Thursday, April 09, 2009

Compendium of the 1955 Holy Week Revisions of Pius XII: Part 6.1 - Holy Saturday and the Blessing of the New Fire, Procession, Exultet, Prophecies

We continue with part 6 of Gregory DiPippo's consideration of the texts, ceremonies and history of the Holy Week ceremonies from before and after Pope Pius XII's reforms in 1955, looking at the Easter Vigil.

This comprises the first of two parts upon the Easter Vigil.

Previous Installments in this series:

Part 1 - The Palm Sunday Blessing and Procession of Palms

Part 2 - The Masses of Palm Sunday, Holy Tuesday and Spy Wednesday

Part 3 - The Mass of Holy Thursday and the Mandatum

Part 4.1 - The Mass of Presanctified on Good Friday, Mass of the Catechumens and the Solemn Prayers

Part 4.2 - Good Friday, The Adoration of the Cross and the Rite of the Presanctified

Part 5 - Tenebrae and the Divine Office of the Triduum


Compendium of the 1955 Holy Week Revisions of Pius XII


Part 6.1: Holy Saturday - The Blessing of the New Fire, the Procession into the Church, the Exsultet and the Prophecies


by Gregory DiPippo



(The pre-1956 Easter Vigil celebrated at Westminster Cathedral)


Synopsis of the Pre-Pius XII Ritual

The vigil service of Holy Saturday, one of the most beautiful and solemn rites of the liturgical year, is not the complete fulfillment of the Paschal mystery, but rather the beginning of its fulfillment. Christ Himself, when He rose from the tomb, did not present Himself in public, nor did He reveal Himself to the Apostles at once; so also in the Sacred Liturgy, the Church does not immediately present the Risen Lord on the night of Easter. This rite is a vigil, not an anticipation, and in this sense one can say that the rite of Holy Saturday is the first part of unit, the second being the Mass of Easter itself which is celebrated on Sunday morning.

Since it is both the end of Lent and the beginning of Easter, the rite begins in violet vestments, the color of penance, but ends in white, the color of Easter, and of the baptismal garments, for in antiquity this sacrament was administered as far as possible on this night, or at Pentecost. The church itself is in complete darkness. In the sanctuary, on the Gospel side, the Paschal candle stands on top of a large column, which represents the column of fire that led the children of Israel out of Egypt. In the middle of the candle, there are five small holes, arranged in a cross, for the five grains of incense. In keeping with an old tradition, which is not however obligatory, the numbers of the civil year are added between the arms of the cross. The grains of incense are usually closed up in wax, with pins sticking out of them so they can be put into the holes.

The priest wears a cope at the beginning, the deacon and subdeacon wear folded chasubles. They and the acolytes come outside in front of the church, where the Paschal fire has already been lit. The subdeacon carries the processional Cross, and the acolytes carry the five grains to be inserted in the Paschal candle, and holy water. The subdeacon stands in the door of the church, with the Cross; the rest stand around the fire, the priest facing the Cross at the door.

The priest blesses the fire, saying three prayers, and then the grains of incense, with one prayer. The thurifer takes some coals from the Paschal fire and places them in the thurible. The priest puts incense in the thurible, and sprinkles with holy water first the fire, then the five grains of incense; he then incenses both the fire and grains, as is generally done in such blessings.

The deacon goes to the credence which is prepared outside the church, removes his violet folded chasuble, and dons a white deacon’s stole and dalmatic. He then takes in hand a pole, (“arundo” in Latin, “reed” in English) with three candles on top, arranged in a triangle. These three candles represent the women who first came to the tomb of Christ; in Italian popular tradition, the reed was often called “the three Marys.” It should be noted that in the Byzantine rite, during the singing of the Paschal Canon of the Easter vigil, the priests hold in their hand a Cross with three candles in the front when they perform the incensation of the altar, icons and people.

