Thursday, September 15, 2016

Liturgical Notes on The Feasts of the Seven Sorrows

From 1814 until 1960, the General Calendar of the Roman Rite contained two different feasts of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary. The older of these is the one long celebrated on the Friday of Passion week; the latter is now fixed to September 15th, but was originally a movable feast. The Offices of these two feasts have only a few elements in common, but the Masses are almost identical. This doubling of the feast is not, therefore, a case like Corpus Christi, which emphasizes one particular aspect of what the Church celebrates on Holy Thursday, nor is one a “secondary” feast like the Apparition of St Michael or the Conversion of St Paul.

The Seven Sorrows Polyptych by Albrecht Dürer, ca. 1500. The seven sorrows shown here are slightly different from those of the Servite Rosary shown below; counterclockwise from the upper left, they are the Circumcision (considered a sorrow because of the shedding of Christ’s blood,) the Flight into Egypt, the Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple, the Carrying of the Cross, the Nailing to the Cross, the Crucifixion, and the Deposition of Christs Body.
The Passiontide feast emerged in German-speaking lands in the early 15th-century, partly as a response to the iconoclasm of the Hussites, and partly out of the universal popular devotion to every aspect of Christ’s Passion, including the presence of His Mother, and thence to Her grief over the Passion. It was known by several different titles, and kept on a wide variety of dates; Cologne, where it was first instituted, had it on the 3rd Friday after Easter until the end of the 18th century. Before the name “Seven Sorrows” became common, it was most often called “the feast of the Virgin’s Compassion”, which is to say, of Her suffering together with Christ as She beheld the Passion. This title was retained by the Dominicans well into the 20th century; they also had an Office for it which was quite different from the Roman one, although the Mass was the same. It appears in many missals of the 15th to 17th centuries only as a votive Mass, with no corresponding feast; this was the case at Sarum, where it is called “Compassionis sive Lamentationis B.M.V.” (The Sarum Missal also has a highly irregular sequence for this Mass, 128 lines long, more than twice as many as the Stabat Mater in the Roman Mass.)

It was also occasionally known as the “Transfixio”, in reference to Simeon’s prophecy to the Virgin (Luke 2, 35) that “a sword shall pierce Thy heart.” For this reason, the Collect of the feast states that “we remember with veneration (her) Transfixing and Passion.” The Preface of the Virgin Mary contains the phrase “et te in *** Beatae Virginis semper Virginis collaudare, benedicere et praedicare – and to praise, bless and preach Thee in the *** of the Blessed Mary ever Virgin.” The name of the feast (Assumption, Nativity etc.) is said where the stars are, but on the feast of the Seven Sorrows, “transfixione” is said in that place. (The Dominicans said “compassione.”)

The corresponding Office has a number of interesting features. The Seven Sorrows is the only feast of the Virgin which has special psalms at Vespers and Matins, those of the former being the same which are sung on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The Stabat Mater is divided into three parts and sung as the hymn of Vespers, Matins and Lauds, with simpler music than that of the same text when it is sung as the Sequence at Mass. (In Italy, this simpler form is still often sung at the Stations of the Cross.) The responsories of Matins all refer to the Passion of Christ; the fourth is the most famous of the Tenebrae responsories from Good Friday, Tenebrae factae sunt, with the verse changed: “What dost Thou feel, o Virgin, when Thou beholdest such things?”

The sequence version of the Stabat Mater

The readings of the first nocturn are the famous prophecy of the Suffering Servant, Isaiah 53, which is also read at the Mass of Spy Wednesday, when the Lenten station is kept at St Mary Major. In the second nocturn, they are taken from a famous sermon of St Bernard of Clairvaux, in which he demonstrates that it is indeed proper to refer to the “martyrdom” of the Virgin, and addressing Her directly, says “Therefore, the force of grief passed through Thy soul, so that we may rightly preach that Thou are even more than a martyr, in whom the affection of compassion exceeded even the sense of bodily passion. … Wonder not, brethren, that Mary is called a martyr in spirit. Let him wonder (at this) who remembereth not that he has heard Paul say, when he recalls the greatest crimes of the pagans, that they were ‘without affection.’ Far was this from Mary’s senses, and far be it from her servants.”

