Ambrosian Preface Texts for Celebrating Advent

One of the great blessings of historical study of the liturgy is discovering texts created to celebrate feasts and seasons of the Church year. For example, examining the epistolary and the evangeliary found in the Würzburg Lectionary as well as readings found in the Murbach Lectionary, we can attempt to reconstruct how the early Roman Rite might have celebrated a five or six week Advent with readings not only drawn up proper to the season (on Sundays) but intermingled with those of the Ember Days of December. Similarly, examining the Verona collection of libelli missarum (also known as the “Leonine Sacramentary”) and the Old Gelasian Sacramentary we can discover proper presidential prayers for the season.

I would like to offer some texts that parallel those of the Roman Rite for Advent, but which are proper to the archdiocese of Milan with its surrounding suffragan churches. Unlike the Roman Rite, the Ambrosian Rite celebrates six Sundays of Advent (beginning with the Sunday after St. Martin’s Day) with proper epistle and gospel readings. These six Sundays were marked by seven Prefaces altogether: one for each of the first five, with two assigned to the Sixth Sunday of Advent.

The structure of an Ambrosian Preface parallels that of the Roman Rite: after the opening dialogue (“The Lord be with you.” “And with your spirit.” “Hearts up!” “We have them to the Lord.” “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” “It is right and just.”) the Preface proper began with the protocol, a fairly stereotyped introduction expanding upon the declaration that it is proper to give God thanks and praise. Here is a fairly typical example (note that my translations do not aim at elegance, but try to convey in language as close to the original as possible what the text is saying):

Vere quia dignum et iustum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere: Domine, sancte Pater, omnipotens aeterne Deus:

It is truly right and just, proper and salutary, for us always and everywhere to give thanks to you: Lord, holy Father, almighty eternal God:

The body of the Preface follows, listing the particular reasons for thanking and praising God at the given celebration; exploring these texts can help us determine a theology of Advent peculiar to this rite.

The Preface concludes with an eschatocol, a fairly stereotyped transition to the singing of the Sanctus by connecting the worship of the assembled congregation to the heavenly worship of the angels and saints. Here is an example of a fairly typical example:

Per quem maiestatem tuam laudant Angeli, venerantur Archangeli, Throni, Dominationes, Virtutes, Principates, et Potestates adorant. Quem Cherubim et Seraphim socia exsultatione concelebrant. Cum quibus et nostras voces, ut admitti iubeas, deprecamur, supplici confessione dicentes:

Through whom the Angels praise, the Archangels venerate, the Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Principalities, and Powers adore your majesty, which the Cherubim and the Seraphim with united exultation celebrate together. With them, we pray, that you would grant that our voices be admitted, crying out with suppliant profession:

Singing the “Holy, Holy, Holy” concludes this segment of the Eucharistic Prayer.

I will now present the bodies of these seven Advent Prefaces with a few comments on the distinctive character of Advent revealed in these texts.

Advent Sunday 1:

Cui proprium ac singuláre est, quod bonus es, et nulla umquam a te es commutatióne diversus. Propitiáre supplícibus, et Ecclesiae tuae misericordiam, quam confitétur, ostende, manifestans plebi tuae Unigéniti tui mirábile sacramentum. Ut in universitáte natiónum perficiátur, quod per Verbi tui Evangelium promisisti: et hábeat plenitúdo adoptiónis, quod práetulit testificatio veritátis. Per eundum.

To whom (i.e., God) it is proper and unique that you are good and you are never changeable in any way. Be pleased with/placated by your suppliants and show to your Church the mercy that she professes, manifesting to your people the wondrous sign-and-reality of your Only-Begotten, so that what you promised through the Good News of your Word may be brought to completion in the totality of the nations and the fullness of adoption may have the testimony of the truth which He brought forth. Through the same [Christ].

In addition to making dogmatic statements about God’s goodness and immutability, this text highlights the Church’s role in proclaiming to all humanity God’s mercy by means of the “wondrous sacrament” of Christ. Given how wide-ranging the understanding of sacrament was at the time these texts were created, it is possible that the “wondrous sign-and-reality” is the coming of the Incarnate Christ, celebrated in the season of Advent. The text then asks that what was promised by the preaching of Christ may be fulfilled as all peoples come to believe the truth of his proclamation.

Advent Sunday 2:

Per Christum, Dóminum nostrum. Cuius Incarnatióne salus facta est mundi, et passióne redemptio procuráta est hóminis procreáti. Ipse nos, quáesumus, ad aeternum perdúcat praemium, qui redémit de ténebris infernórum: iustificetque in adventu secundo, qui nos redémit in primo: quátenus illíus nos a malis ómnibus defendat sublímitas, cuius nos ad vitam erexit humílitas. Per quem.

