The Christmas Martyrology (Proclamation)

Very early this morning, while it was still dark and everything was silent and still, the nuns sang the Vigils of Christmas Eve. Just before the second lesson, two large gilt candlesticks were placed beside the choir lectern. A short pause, and then a single voice began singing the Christmas Martyrology (also known as the Christmas Proclamation), locating the birth of Christ in time and place.

It is an ancient custom. The chant used has a haunting, plangent quality which becomes urgent and insistent as we reach the words proclaiming the birth of Christ, falling away again with the final phrase, ‘the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.’ The nuns then kneel in silence.  With the coming of the Word, no further words are necessary. But we love words, and we love to fill every moment of every day with the rattle and tattle of human speech, don’t we?

Christmas Eve can be very tiring: all those last-minute preparations, people to see, things to do. The idea of finding a little silence, a moment or two of inner solitude, may be greeted with derisive laughter, but we need to try because, without a moment to register what we are about to celebrate, we may end up missing the whole point of Christmas. Today we look both ways: back on our Advent journey, which showed us how much we need a Saviour; forward to the birth which has changed everything, for ever.

The Christmas Martyrology reminds us that we are celebrating the birth of a baby, not a theological abstraction; and we do so without the syrupy sentimentality which can sometimes mark Christmas Day itself. It is worth thinking about that birth and what it entailed, not just for Mary and Joseph but also for Jesus himself — the mighty Word of God confined to a baby’s body, a baby’s helplessness. The first sound uttered by the Word of God on coming into the world was probably a long wail. I don’t want to press the analogy too far, but we all of us understand a baby’s cry. It is a universal language, one which calls forth kindness and compassion from even the most selfish and self-absorbed. Could that be the response Jesus is looking for from us today? Could that be the gift we are to bring to the crib tonight?


5 thoughts on “The Christmas Martyrology (Proclamation)”

  1. Sister,

    Thank you for bringing back to me, something I vaguely remember from my past. I have to admit it must be in the 1950’s at Holy Innocents Church when I last heard it proclaimed.

    I wonder if my Vicar will allow it to be proclaimed at midnight Mass tonight?

  2. Thank you for that wonderful insight the phrase “the birthday…..according to the flesh” has jumped out at me, not something that I remember having heard before.
    May you have a blessed Christmas.

  3. D. Catherine introduced me to the Martyrology many years ago, and has now become part of my Liturgical celebration of Christmas. I am so pleased that the “new” translation of the Missal encourages the proclamation of this beautiful Chant.

    A Happy and Blessed CHristmas to you all x

  4. Once again I set off Googling something you mention which I am ignorant of (There are just so many things that would fall into this category). YouTube came to my aid with a Martyrology sung on video!

    Fixing a time and place is so very important; it is easy to forget that it is not a myth, legend or fairy tale we are responding to. I will find a space and time to be silent and listen for that universal voice.

    Thanks once more.

    God bless you all at this special time.

  5. Out of the mouths of children…

    My biggest reminder of this was from a friend who told me about her granddaughter singing Happy Birthday to Jesus, on Christmas morning.

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