The Pazzi Crucifixion, by Pietro Perugino, 1496, in the convent of St Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi in Florence. St Bernard of Clarivaux and the Virgin Mary are on the left, St John the Evangelist and St Benedict on the right.
In the wake of the Protestant reformation, the feast continued to grow in popularity, spreading though southern Europe, and most often fixed to the Friday of Passion week. It was extended to the universal Church on that day by Pope Benedict XIII with the title “the feast of the Seven Sorrows”, although none of the various enumerations of the Virgin’s sorrows is referred to it anywhere in the liturgy itself.

The second feast of the Seven Sorrows was promulgated in 1668 as the Patronal feast of the Servite Order, which was founded in the mid-13th century by seven Florentine noblemen, and soon spread all over Europe. (St Philip Benizzi, who stands in their history as St Bernard does in that of the Cistercians, not their founder, but their most famous member, was almost elected Pope in 1271.) This order had always nourished a strong devotion to the Mother of Sorrows, and has its own rosary of the Seven Sorrows, which are as follows.

1. The Prophecy of Simeon.
2. The Flight into Egypt.
3. The Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple.
4. The Meeting of Mary and Jesus as He Carries the Cross.
5. The Crucifixion.
6. The Removal of Christ’s Body from the Cross.
7. The Burial of Christ.

A Servite Rosary, also known as the Crown of the Seven Sorrows, each one of which is depicted on one of the oval medals between the beads. Only seven Hail Marys are said per sorrow; on the beads that lead to the Cross, three more are added in honor of the tears which the Virgin shed as She stood by the Cross. This example was made in the 19th century; it has more recently been the custom to make them with only black beads, the color of the Servite habit. (Courtesy of Mr Forrest Alverson.)
Since the Servite version of this devotion is not focused entirely on the Passion of Christ, but contains three events from His childhood, a number of changes were made to the corresponding liturgical texts for the second feast. The words of the Collect “we remember with veneration (her) Transfixing and Passion” are changed to “we remember with veneration (her) Sorrows”; however, “transfixione” is still said in the Preface. In the Office, the regular psalms of the Virgin’s other Offices are said at Vespers, but not at Matins; three different hymns, all very much in the classicizing style in vogue in the 17th century, replace the three parts of the Stabat Mater. The responsories of Matins are completely different, each referring in order to one of the mysteries of the Servite rosary given above. An eighth one is added to complete the series, a very beautiful exhortation: “In all thy heart, forget not the groans of Thy Mother, that propitiation and blessing may be perfected. Hail, most noble woman, that art the first rose of the martyrs, and lily of the virgins!” The readings of the first nocturn are taken from the Book of Lamentations, which is otherwise read only at Tenebrae, and the lessons of the second are the same passage from St Bernard read on the other feast. (This passage was also read in the Dominican Office of the Compassion.)

Michelangelo’s Pietà in St Peter’s Basilica.
This Servite version of the feast was added to the general calendar by Pope Pius VII in 1814, after he returned from the exile in France shamefully visited upon him by Napoleon. Part of the Pope’s reason for doing would certainly have been to ask the Virgin’s intercession and protection for the Church in the midst of the many horrors visited upon it by the French revolution and the subsequent wars. It was originally kept on the Third Sunday of September, as it had been first by the Servites, but when Pope St Pius X abolished the custom of fixing feasts to Sundays, it was placed on September 15th, the day after the Exaltation of the Cross. While the connection between the Sorrows of the Virgin and the Crucifixion is essential, the Seven Sorrows was of higher rank at the time, and its new placement therefore had the unfortunate effect of cancelling Second Vespers of the much older feast of the Exaltation. This defect was remedied by the Breviary reform of 1960, but at the cost of a much more serious general defect, the abolition of First Vespers from all but the highest grade of feasts. At the same time, the older Passiontide feast was reduced to a commemoration.

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