All enter the church in procession, first the thurifer, and an acolyte who carries the five grains of incense on a plate, then the subdeacon with the Cross, the acolytes, the attending clergy, the deacon, carrying the reed, and the priest. A few steps after entering, an acolyte goes back to the blessed fire, lights a taper from it, returns to the deacon, and lights one of the three candles on the reed. The deacon lifts up the reed, genuflects and sings “Lumen Christi”; all genuflect, and answer “Deo gratias.” The procession goes to the middle of the church, another candle is lit, and the deacon again raises the reed, genuflects and sings in a higher tone “Lumen Christi”; all respond as before. The procession goes forward to the altar, and the deacon sings “Lumen Christi”, higher still, again genuflecting and raising the reed, and all answer once again “Deo gratias.”

The priest ascends the altar and kisses it, while the deacon passes the reed to an acolyte. The book for the singing of the Exsultet is placed on the altar, incense is put in the thurible, the deacon asks for and receives the blessing of the priest; all this is done with the normal rites for the singing of the Gospel at Solemn Mass. The deacon, subdeacon and acolytes go to a lectern which stands near the column with the Paschal candle; the subdeacon holds the processional Cross, one of the acolytes holds the five grains on the plate, and another holds the reed. The book is placed on the lectern and incensed as usual, and the deacon begins to sing the Exsultet.

When he comes to the words “curvat imperia”, about half-way through, the deacon stops singing, takes the five grains of incense, and inserts them in the holes in the candle, in the form of a Cross; these represent the five wounds of Christ. Returning to the lectern, he continues with the words “Therefore, in the grace of this night, receive, o Holy Father, the evening sacrifice of this incense...” Shortly thereafter, having sung about the column, and the fire upon it that burns “unto the honor of God”, he stops again, receives the reed from the acolyte, and with one of the three candles, lights the Paschal candle. Continuing the chant, he sings that the fire, although it is divided, is not thereby diminished. At this point, all of the lights of the church are lit; before the advent of electric lighting, they were lit only from the Paschal candle. The Exsultet finishes with an encomium of the light thus blessed, and with prayers for the congregation present in the church, the Pope, the local bishop, and formerly of the Emperor. (Where there was no Emperor, this part was omitted.)

The Exsultet being sung, the deacon returns to priest; the latter removes his cope, since it is normally used only for blessings and processions, and dons a chasuble, while the deacon removes his white dalmatic, and puts on a violet folded chasuble once again.

There now begins the reading of twelve prophecies from the Old Testament, which, following the normal custom of the Missal of St. Pius V, the priest reads at the altar as they are sung by the lectors.

1. Genesis 1, 1 – 2, 2 : the Creation

2. Genesis 5, 31 – 8, 21: Noah and the Ark

(17 verses are omitted from this passage)

3. Genesis 22, 1-19 : the Sacrifice of Abraham

4. Exodus 14, 24 – 15, 1, followed by a tract, chapter 15, 1-3 : the Crossing of the Red Sea . (The centrality of this reading to the Easter vigil is emphasized by a rubric of the Missal of 1970, which specifies that it may never be omitted.)

5. Isaiah 54, 17 – 55, 11 : Exhortation to receive the Sacrament of Baptism

6. Baruch 3, 9-38 : the Revelation of God to His people

7. Ezekiel 37, 1-14 : the Vision of the dry bones, and of the Resurrection

8. Isaiah 4, 1-6, followed by a tract, chapter 5, 1-2 and 7 : the Vineyard of the Lord

9. Exodus 12, 1-12 (repeated from the Mass of the Presanctified) : the Law of Easter and the Paschal Lamb

10. Jonah 3, 1-10 : Exhortation to Penance

11. Deuteronomy 31, 22-30, followed by a tract, chapter 32, 1-4 : Exhortation to the observance of the Law of the Lord.

12. Daniel 3, 1-24 : the Three Children in the Furnace.

In the Roman Catacombs, ancient witnesses not only to the Christian artistic tradition, but also to the Church’s liturgy, one sees very clearly that from the very beginning of Christianity, these passages of the Sacred Scriptures formed part of the catechumens’ preparation for Baptism. On Holy Saturday, the catechumens have arrived at the moment when they will become Christians, dying in Christ that they may rise again with Him. Already in the middle of the second century, Saint Melito of Sardis (in the first surviving Easter homily) says that the Sacrifice of Isaac is a prophecy of the Death of Christ. Images of Noah in the Ark, of Moses, of the Three Children, of Jonah, (the Christological figure par excellence in the first centuries) appear everywhere in the Catacomb, and on the sarcophagi found in them.

