Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Septuagesima of Christmas

As Henri de Villiers discussed earlier this year in a series of four articles, it is a universal Christian custom to approach Easter gradually, first in a Fore-lent, followed by Lent proper, then Holy Week, within which the Sacred Triduum forms a distinct part. (See “The Antiquity and Universality of Fore-Lent”: part one; part two; part three; part four.)

The Roman Rite traditionally has a series of subtle transitions within the nine-week period from Septuagesima to Easter which is unique to itself, although in some regards later imitated by other western rites. Ash Wednesday is a Roman invention, instituted somewhat later than Lent; its Divine Office, together with that of the three days “after the ashes”, is distinct from that of Lent proper. Passiontide is also a uniquely Roman development, with ritual customs like the veiling of images, and textual variants like the omission of the doxology from the Mass, which are not part of the first four weeks of Lent. Even more notable is the particular character of the Triduum, during which the Mass and Office are stripped very bare, before all things are restored in the splendor of Easter.

Tenebrae at Holy Innocents in New York City, 2016 (Photo by Diana Yuan)
In the post-Conciliar reform, this series of transitions has been largely removed, or the features that accentuated the differences between them made optional. Septuagesima was suppressed, while the days “after the ashes” and Passiontide were in most respects assimilated to the rest of Lent. Some of the most traditional features of these periods, such as the complete omission of the doxology during the Triduum, were also suppressed. Among those made optional, we may note the veiling of statues and images, (happily making a strong comeback), and the use of the Passiontide hymns in what is now called the fifth week of Lent.

At the same time, however, a series of transitions very much like what was traditionally observed before Easter was instituted for the weeks leading up to Christmas.

This newly created series begins with the feast of Christ the King, moved from its original place on the Sunday before All Saints (Mystical Head before Mystical Body) to the last Sunday of the liturgical year. It is no secret that its texts were recast to remove almost every reference to the purpose for which Pope Pius XI created it in 1925, namely, to assert and celebrate the doctrine of the Social Kingship of Christ. Like so many Catholic things, this had become suddenly and mysteriously quite unfashionable in the heady years after the most recent ecumenical council. (Fr Hunwicke has written very well about this, as he always does.)

The new version of the feast emphasizes the eschatological reign of Christ at the end of the world. The Collect, for example is changed, with the removal of the words in italics. “Almighty and everlasting God, who in thy beloved Son, the King of the whole world, hast willed to restore all things: mercifully grant that all the families of nations, now kept apart by the wound of sin, may be subjected to His most sweet rule.” In the new Missal, it reads, “Almighty and everlasting God, who in thy beloved Son, the King of the whole world, hast willed to restore all things: mercifully grant that all creation, delivered from servitude, may serve Thy majesty and praise Thee without end.

In the traditional Roman Rite, the collect of the last Sunday of the year forms a trait d’union with Advent. Like four of the Advent Collects (those of the 1st, 2nd and 4th Sundays, plus the Ember Friday), it begins with the word “Excita – Stir up.” Unlike those of Advent, however, it is addressed to God the Father. “Stir up, we beseech Thee, o Lord, the wills of Thy faithful, that they, more willingly bringing forth the fruit of divine work, may receive more abundantly the assistance of Thy loving kindness.” The new rite retains this collect without alteration for the weekdays following Christ the King. (Most of the Collects of Advent, and of this season alone, are traditionally addressed to God the Son, to symbolize how the world longed for His coming; here, the new rite has obscured the transition by changing them to address the Father.)

On the same weekdays in the Liturgy of the Hours, the Dies irae is given as a hymn, split into three parts for the Office of Readings, Lauds and Vespers. In his book Te decet laus, Dom Anselmo Lentini, O.S.B., who headed the committee that revised the Office hymns, leaves little doubt as to his low opinion of its removal from the Requiem Mass, describing it as something which the faithful knew very well and sung with enthusiasm. His committee decided to give it a place in the Office, lest it be lost altogether from the liturgy, since the revisers of the Mass had decided that death was henceforth to be treated as a rather cheerier affair. Although its use is optional, its presence in theory continues the new eschatological theme of Christ the King through the rest of the week.

