Genesis 49:2, 8-10
Psalm 71: 1-2, 3-4ab, 7-8, 17
The Wondrous Exchange
O God, Creator and Redeemer of human nature,
who willed that your Word should take flesh
in the womb of a mother ever-virgin,
look graciously upon our prayers,
that your only-begotten Son,
having taken our humanity to Himself,
may deign to make us partakers of His divinity.
The first Collect of the seven-day preparation for Christmas englobes the whole magnificent plan of the Incarnation and Redemption. It goes straight to the heart of the mystery: God, having taken our humanity to Himself in the womb of a virgin, makes us partakers of His divinity.
Partakers of His Divinity
We already hear today what we will pray in the Collect of the Mass of Christmas Day:
O God, who in a wonderful manner
created the dignity of human nature,
and still more wonderfully renewed it;
grant that we may be made partakers of His divinity
who deigned to become partaker of our humanity.
This same prayer is echoed in every Mass at the preparation of the chalice. The priest, adding water to the wine, says silently:
By the mystery of this water and wine
may we be made partakers in His divinity
who deigned to share in our humanity.
Admiration in the Face of the Mystery
There is still more. At Vespers on January 1st, Solemnity of the Mother of God, we will sing an antiphon that, by happily wedding the “O” of admiration to a few well chosen notes in the sixth mode, expresses our amazement in the face of the mystery:
O wondrous exchange!
The Creator of mankind, having assumed a living body,
deigned to be born of a Virgin,
and having become man without man’s aid,
enriched us with His divinity.
What we are hearing in today’s Collect can be compared to the overture of a symphony in which are heard all the musical themes that will be developed in successive movements.
Today we address God as “Creator and Redeemer of human nature.” Our humanity created by God, is redeemed by God. He redeems our humanity, not by acting upon it from the infinite distance of His throne in heaven, but by spanning that infinite distance, by closing the gap, by taking flesh in the womb of the Virgin. In the Te Deum we sing, “Thou, when taking upon Thee to deliver man, didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.” Concerning this verse of the Te Deum, an ancient ceremonial for the Divine Office reads: “Here ye incline in token and in reverence of Our Lord’s coming down to be Man.”
Today’s Collect says literally that God decreed the enfleshment of His Word in “the womb of perpetual virginity,” in utero perpetuae virginitatis. Ever since the Council of Ephesus in 431, icons of the Mother of God have been marked by three stars: one on her forehead, and one on each shoulder, The three stars signify her perpetual virginity: before, during, and after the birth of her Son.
Sancta Dei Genetrix
Today’s Collect does not call Mary by name. The Collects of December 19th and 20th will call her “holy Virgin,” and “immaculate Virgin,” but only in the Collect of December 23rd, for the first and last time in Advent, will we hear her called by her own name, “Virgin Mary.” Ancient liturgical texts reflect the language of the first great Christological councils of the Church. It was crucial, in the context of the prevailing heresies, to invoke Mary as Theotokos, Mother of God, or as Ever-Virgin. It was feared that by referring to Mary as a woman called simply by her ordinary name, something of the mystery of Christ, True God and True Man, might be obscured or compromised. The liturgy in both East and West reflects this ancient preference. While, in preaching and in works of devotion, we often hear the name of Mary without her theological titles, the liturgy calls her Sancta Dei Genetrix (Holy God-bearer) and Semper Virgo (Ever-Virgin).
The most ancient prayer to the Virgin Mother is the Sub tuum praesidium, found on an Egyptian papyrus from the 3rd century. It does not include the name “Mary,” but invokes her as Holy God-bearer (Sancta Dei Genetrix) and Virgin glorious and blessed, (Virgo gloriosa et benedicta).
The liturgy through the ages is consistent in confessing that God Himself is the author of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The same thought is carried over into the ancient rites for the Consecration of Virgins. Virginity, before being something offered to God, is a gift received from Him. It is a gift wholly ordered to union with Christ. Christ is the Spouse of Virgins; He is, at the same time, the blessed Fruit of a virginity received from God and offered back to Him. The liturgy does not separate virginity from motherhood. The virginity given by God is characterized not by sterility, but by an astonishing fecundity.
The Veil, the Ring, and the Crown
Reflecting in June 1928 on the rite for the Consecration of Virgins, Suzanne Wrotnowska, being twenty-six years old at the time, revealed her insight into this very mystery. She treats of three signs that the Church confers on the consecrated virgin: the veil, the ring, and the crown. “This crown,” she writes, “is the crown of a bride and the crown of a mother because the consecrated virgin, if she is faithful, must give birth to the supernatural life of many souls.”
Mary of Nazareth, secretly prompted by the Holy Spirit, offered her poverty and virginal emptiness to God. Wisdom descended from heaven, filling her with an indescribable sweetness: the wedding of God with the human nature He created.
The Descent of Wisdom
Of ourselves and by ourselves we have nothing to offer, nothing to give, apart from the poverty and emptiness that are all God wants from us. On this first day of the Great O Antiphons, with our eyes fixed on the Ever-Virgin Mother, we open ourselves to the gift that God would offer us. Expect the descent of Wisdom. He comes bearing a crown for each of us. Blessed the one who inclines beneath His hand to receive it.