Languages in the Liturgy: Christmas Proclamation

News: Commentary
by David Nussman  •  •  December 24, 2022   

Latin, Greek and Hebrew

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When Our Lord was on the Cross, offering His life for the salvation of souls, there was a sign over His sacred head that read: "Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews." 

Notably, it was written in three languages, each in a different alphabet: Hebrew, Greek and Latin (John 19:19–20). (Some Bible commentaries say the "Hebrew" part was probably in the Aramaic language but using the Hebrew alphabet.)

The use of those three languages is often seen as symbolizing how Christ was offering Himself up for the whole world. 

  • Hebrew, of course, represents the Jewish people (Even if it was actually in Aramaic as noted above, this connection remains.)
  • Greek and Latin, taken together, represent the Gentiles — the ancient nations that knew not God (Broadly speaking, Greek was the common tongue in the eastern portions of the Roman empire, and Latin was the common tongue in the western parts of the empire.)

Thus, the incorporation of all three languages symbolizes how Christ died for both the Jews and the Gentiles — in other words, for all mankind.

The Roman Martyrology

In some parishes, immediately before the midnight Mass of Christmas, the priest will chant what's sometimes called the Christmas Proclamation. More technically, this proclamation is the reading from the Roman Martyrology for Christmas Day.

The Roman Martyrology is a daily catalog of saints, especially martyrs. Most days of the year, it's essentially a list of saints who passed into eternity on that date. But on certain feast days like Christmas, it's instead a declaration laying out the importance of the day's feast.

There is an old version of the Christmas Proclamation, parallel to the Traditional Latin Mass and the old Latin breviary. However, under Pope St. John Paul II, there arose a new version of the Christmas Proclamation. Perhaps the biggest change is that, instead of giving a precise number of years from the creation of the world and other Old Testament events, the new version instead uses phrases like "ages beyond number" or "century upon century."

The incorporation of all three languages symbolizes how Christ died for all mankind.

For our purposes here, we'll be looking at the old form of the martyrology and Christmas Proclamation.

The Christmas Proclamation begins with a list of time calculations. It lays out the time when Our Lord was born by saying such-and-such a number of years passed from the creation of the world from the flood in the days of Noah, and so on.

It's a very beautiful thing, as it lists all these long periods of time, before finally, at the very end of the reading, saying what it's all about: how, on this day, Christ, having taken on human flesh, was born of the Virgin Mary. As you listen to the priest reading all these many years that passed by, it calls to mind how long the world waited for the coming of the Messiah.

The Nativity

Interesting for our purposes are the last four references to long periods of time. That part of the proclamation reads, according to one translation: "in the sixty-fifth week, according to the prophecy of Daniel; in the one-hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad; in the seven-hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome; in the forty-second year of the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus ... ."

The "prophecy of Daniel" pertains to the Jewish people. The 194th Olympiad pertains to the Greeks, as it was customary for Greek writers and historians to use the Olympic Games as a marker of time. Both "the foundation of the city of Rome" and "the reign of the Emperor" pertain, of course, to the Romans.

Thus, we see the ancient Jews, the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans all referenced in the Christmas Proclamation.

This expresses how the entire world was waiting for the birth of the Messiah. Just as the sign over Our Lord's head as He died on the Cross featured Hebrew, Greek and Latin letters, so does the Church's proclamation of Our Lord's birth reference calculations of time that were used by the Jews, the Greeks and the Romans.

We see the ancient Jews, the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans all referenced in the Christmas Proclamation.

I always find it moving when the priest chants, "Ab urbe Roma cóndita, anno septingentésimo quinquagésimo secúndo" (literally, "from the city Rome having been founded, the 752nd year"). As a member of Western civilization, and particularly as someone who studied Latin for seven and a half years, I am inclined to think, "that part's for us."

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