Wednesday, February 24, 2016

An Interesting Fact About Today’s Lenten Station

Several years ago, I read a very interesting book called Mourning into Joy: Music, Raphael, and Saint Cecilia, by Thomas Connolly. (Yale Univ. Press, 1995). The principal subject is Raphael’s painting The Ecstasy of St Cecilia, but it also contains a great deal of information about devotion to the Saint, at whose basilica the Lenten station is held today. I am here paraphrasing what Connolly writes about this station, and its connection to Cecilia; the credit for putting this information together is entirely his.
The Ecstasy of St Cecilia, by Raphael, 1515-17, now in the National Gallery of Bologna. To the left of St Cecilia we see Ss Paul and John the Evangelist, to the right, Ss Augustine and Mary Magdalene. The broken instruments at her feet symbolize that she has rejected the things of this world in order to “sing only to God in her heart”, as is stated in her Office.
In 1744, three inscriptions were found very close to the Basilica of St Cecilia in the Trastevere area of Rome, referring to a small shrine of the “Bona Dea”, as she was called, “the good goddess.” Although she was quite popular in ancient Rome, we know very little about this goddess, since men were excluded from participation in her cult, and it was forbidden to write down what took place at her two annual festivals. One of these was held at a temple dedicated to her on the Aventine hill, the other in the house of the senior magistrate of the Republic, presided over by his wife. During the rites, all men and male animals were excluded from the house; in fact, “Good Goddess” is a euphemistic name, since men were not allowed to speak or even know her true name. One of the most famous episodes in the history of the late Roman Republic, involving all of the leading political figures of the day, including Cicero, Pompey and Julius Caesar, took place when these rites were held in the latter’s house in 62 BC. A man named Clodius Pulcher dressed as a woman in an attempt to sneak into the rites and seduce Caesar’s wife, creating an enormous scandal and long-lasting scandal.

The Bona Dea was a goddess very much associated with female chastity, and therefore, anything to do with the goddess of sexual desire, Venus, was also removed from the house where the rites of the Bona Dea were held. This would include any statues and images of Venus, and most particularly the plant myrtle, which was woven into crowns and worn on the head by her worshippers at her principal festivals.

When the Lenten Station is held at the Basilica of St Cecilia on the Wednesday of the Second Week, next door to a shrine of the Bona Dea, the traditional Epistle is taken from the Deuterocanonical additions to the book of Esther, the only reading from that book in the Missal. (This reading was later borrowed from this day for the votive Mass “against the pagans.” It has been suppressed in the post-Conciliar rite.) In chapter 13, Mardochai is praying for the delivery of the Jewish people from their enemy Haman, who has arranged for the Persian Emperor to order the massacre of all the Jews in his dominions.

“In those days, Mardochai prayed to the Lord, saying, ‘O Lord, Lord, almighty king, for all things are in thy power, and there is none that can resist thy will, if thou determine to save Israel. Thou hast made heaven and earth, and all things that are under the cope of heaven. Thou art Lord of all, and there is none that can resist thy majesty. And now, O Lord, O king, O God of Abraham, have mercy on thy people, because our enemies resolve to destroy us, and extinguish thy inheritance. Despise not thy portion, which thou hast redeemed for thyself out of Egypt. Hear my supplication, and be merciful to thy lot and inheritance, and turn our mourning into joy, that we may live and praise thy name, O Lord, and shut not the mouths of them that sing to thee, O Lord, our God.’ ” (vss. 9-11 and 15-17)

This is the reading as it appears in the Missal of St Pius V, but before the Tridentine reform, it began as follows: “In those days, Esther prayed to the Lord, saying…” And this, despite the fact that it is Mardochai who offers this prayer in the Bible.

A leaf of a Roman Missal printed at Lyon in 1497. The Mass for today’s station begins in the middle of the right column.
It might seem that by taking the words of a man and putting them in the mouth of a woman, the Church has somehow adopted or absorbed an aspect of the Bona Dea cult when reading these words right next door to her shrine at the Basilica of St Cecilia. This is not the case, however. In chapter 2, 7, it is stated that Esther, (who becomes the Queen of Persia, and saves the Jews from Haman) was called “Hadassah,” (הֲדַסָּה) which is the Hebrew word for “myrtle”, the plant of Venus that was excluded from the rites of the Bona Dea. This would therefore be a deliberate critique of the Bona Dea, and a statement of rejection of the many pagan cults that excluded one class of persons or another.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: