ‘who has granted . . . so that he may’, which is what, according to my notes, ICEL proposed in 2008.

      1. I’m sure your record is of a better, more final version, I must have an earlier version. Thanks for noting this.

  2. When I heard this yesterday, I understood it to mean that we always rejoice at the mystery of Christ’s Nativity (or rejoice in the mystery of the Incarnation), even as we wait to celebrate the occasion of his Nativity. I actually rather liked the preface, and its reminder that we don’t get some sort of spiritual lobotomy about the Nativity/Incarnation during Advent any more than we get one about the Resurrection during Lent. I like to point out that we always pray about these things in the Creed (and/or renewal of baptismal promises) every Sunday, every season.

    1. This week I’ve resorted to not listening. I transferred my attention to something else – to the stained glass window of Mary and the angel, in this case. If I am careful to not pay attention, it won’t be jarring and it won’t distract my prayer. Reading “Give us this day”, I forced myself to skip the potentially offending prayers without reading them.

      It’s all an experiment. I’m trying different ways of receiving the new text to see which one works best.

  3. The presider chanted this preface for us and despite the confusion around the wording (in my mind…I had a moment of “is this the right Preface?”) the chant worked well with the text (and the presider had clearly worked hard to prepare both text and chant).

    The nice thing about chant is that it keeps you moving past the awkwardnesses…

  4. I think Alan H has it right. Additionally, following upon Gaudete Sunday and its antiphon about rejoicing (and coincidentally, having sung “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” at Mass as well yesterday), this idea of already rejoicing by the final days of Advent doesn’t strike me as being too problematic. Certainly, the “fullness of joy” of the Nativity is still being liturgically anticipated, but there’s already and always something of rejoicing going on, yes?

  5. Well, it seems to me that if we accept that, we then have a problem with:
    ‘so that he may find us watchful in prayer
    and exultant in his praise’.
    I don’t see how this clause of purpose would fit with the main clause that precedes it, if we were to interpret that as you propose.
    You might want to say ‘we always rejoice in the Nativity, so that Christ may always find us watchful and exultant’, but that removes all specific reference to the week that leads up to Christmas.

  6. On prefaces in general I find it very confusing that the have taken away the numbers for them. Some of the saints prayers do not indicate a preface and page number. IT is very poorly done.

    Also, what is with the bizarre preface coda?

  7. +++

    In his love, Christ has filled us with joy
    as we prepare to celebrate his birth,
    so that when he comes, he may find us watching in prayer,
    our hearts filled with wonder and praise.

    So 1973. Admittedly the references to love and hearts are not in the original–but at least here we have a piece of memorable and memorizable poetry, one that for me has been special ever since I first got to know it. In that most important respect of all, it’s far more faithful to the rather fine Latin than any of its successors–and it gets the object of our advent joy right. The temptation to return to former ways is hard to resist … the old text is far too beautiful for us to lose.

  8. I went back and looked at the ’73 preface – I like it as well, but it doesn’t make my spirituality do the kairos/chronos stretching that the current translation does. It also evades the “mystery of the Nativity” language, and makes it (as many critics of ’73 pointed out) once again andro-centric, with our celebration being a focal point.

    1. And here we come to the philosophical crux of the question.

      1973 speaks of the impact of God on our lives in a way that is meaningful to people.
      The current translation speaks of how, if we are well-behaved, we may fulfil God’s will for us.

      (I should add that I am talking in general terms, not about this Preface.)

      No doubt the former would be condemned as Pelagian, and the latter as hieratic. The fundamental question is, do we want to pray to a God before whom we may grovel in order to win his favour and who may or may not deign to listen to us, or do we want to pray to a God who loves his people and wants the best for them and constantly searches them out? I do not view the latter as andro-centric, but as intensely loving.

      So — we are not talking now about formal equivalence and fidelity to the Latin, we are talking about whether dynamic equivalence can transform these ancient texts into something which will actually speak to people in their 21st-century lives, so different from the people of the early centuries of Christianity and from the mindsets which obtained then.

      Just for comparison, 1998 has this:

      This same Lord invites us to prepare with joy
      for the mystery of his birth,
      so that when he comes
      he may find us watchful in prayer,
      our hearts filled with wonder and praise.

      The word “invites” is an indication of the different kind of relationship that I am talking about.

    2. The stretching that goes on in me when I hear the 1973 text is that I hear myself being invited into the circle of the heralds of Christ’s coming. Taken in context with the first half of the preface, it is a dazzling and even spine-tingling invitation. I don’t sense any of that excitement in the text we’ve been given to replace it, which seems remarkably dull and abstract by comparison.

      1. Thanks, Rita; you put that very well. My similar feelings are so strong that I have resorted to some presidential disobedience. I cannot bring myself to proclaim the grotesque texts of the VC2010 as-is. I find that most instances of “we pray” can be excised, also most instances of “so.” The preface coda of VC2010 can be easily replaced with the preface coda of ICEL1998. “Chalice” and “many” are also easily replaced.

        I’m curious about the god of the men (used loosely) who wrote these prayers. I don’t think I recognize the god of this book.

      2. not disobedience, Jim–prudence and common sense.

        BTW–apart from the reference to ‘mystery’ (arguably nodded to by 1973’s reference to ‘our hearts’), I can’t see much of Mr Hommerding’s concern. “Nativity” is a pompous Latin alternative to plain English ‘birth’, and I just do not get the point about the relative priorities of human and divine agency.

  9. Excellent, Paul….my reaction is the same….these comments about “androcentric” become mind-numbing. Guess the incarnation was “androcentric”? (yes, being facetious to make a point)

  10. “I don’t sense any of that excitement in the text we’ve been given to replace it, which seems remarkably dull and abstract by comparison.”

    Maybe cuz Vox Clarabelle inhaled too much holy smoke while he was working on the translation.

  11. And the sadness is that the Missals are printed and the chance now of finding a language that is both poetic and shows empathy with our current use of language day by day is gone.

    I cannot see any publisher going for an early revision nor parishes able to meet yet further expenditure even if they did so. Some may recall my quote from W H Auden a few months back “Time will say nothing but I told you so, time only knows the price we have to pay; if I could tell you I would let you know”

    All too true.
    Chris McDonnell UK

    1. “I cannot see any publisher going for an early revision …”
      All we need is a truly worthy Missal cover for an iPad or ebook reader!
      It would be far simpler, and less dangerous, than making changes to the printed Missal as we read.

  12. The full ICEL text of the final version approved by all English speaking Bishops conferences reads:

    “This same Lord invites us to prepare with joy for the mystery of his birth so that when he comes etc.”

    Actually the present “given” text is so bad that comments and discussion are pretty useless. It is also fun however as it is rife with opportunities for malapropes.

    My favorite from Eucharistic prayer III would be:

    Oh, Look God, see Spot run, and see to the obliteration of your Church.


    Jack Nordick

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