Through Christ, our Lord. By whose enfleshment the salvation of the world was brought about, and by whose suffering the redemption of procreated human beings was procured. May he himself, we pray, who redeemed us from the shadows of the infernal regions, lead us through to eternal reward; and may he justify in his second coming we whom he redeemed in the first, so that his sublimity might defend us from all evils, whose humility has raised us up to life. Through whom.

This text more clearly reflects the character of Advent as a season pitched between expectation and desire. It declares that Christ has already brought about the salvation of the world by his incarnation and redeemed those “procreated” by God (rather than begotten, as in the case of the Christ) through his passion. It then prays that, in the present, the Redeemer might lead us from hell to heaven. Finally it looks to the future, asking that his coming in triumph at the time of the Parousia would reveal his exalted status as he justifies and defends those he has redeemed and raised up to life. It clearly announces the Christ who has come in history, is coming in mystery, and will come in majesty.

Advent Sunday 3:

Per Christum, Dóminum nostrum: cuius praestolámur adventum. Qui causa salútis humánae, sic est dignátus úterum Vírginis introíre, ut et nobis viam salútis tribúeret, et a tuae maiestáte Deitátis numquam deesset, idem Iesus Christus, Dóminus noster. Quem una tecum, omnípotens Pater, et cum Spíritu Sancto laudant Angeli…

Through Christ, our Lord: whose coming we await. Who for the sake of human salvation so deigned to enter into the Virgin’s womb, that he might both grant to us the way of salvation and also might never be separated from the majesty of your Godhead, the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, whom, one with you, almighty Father and with the Holy Spirit, the Angels praise….

This text declares that, as we await the second coming of Christ, we reflect on the amazing mystery of the enfleshment of the Son of God who, on the one hand, entered human history by being incarnated in Mary’s womb while, on the other, remained ever united with the other Divine Persons of the Triune God. Most beautifully it highlights how Christ manifests the way to salvation by becoming one with us.

Advent Sunday 4:

Cui proprium est veniam delictis impéndere, quam poenáliter imminére. Qui fábricam tui óperis per eundem rursus lápidem es dignátus erígere, ne imágo, quae ad similitúdinem tui facta fúerat vivens, dissímilis haberétur ex morte. Munus veniábilis indulgentiae praestitisti: ut unde mortem peccátum contráxeret, inde vitam píetas reparáret immensa. Per Christum.

To whom (i.e., God) it is proper to lavish mercy on misdeeds more that to threaten retribution. Who deigned to erect the structure of your work through that self-same stone, lest the living image which had been made a likeness to you, should become unlike you through death. You have set before us the gift of merciful forgiveness: so that from where sin had brought death, now your boundless kindness might restore life. Through Christ.

This text highlights the penitential quality of earlier celebrations of Advent. God’s mercy for the sinful is acknowledged as one of the defining elements of God’s character. The following “qui” clause in a rather convoluted way recalls the role of Christ as keystone of the arch of God’s new temple, built of the “living stones” of the faithful. This biblical image is meshed with the recollection from the Yahwist creation account in Genesis that Adam (and thus his progeny) is brought to life through the ruah YHWH (“breath of God”) being breathed into his lifeless clay-shaped body; he thus becomes the “image and likeness” of God precisely in his quality of living.

Advent Sunday 5:

Per Christum, Dóminum nostrum. Cuius divínae nativitátis potentiam ingénita virtútis tuae génuit magnitúdo. Quem semper Filium et ante témpora aeterna generátum, quia tibi pleno atque perfecto aeterni Patris nomen non défuit, praedicámus. Verum etiam honóre, maiestáte, atque virtúte aequálem tibi cum Sancto Spíritu confitémur, dum in tribus persónis únicam crédimus maiestátem. Quam laudant Angeli.

Through Christ, our Lord. The power of whose divine birth the unbegotten greatness of your might begot. Whom we proclaim as ever the Son, begotten in eternity before the ages, so that for you the name of eternal Father, fully and perfectly, has never been lacking. And we profess him equal to you in honor, majesty and power with the Holy Spirit, since we believe a single majesty [exists] in three persons. Which the Angels praise.

The two great mysteries of Christian belief – the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Triunity of God – are brought together in this dense text. While it is true that Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary at a point in time, he is Begotten God of Unbegotten God before time itself began. The text concludes with a powerful statement of the equality of the ascriptions of praise the Church offers the Three Divine Persons.

Advent Sunday 6: Mass of Advent

… et salutáre: nos beátae semperque Vírginis Maríae solemnia celebráre. Quae parvo útero Dóminum caeli portávit, et Angelo praenunciante, Verbum carne mortáli édidit Salvatórem. Quem castis concépit viscéribus, clausa ingrediens et clausa relinquens. Quem una tecum…

…and salutary: for us to celebrate the solemnities of the blessed and ever-Virgin Mary. Who in her small womb carried the Lord of heaven and, with an Angel foretelling it, brought forth the Word in mortal flesh, the Savior whom she conceived in her innermost organs, closed as he entered and closed as he left. Whom, one with you….