After each prophecy, (and the Tract that follows the fourth, eighth and eleventh) the priest, standing as usual at the Missal on the Epistle side, with the deacon and subdeacon in line behind him, sings “Oremus”; the deacon sings “Flectamus genua”, and all kneel for a moment of silent prayer, then the subdeacon sings “Levate”, and all rise for a collect, as already mentioned for the Mass of the Presanctified. All this is done as when this formula occurs in other Masses.


Synopsis of the Pius XII Reforms

The reform of 1955 modifies principally the first part of the Easter vigil.

The reformed rite still begins with violet vestments, and ends with white. The priest wears a cope at the beginning, as before; however the deacon and subdeacon do not wear folded chasubles any longer, but rather dalmatic and tunicle.

The major and minor ministers come outside the church for the blessing of the fire as in the preceding rite, and likewise, there are no lights lit in the church. Instead of the column on the Gospel side for the Paschal candle, there is a small bracket (“parvum sustentaculum”) in the middle of the sanctuary, as the new rubric states.

The subdeacon carries the processional Cross, and the acolytes carry the grains of incense and holy water. The subdeacon stands in the door of the church, with the Cross; the rest stand around the fire, the priest facing the Cross at the door, as in the preceding rite.

The priest blesses the fire with only one prayer; the second and third prayer of found in the pre-1955 rites are suppressed. As on Palm Sunday, the normal order of blessings has been changed. The fire is sprinkled with holy water immediately after the prayer, then carbons from the fire are placed in the thurible, followed by incense, and the fire itself is incensed. The five grains are not blessed along with the fire.

In the new rite, the reed which symbolizes the women at the tomb, and in them the Church, is no longer used. Instead, the Paschal candle itself, which is outside the church on a credence, is presented to the priest by an acolyte. The priest takes a stylus, and with it cuts (“incídit”) into the candle the arms of the cross between the holes, an Alpha above, an Omega below, and then the numbers of the civil year, (which are now made officially a part of the rite) in the corners. In reality, it is hardly possible to cut lines in this way into a heavy piece of wax, and so he traces the lines which are already on the candle, passing the stylus over them. As he does this, he says the words newly assigned to each part of the design (“Christus heri et hodie” at the vertical arm, “Principium et finis” at the horizontal, and so forth.) The praenotanda of OHS (no. 11) remark upon this, saying, “There is no reason why the marks on the Paschal candles … may not be made beforehand.”

When the cross and numbers have been traced upon the candle, the priest inserts the grains into the holes. If they are not blessed, he blesses them with water and incense, saying nothing. As he inserts them, he says the words newly assigned to each one: “Per sua sancta vulnera” at the first, “gloriosa” at the second, etc.

The deacon lights a taper from the Easter fire, and presents it to the priest, who uses it to light the Paschal candle. A new text has been composed to be said when he lights the candle.

The prayer with which in the preceding rite the five grains of incense were blessed is now said for the Paschal candle itself. “Almighty God, let there come upon this incense (super hoc incensum) an abundant outpouring of Thy blessing …” is changed to “… upon this lit wax” (super hoc incensum cereum).

The priest puts more incense in the thurible. The deacon goes to the credence, removes his violet dalmatic, and replaces it with a white one. He then takes the Paschal candle and carries it in the procession.

The major and minor ministers enter the church, but the order of the procession is changed, as the attending clergy come after the priest, rather than before him as in other processions. As in the pre-1955 form, there are three stations, the first a few steps from the entrance, the second in the middle of the church, the third in the sanctuary. The deacon sings “Lumen Christi,” three times, raising his voice gradually, and followed by the choir. Obviously, he does not lift up the Paschal candle, nor does he genuflect.