The Prophet Daniel and the Cumean Sybil, by Michelangelo Buonarroti, in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, 1508-12. In accordance with a tradition known to the Fathers, it was believed the the pagan prophetesses known as the Sybils had also foretold the coming of Christ as the Savior and Redeemer of the human race. This is referred to in the Dies Irae in the words “Teste David et Sibilla - as David and the Sybil witness.” 
This theme is further emphasized by the choice of Mass readings for the same period. In year 1, they are taken from the book of Daniel, culminating with his vision of the Ancient of Days, and of strife among the kingdoms of the world, represented by wild animals. (chapter 7) In year 2, readings from the Apocalypse (properly censored to avoid some potentially unpleasant ideas or images) begin in the 33rd week, and continue after Christ the King. On Friday of the last week, the vision of “a great white throne, and one sitting upon it, from whose face the earth and heaven fled away,” cleverly parallels the Friday reading of year 1.

The week’s Gospel readings, which are the same in both years, conclude the lectio continua of St Luke with all but the last two verses of chapter 21: the widow’s mite (1-4), Our Lord’s prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (5-24), and the signs of His coming at the end of the world (25-36). The last two sections are Luke’s parallel to the Gospel traditional read on the last Sunday of the year, Matthew 24, 15-35, and the traditional Gospel of First Advent (Luke 21, 25-33), partially retained in year C.

Having thus created a special preparatory period right before Advent, analogous to Septuagesima, the new rite also intensifies a traditional distinction within Advent between its first and second parts, analogous to the distinction between Lent and Passiontide. This distinction was traditionally marked by the singing of the O antiphons at Vespers, and the special antiphons that go with them at Lauds and the minor Hours. In the new rite, these features of the Office for the last days of Advent have all been retained as far as possible within its new structure. Furthermore, special hymns never previously used in the Roman Breviary have been added to this period, much as Passiontide is distinguished from Lent most particularly by its hymns.

The Gospels of the season are traditionally divided into two groups, one before and one after the Ember Days. The first three move backwards, from the end of the world (1st Sunday, Luke 21, 25) to St John the Baptist in prison (2nd Sunday, Matthew, 11, 2-10), to the beginning of his ministry (3rd Sunday, John 1, 19-28). With the Gospel of the Annunciation on Ember Wednesday, and that of the Visitation on Ember Friday, the Church begins looking forward again, to the manifestation of Christ’s Incarnation on Christmas Day.

The Annunciation, by Jan de Beer, 1520, now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid (Public domain image from Wikimedia.)
The new Mass lectionary expands the corpus of readings very considerably, and although the Ember Days were removed, the distinction between the first and second parts of Advent remains. Until December 16th, the Sunday Gospels stick to the traditional themes, centered on the end of the world and St John the Baptist, although the order in which they are presented is changed. The weekday Gospels focus on miracles and discourses; it has to be said that as a group, they give the impression that the committee was struggling to find passages suitable to the season.

When December 17th comes, however, the theme switches to the events leading up to Christ’s birth, in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke. From the former are read the Genealogy of Christ and the Angel’s appearance to St Joseph (verses 1-17 and 18-24); from the latter, the Angel’s appearance to Zachariah and the conception of John the Baptist (5-25), the Annunciation (26-38), the Visitation (39-45), the Magnificat (46-56), the birth of the Baptist (57-66), and the Benedictus (67-79). Three of these Gospels are assigned to the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which always occurs between December 17th and 24th. (Year A, Matt. 1, 18-24; B, the Annunciation; C, the Visitation.)

We therefore have, in the Christmas cycle of the post-Conciliar rite, the parallel of Septuagesima in the redesigned feast of Christ the King and the weekdays that follow it, the parallel of Lent in the first part of Advent, and the parallel of Passiontide in the second part of Advent.

A second part of this article will examine the changes to the liturgy of Christmas Eve.

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