The Timelessness of the Season: Advent and Christmas at St. Michael’s Abbey
Living liturgically is a hallmark of Norbertine religious life.
Though part of this world, under the same sun and moon as the distracted and decayed secular life that surrounds it, monastic life operates on an entirely different priority, cycle and order of things. A timeless consistency breezes through hushed cloisters as it has for millennia.
“The renewal [of the faith] will come from the monasteries,” Cardinal Robert Sarah declared in his book The Day Is Now Far Spent.
St. Michael’s Abbey, tucked in a canyon within the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange County, California, is infused in the monastic life, a modus vivendi that has attracted worshippers to the contemplative and reverential approach that characterizes the mission of the canons regular who occupy it — the Premonstratensians, commonly known as the Norbertines.
“What happens in monastic and religious life is the fullest, most committed expression of the liturgical life,” Norbertine Father Ambrose Criste told the Register.
Living liturgically is a hallmark of Norbertine religious life. This is especially evident in the intentional observations of both the Advent season and the Christmas season.
“Christmas doesn’t begin until Christmas,” Father Ambrose said, adding that the abbey church’s decor might differ from how a parish sanctuary appears in the run-up to Christmas Day, which may have decorated Christmas trees before Dec. 25.
Father Ambrose pointed out the penitential aspect of Advent. Aside from celebrations of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, no flowers are present in the church, or Christmas-related decorations of any kind, save for the Advent wreath. Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, offers a day’s respite to the penitential atmosphere of the season, its rose-colored candle separating itself from the wreath’s three purple candles.
This penitential understanding engages those willing into the meaning of Advent: to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Advent’s waiting period, its deliberate slowness, invites time for prayer and reflection on the Incarnation, the sublime moment when the Word became flesh. The penitential aspect is also underscored by an absence of instrumental music at St. Michael’s Abbey in this time.
But there is chanting. And like everything in the Norbertine cycle of the spiritual life, there is a purpose and meaning beyond the obvious beauty. For instance, Alma Redemptoris Mater, a Marian antiphon, replaces Ave Regina Caelorum. Alma Redemptoris Mater is sung at the end of Compline from the First Sunday of Advent until the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, Feb. 2.
To mark the octave before Christmas, beginning Dec. 16, the O Antiphons are chanted at the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat) at Evening Prayer (vespers). These prayers, chanted to the solemn ringing of bells, is a transition from the “penitential to the celebratory,” Father Ambrose explained. “This reminds the Church we are getting ready for a great event,” he said. Each antiphon is derived from the messianic titles found in Isaiah:
Dec. 17 - O Sapientia (Isaiah 11:2-3; 28-29
Dec. 18 - O Adonai (Isaiah 11:-4-5; 33:22)
Dec. 19 - O Radix Jesse (Isaiah 1:1; 11:10)
Dec. 20 - O Clavis David (Isaiah 9:6; 22:22.)
Dec. 21 - O Oriens (Isaiah 9:1)
Dec. 22 - O Rex Gentium (Isaiah 9:5; 2:4)
Dec. 23 - O Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14)
The Abbot’s Circle, St. Michael’s Abbey’s engaging social-media website, offers a Marian reflection from a different Norbertine priest during the octave.
Robert Greenberg, professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, noted how the Benedictine monks arranged the antiphons in such a way to create an acronym: Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia: Ero cras, Latin for “Tomorrow, I will come.”
The Norbertines add an additional antiphon on Dec. 23, O Virgo virginum, a Norbertine tradition that underscores the Marian element to praying for a hasty arrival of the Lord. Taking the acronym motif a step further by adding Virgo, the acronym becomes Vero cras: “Truly, tomorrow.”
Finally, the abbey church is transformed to celebrate Christmas, the seasonal decorations only brought into the church one or two days before Dec. 25. Christmas Day is also when St. Norbert of Xanten and 13 companions professed their solemn vows, in 1121, in Prémontré, France. For this special occasion, the canons regular at St. Michael’s Abbey share cake and champagne following the Christmas midnight Mass.
St. Michael’s Abbey also observes a unique custom on Christmas Eve morning, when postulants receive their white habit and new religious name. The singing of the Christmas Proclamation from the Roman Martyrology marks the vestition of the novices.
On Christmas night at Matins, the genealogy from the opening of St. Matthew’s Gospel is chanted.
The Christmas decorations, replete with the Nativity scene, remains in the church until the Presentation.
When worshippers and pilgrims approach St. Michael’s Abbey, winding their way through the remote terrain of Santiago Canyon, they are arriving at a place dear to Catholics in Orange County and wider southern California. These “white canons,” as the Norbertines are called, are beloved figures who inspire the faithful to deepen their relationship with Christ. The serenity of the abbey landscape and the reverence within its halls and corridors offers a sharp but needed contrast to the commotion of the outside world, when a calendar year is shaped not by the liturgy, but by fiscal quarters and retail trends.
“Contemplation,” Cardinal Sarah wrote, “is the heart of Christianity.” Referring to the monastic life the cardinal went on, “Here, [contemplation] is proclaimed for all eternity and will never be repealed.”