All present, clergy and faithful, receive a candle before the beginning of the rite; the priest bears his with him into the church. At the first “Lumen Christi”, the priest’s candle is lit from the Paschal candle, at the second, that of the clergy, at the third, the candles of the faithful and the lights of the church are lit. The church is thus illuminated not at the words of the Exsultet in praise of the light, but much earlier.

At this point, the priest does not go to the altar to kiss it, but rather straight to the seats. The deacon places the Paschal candle in its bracket in the middle of the sanctuary; the column is no longer an essential element of the rite, but a purely decorative object to hold the Paschal candle during the Mass.

The subdeacon stands before the lectern, with the processional Cross. The book with the Exsultet is no longer placed on the altar. Incense is put in the thurible, the deacon asks for and receives the blessing of the priest, then receives the book from the Master of Ceremonies. All this is done at the seat; the rubrics do not say if the deacon kneels before the priest as at Mass.

The deacon and thurifer go to the lectern, which is set where the Gospel is normally sung. The book is placed on the lectern and incensed as usual; the deacon then incenses the Paschal candle as well, while walking around it. (“circumiens cereum paschale, etiam illum thurificat.”)

Since the Paschal candle is already lit, the five grains of incense already inserted, and the lights of the church already lit, the Exsultet is sung by the deacon all at once.

The long-obsolete prayer for the Emperor at the end is substituted with a new text, “Look also upon those who rule over us...”. The last clause of this new text reads, “de terrena operositate ad caelestem patriam perveniant cum omni populo tuo.” Although this clearly intends to mean, “from earthly labor let them come to the heavenly fatherland with all thy people” there is a mistake in the Latin. “Operositas” means “excessive pains, overmuch nicety, elaborate work” in classical Latin, (Lewis and Short, p. 1268) and “embarrassment” in Tertullian (Souter, p. 277), after whom it occurs very rarely, and never in the sense which it should have here.

When the Exsultet is done, the deacon removes his white dalmatic, and puts the violet one back on; he then returns to the priest, who remains in cope. This combination of vestments is normally used only for blessings and processions.

The prophecies are sung by the readers, who stand at a lectern on the Epistle side, turned one quarter to the left from the usual position. The readings are thus sung towards the candle, rather than the altar, unlike the readings of any other day, and in the direction normally reserved for the Gospel

Of the twelve prophecies of the pre-1955 rite, eight are suppressed. There remain (numbered in the order of the previous rite)

1. Genesis 1, 1 – 2, 2 : the Creation

4. Exodus 14, 24 – 15, 1, followed by a tract, chapter 15, 1-3 : the Crossing of the Red Sea .

8. Isaiah 4, 1-6, followed by a tract, chapter 5, 1-2 e 7 : the Vineyard of the Lord

11. Deuteronomy 31, 22-30, followed by a tract, chapter 32, 1-4 : Exhortation to the observance of the Law of the Lord.

The suppressed prophecies (numbered in the order of the previous rite)

2. Genesis 5, 31 – 8, 21: Noah and the Ark

3. Genesis 22, 1-19 : the Sacrifice of Abraham

5. Isaiah 54, 17 – 55, 11 : Exhortation to Baptism

6. Baruch 3, 9-38 : the Revelation of God to His people

7. Ezekiel 37, 1-14 : the Vision of the dry bones, and of the Resurrection

9. Exodus 12, 1-12 : the Law of Easter and the Paschal Lamb

10. Jonah 3, 1-10 : Exhortation to Penance

12. Daniel 3, 1-24 : the Three Children in the Furnace.

After each of the remaining prophecies, (and the Tracts) the priest does not go the altar to pray, but rather remains at the seat, and sings “Oremus”, as on the preceding day. The deacon sings both “Flectamus genua” and “Levate”, which is no longer done by the subdeacon, also as on the preceding day.



Copyright (C) Gregory DiPippo, 2009

(Part 6.2 will consider the remainder of the Easter Vigil, including the Blessing of the Font, the Litany of the saints, the Mass as well as Easter Vespers.)

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