In the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the story of Susanna is read as the epistle of Monday of the fifth week of Lent. This episode is not in the Hebrew text of Daniel, but in the manuscripts of the Septuagint, it appears as the beginning of the book, probably because in verse 45 Daniel is called a “younger man;” this was apparently understood to mean “younger than he was when the rest of the story happened.” When Saint Jerome produced the group of translations now known as the Vulgate, he relegated the story to the end of the book, along with the other “apocryphal” episode known as Bel and the Dragon; hence the common designation of Susanna as chapter 13 of Daniel. Well before Jerome’s time, however, the great biblical scholar Origen had defended the canonicity of Susanna in a letter to his friend Africanus, who claimed that the Greek puns in the book proved that it could not be part of the original text. It is very important to note that Origen’s defense of the story, and of the other deuterocanonical books, repeatedly refers to the “use” of the book in the churches, i.e., in the liturgy. He also cites a saying of the book of Proverbs, “Thou shalt not remove the ancient landmarks which thy fathers have set,” (22:28), a passage long understood by Jewish commentators as a command to preserve the ancient traditions of religious practice. His opinion, and not that of St. Jerome, is clearly that of the majority of early Christians, as reflected not only in theoretical consideration, but also in early Christian art, and the ancient traditions which find their way into the lectionaries. (Pictured right: Daniel in the lion’s den, from the Dogmatic Sarcophagus in the Vatican Museums, ca. 340 A.D. On the right, the prophet Habakkuk bringing food to Daniel.)
A contemporary of Origen provides an exegetical basis for understanding the importance of the story of Susanna to the early Church. Among the fragments of a commentary on Daniel written by Hippolytus of Rome (died ca. 236) we read in reference to Susanna that she “prefigured the Church; and Joachim, her husband, Christ; and the garden, the calling of the saints, who are planted like fruitful trees in the Church. And Babylon is the world; and the two elders are set forth as a figure of the two peoples that plot against the Church – the one, namely, of the circumcision, and the other of the gentiles.” (On Susannah 7: the reader will understand, of course, that this quotation is in no wise chosen in endorsement of Hippolytus’ anti-Jewish sentiments.) And later on, “it is in our power also to apprehend the real meaning of all that befell Susannah. For you may find this also fulfilled in the present condition of the Church. For when the two peoples conspire to destroy any of the saints, they watch for a fit time, and enter the house of God while all there are praying and praising God, and seize some of them, and carry them off, and keep hold of them, saying, ‘Come, consent with us, and worship our gods; and if not, we will bear witness against you.’ And when they refuse, they drag them before the court and accuse them of acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, and condemn them to death.” (On Susannah 22)
We cannot be certain that it is Hippolytus’ interpretation specifically which influenced the early Church to assign the story of Susanna to Lent. However, we can say with certainty that the Lenten readings for Mass were largely chosen as lessons for the catechumens who would be baptized at Easter, and that the story of Susanna was read to prepare the new Christians for the reality of persecution in the Roman Empire. This is reflected in the art of the catacombs, where stories from the Lenten lectionary are always very prominent, Susanna among them. In the catacomb of Praetextatus, for example, she appears as a lamb (the name Susanna is written over her), with two wolves on either side of her labelled “seniores – the elders.”
Susanna as a lamb between two wolves, from the Arcosolium of Celerina in the Catacomb of Praetextatus, mid-4th century.
In the catacomb of Priscilla, the story appears in three parts in the burial chamber known as the Greek Chapel, made in the second half of the second century A.D. On the right side, the two elders are pointing at Susanna’s midriff, indicating that “they were inflamed with lust towards her” (verse 8); on the left side, (further from the camera in this photo), the two elders, having been refused by Susanna, accuse her before the people of adultery by placing their hands upon her head (verse 34). She is condemned to death, but the prophet Daniel, inspired by the Lord, saves her by asking the two elders separately where exactly in Joachim’s garden they witnessed the supposed adultery. When they give different responses, the Jews of Babylon realize she is innocent, and put the two elders to death; in the final scene, Daniel (not visible in this photograph) and Susanna give thanks to God for her deliverance.
The so-called Greek Chapel in the Catacomb of Priscilla, second half of the second century.
The stories of Susanna appear on the side walls, with white backgrounds.
The stories of Susanna appear on the side walls, with white backgrounds.
In the traditional lectionary of the Roman Rite, the story of Susanna is assigned to the Saturday of the third week of Lent, the longest epistle of the entire year. The Station for that day is at the church of Saint Susanna, the niece of Pope St. Caius (283-296), traditionally said to be martyred, like her uncle and her father, St. Gabinus, under the Emperor Diocletian. This station was clearly chosen for the coincidence of names; in the Ordinary Form, it has been moved into the week traditionally known as Passion Week, although the stations have not been rearranged accordingly. In the lectionary of 1969, it may also be read in an abbreviated form which begins directly with Susanna’s condemnation at verse 41.
In the Ambrosian Liturgy, which in many respects provided inspiration for the post-conciliar revisions, the association with the Lord’s Passion is made even more explicit. The reading is assigned to Holy Thursday, which in the Milanese lectionary is focused much more on the Passion than on the institution of the Eucharist. At the service of readings and prayers to be said after Terce, the first reading is that of Susanna; the psalmellus (the equivalent of a gradual in the Roman Rite) which follows is taken from Psalm 34, “Unjust witnesses rising up have asked me things I knew not. They repaid me evil for good.” The second reading is from the book of Wisdom, chapter 2, 12 – 25, beginning with the words “In those days the wicked said to each other: Let us lie in wait for the just, because he is useless to us, and he is contrary to our doings, and upbraideth us with transgressions of the law, and divulgeth against us the sins of our way of life.” The Gospel that follows immediately after, Matthew 26, 14 – 16, tells of the betrayal of Judas, who sells the Lord for thirty silver pieces.
Although the reading was chosen to prepare the catechumens for membership in a persecuted sect, it continued in use after the liberty of the Church, as did many other early liturgical references to the Age of the Martyrs. In the Breviary of St. Pius V, we read an explanation of this in the second nocturn of Passion Sunday, from the ninth Lenten sermon of Pope St. Leo the Great, whose feast is kept today in the traditional rite.
(In Lent) a greater fast was ordered by the holy Apostles, taught by the Holy Spirit, so that by a common sharing in the Cross of Christ, we too may in some measure partake in what He did for our sake, as the Apostle says, 'If we suffer with Him, we will be also glorified with Him.' Certain and sure is the hope of blessedness promised to us, when we partake of the Lord’s Passion. There is no one, dearly beloved, who is denied a share of this glory because of the time he lives in, as if the tranquility of peace was without occasion for virtue. For the Apostle foretells us, 'All that will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution'; and therefore, there will never lack the tribulation of persecution, if the observance of godliness is not lacking. For the Lord himself says in his exhortations, 'He that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.' And we must not doubt that these words apply not only to his immediate disciples, but belong to all the faithful and to the whole Church; who all heard of His salvation in the person of those present.