One of the peculiarities of the Ambrosian Rite is that some great feasts have two sets of readings and presidential prayers since they might be celebrated in a different way in the two cathedrals on opposite sides of the Piazza del Duomo prior to the 14th C. The prefaces for the Sixth Sunday of Advent seem to illustrate this since the Mass at St. Thecla (the “summer church”), celebrated with violet vestments and incorporating the proclamation of the Gospel of the Visitation in the Liturgy of the Word, is called the “Mass of Advent,” while the “Mass of the Incarnation” was celebrated at the Cathedral of St. Mary (the “winter church”) with white vestments and the proclamation of the Gospel of the Annunciation.

Thus one can see that, while the preface text of the “Mass of Advent” makes a reference to the Annuciation, the focus is on the enfleshment of the Son of God, marveling that what heaven and earth cannot contain is contained in Mary’s womb and articulating an understanding of her perpetual virginity.

Advent Sunday 6: Mass of the Incarnation

… et salutáre: nos tibi Dómine, Deus omnípotens, gratias ágere, et cum tuae invocatióne virtútis, beátae Maríae Vírginis festa celebráre. De cuius ventre fructus efflóruit, qui panis angélici múnere nos replévit. Quod Eva vorávit in crímine, María restítuit in salúte. Distat opus Serpentis et Vírginis; inde fusa sunt venéna discríminis, hinc egressa mysteria Salvatóris. Inde se práebuit tentantis iníquitas, hinc Redemptóris est opituláta maiestas. Inde partus occúbuit, hic Cónditor resurrexit, a quo humána natúra, non iam captíva, sed líbera restitúitur. Quod Adam pérdidit in parente, Christo recépit auctóre. Quem una tecum…

…and salutary: for us to give thanks to you, Lord, Almighty God, and with the invocation of your power, to celebrate the feasts of the Virgin Mary. From whose womb flowered the Fruit who/which has filled us with the gift of angelic bread. What Eve destroyed in disobedience, Mary restored in salvation. The work of the Serpent is opposed to [that] of the Virgin; from the one, poisons of division arose; from the other, the mysteries of the Savior came forth. From the one, the evil deeds of the Tempter showed themselves; from the other, the majesty of the Redeemer assisted us. From the one, offspring came to die; from the other, the Creator arose, by which/whom human nature, now no longer captive but freed was restored. What Adam lost as ancestor, was regained by Christ its author. Whom, one with you,….

The final text we will examine is both doctrinally and poetically impressive. After announcing that the fruit of Mary’s womb in turn feeds us to capacity with the new manna, the text begins with a familiar contrast between Eve and Mary, the former the woman through whom sin entered human history (according to the Yahwist creation account in Genesis) with the latter the woman from whom was born the one who reversed the reign of sin; to be theologically careful, one would read “what Eve destroyed in disobedience, Mary restored in [the] salvation [won by her son, Jesus].” (Medieval Latin loved to express this reversal by juxtaposing “Eva” [Eve] with its reverse “Ave” [as in the “Hail, Mary”].) But this Preface text goes beyond the comparison/contrast of Eve and Mary to the contrast between the work of Satan and that of Mary. Satan’s work leads to poisonous divisions, while Mary’s work leads to unified recognition of the Savior’s activity. Satan’s evil works do not help humanity, while the Redeemer’s power does. Yoking Eve and Satan, the text notes that a consequence of her sin is death for all her and Adam’s progeny, but contrasts this with the life-giving re-constitution of human nature by Christ, since “all was created through him and all was created for him” – he is the template for redeemed humanity.

May these few reflections on Ambrosian Preface texts inspire us to a deepened appreciation for this season of longing for the Savior who came in history, comes in mystery and will come again in majesty. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!


  1. Michael,

    That you so much for sharing these beautiful texts. If it is one thing that I truly appreciate about the Ambrosian Rite it is the rich collection of its Prefaces. I first encountered these texts in “We Give You Thanks and Praise” by Alan Griffiths, who masterly rendered the Latin into elegant English, after the manner of the 1998 Sacramentary.

    One of the interesting little tidbits I recalled from his book was how the standard protocol for Ambrosian Prefaces differed slightly from the protocol of Roman Prefaces.

    Vere dignum et iustum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper, hic et ubique gratias agere: Domine, sancte Pater, omnipotens aeterne Deus:

    The addition of “hic.”

    It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always, here and everywhere to give you thanks: Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God.

    1. @Jeffery BeBeau:

      “We Give You Thanks and Praise” by Alan Griffiths

      — published in the UK by Canterbury Press (1999) and in the US by Rowman and Littlefield (2000), both available on Amazon…. As you say, an excellent book.

  2. eBay is a great place to find liturgical books. I saw the Griffiths’ prefaces on the famous Sacerdote’s site today for a pittance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *