Fourth Sunday of Advent
First Reading: 2nd book of Samuel 7:1-5, 8-12, 14-16
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 89:2-5, 27, 29
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 16:25-27
Gospel: According to St. Luke 1:26-38
“Once in Royal David’s City stood a lonely cattle shed.”
With the singing of these words the yearly ceremony known as the Festival of the Nine Lessons and Carols begins. The festival premiered in the late 1800s, first performed in the Anglican Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Truro, Cornwall, where it continues to this day. When Bishop Edward White Benson moved from Truro to Canterbury, the “Vatican” of Anglicanism, he brought the festival with him and a British tradition was born.
Every Christmas Eve since 1918 the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, has staged the festival, and since 1919 it has opened with the beautiful “Once in Royal David’s City,” a hymn written by Cecil Humphreys and included in her Hymns for Little Children published in the mid-19th century. This year marks the centennial performance from King’s College, which will be broadcast online on the BBC World Service at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
The ‘lessons’ portion of the Lessons and Carols features nine readings from both the Old and New Testaments, beginning with the story from Genesis of the fall of Adam and Eve from the bliss of their original innocence. Embedded in that first reading is what has been come to be known as the Proto-Evangeluim, or “first good news,” Genesis 3:15. In this verse God tells the serpent that an offspring of the woman will strike at his head, and these words were seen by early Church Fathers as a prophecy of the salvific work of Jesus.
Subsequent Old Testament lessons tell the story of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, and prophecies by Isaiah of the coming of the Davidic king and savior. The first New Testament lesson is from Luke’s Gospel and is the same story as that read at Mass this Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which this year also happens to be Christmas Eve.
The carol that traditionally precedes this reading in the festival is “Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming,” a tribute to the Blessed Mother, whose “yes” to the Angel Gabriel changes the world forever. This incredible act of faith by Mary is often underplayed and can easily go unnoticed amidst all of the pageantry of the telling of the Christmas story.
The humility of the Virgin Mary almost necessitates this subdued response. In her willingness to do the will of God she places her Son at the center stage of human history, and she becomes a supporting actress in the greatest story ever told. Just as St. John the Baptist said that as Jesus would increase he, John, would decrease, so too it was with Mary.
Humility is not seen as a great personality trait in the eyes of the world, and the proliferation of media, social and otherwise, has made its opposite – narcissistic pride – the worldly virtue. For so many aspiring singers, actors, and athletes, being rich and famous is not seen as a side effect of God-given talent used to the full; instead, it is the ultimate goal.
In a world where there are a number of celebrities who are famous just for being famous Mary stands in sharp contrast, and is an almost silent reminder of the belief that humility is the greatest of the virtues and its opposite – pride – is the deadliest of all sins.
The belief that ‘pride cometh before the fall’ has its roots all the way back in the first chapters of Genesis with the downfall of our first parents. This sin of believing that we know better than God is one that is easy to fall into, and, as so many recent resignations and firings have shown, one that especially troubles those who have achieved the heights of worldly success. This weekend’s Gospel is a timely reminder that humility always triumphs over pride, and that even in Royal David’s City it was not a throne that mattered, but a lonely cattle shed.