Wednesday, September 19, 2018

By Nothing But Prayer and Fasting

Because of the movable date of Easter, and of everything that depends on it, the Ember Days of September can occur within any of the weeks after Pentecost from the 13th to the 19th inclusive. This year, they occur within the 17th week, which is where they are traditionally placed in the Roman Missal [1], but next year, for example, they will fall within the 14th week. This placement in the text reflects a very ancient theme which permeates the Masses of this set of Ember Days, and which seems to be particularly appropriate for our current annus horribilis.

The Collect of the 17th Sunday after Pentecost is a very ancient one, found in different places in the various versions of the Gelasian Sacramentary, but already fixed to the 17th Sunday in the Gregorian Sacramentary by the end of the 8th century. “Da quaesumus, Domine, populo tuo diabolica vitare contagia, et te solum Deum pura mente sectari. - Grant to Thy people, o Lord, to shun (or ‘avoid, escape from’) diabolical contamination, and to follow Thee, who alone art God, with a pure mind.” [2] This is the only Mass Collect of the ecclesiastical year that refers directly to diabolical influence, but the Secret of the 15th Sunday has a similar theme: “May Thy sacraments preserve us, o Lord, and always protect us against diabolical incursions.”

Folio 115r of the Gellone Sacramentary, a sacramentary of the Gelasian type dated 780-800, with the prayer “Da quaesumus...” assigned to the 20th week after Pentecost. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 12048)
On the Ember Wednesday of September, the Gospel is St Mark’s account of the healing of a possessed child, chapter 9, 16-28. Apart from Easter and the Ascension, the ancient Roman lectionary makes very little of use of St Mark, notwithstanding the tradition that the Evangelist was a disciple of St Peter and composed the Gospel while he was with him in Rome. Here, his version was surely chosen for the moving account of the exchange between Christ and the child’s father, which is less detailed in St Matthew’s version.

“And He asked his father, ‘How long time is it since this hath happened unto him?’ But he said, ‘From his infancy, and oftentimes hath he cast him into the fire and into waters to destroy him. But if thou canst do any thing, help us, having compassion on us.’ And Jesus saith to him, ‘If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.’ And immediately the father of the boy crying out, with tears said, ‘I do believe, Lord: help my unbelief.’ ”

The lower half of Raphael’s Transfiguration, the story which precedes the Gospel of Ember Wednesday. The possessed child’s father, on the right side in green, presents him to the Apostles; in his expression, Raphael beautifully captures the pleading in his facial expression. The brightness of the figure symbolizes his faith, as it does likewise in that of the possessed child, for devils, as St James says, have no doubts about God. (“Thou believest that there is one God. Thou dost well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” 2, 19). The brightest figure, the woman kneeling next to the boy and pointing at him, is an allegorical figure of Faith itself; where the light on these figures expresses their belief, the nine Apostles on the left are wrapped in shadow to symbolize the lack of faith that prevented them from casting out the devil.
At the end of the passage, the disciples ask Christ why they could not expel the devil, to which He replies, “This kind can go out by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.” In the Office, these words are sung at Lauds as the antiphon of the Benedictus.

On Ember Friday, the Gospel is that of the woman who anoints the Lord’s feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee, St Luke 7, 36-50. This is one of the very few examples of a Gospel which is repeated from another part of the temporal cycle; it is also read on the Thursday of Passion week, and again on the feast of St Mary Magdalene, with whom the woman is traditionally identified in the West. This identification is partly reinforced by the words of St Luke which come immediately after it (chapter 8, 1-3), although they are not read in the liturgy.

“And it came to pass afterwards, that He travelled through the cities and towns, preaching and evangelizing the kingdom of God; and the twelve with him, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary who is called Magdalen, out of whom seven devils were gone forth, and Joanna the wife of Chusa, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who ministered unto him of their substance.”

On Saturday, the Gospel is two stories from St Luke, chapter 13, 6-17, the parable of the fig tree, and the healing of the woman “who had a spirit of infirmity… and was bowed together, (nor) could she look upwards at all.” The choice of this Gospel for the Saturday is a very deliberate one, since it takes place in a synagogue, the ruler of which, “being angry that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, answering, said to the multitude, ‘Six days there are wherein you ought to work. In them therefore come, and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” To this Christ answers, “Ye hypocrites, doth not every one of you, on the Sabbath day, loose his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead them to water? And ought not this daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”

An ancient Christian sarcophagus known as the Sarcophagus of the Two Brothers, made in the second quarter of the 4th century, now in the Vatican Museums. The healing of the crippled woman is depicted in the upper left.
Each of these Gospels, therefore, refers to the same theme as the Collect of the 17th Sunday, the Church’s prayer to the Lord to protect Her and Her individual members from the malign influence of the devil.

It is a well-known fact that the Ember Days are one of the very oldest features of the Roman Rite. Pope St Leo I (444-61) preached numerous sermons on them, and believed them to be of apostolic origin, as he says, for example, in his second sermon on Pentecost. “To the present solemnity, most beloved, we must also add such devotion, that we keep the fast which follows it, according to the Apostolic tradition. For this must also be counted among the great gifts of the Holy Spirit, that fasting has been given to us as a defense against the enticements of the flesh and the snares of the devil, by which we may overcome all temptations, with the help of God.” (Sermon 76, PL 54, 411B)

Likewise, in his second sermon on the Ember Days of September, he refers to Christ’s words about fasting which are read on Wednesday. [3] “In every contest of the Christian’s struggle, temperance is of the greatest value and utility, to such a degree that the most savage demonic spirits, who are not put to flight from the bodies of the possessed by the commands of any exorcist, are driven out just by the force of fasts and prayers, as the Lord sayeth, ‘This kind of demons is not cast out except by fasting and prayer.’ The prayer of one who fasteth, therefore, is pleasing to God, and terrible to the devil…” (Sermon 87, ibid. 439b)

The collect of the 17th Sunday after Pentecost is one of the more obvious cases of a prayer deemed unsuitable by the post-Conciliar reformers for the ears of Modern Man™, who must never be confronted with any “negative” ideas while at prayer. Despite its antiquity and the universality of its place within the Roman Rite, it was removed altogether from the Missal, along with the Ember Days, most references to fasting, and all references to the devil. In a similar vein, when the pseudo-anaphora of pseudo-Hippolytus was adapted as the Second Eucharistic Prayer, the original version of the section that parallels the Qui pridie, “Who, when he was delivered to voluntary suffering, in order to dissolve death, and break the chains of the devil, and tread down hell, and bring the just to the light, and set the limit, and manifest the resurrection,” was reduced to “At the time He was betrayed and entered willingly into His Passion…”

However, as Fr Zuhlsdorf noted a few days ago, the 2002 revised edition of the Missal contains certain hints of an awareness that the post-Conciliar reform wantonly threw out far too much of the traditional Roman Rite. Among the things which it restored is the traditional prayer of the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, which now appears as an optional collect among the Masses “for any necessity”, raising the total number of references to the devil in the Missal to one.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal contains an exhortation (and no more than that) to the effect that Rogation Days and Ember Days “should be indicated” (“indicentur”, not “indicandae sunt – must be indicated”) on the local calendars, and a rubric (I.45) that it is the duty (“oportet”) of episcopal conferences to establish both the time and manner of their celebration. Unsurprisingly, this rubric has mostly been ignored. In recent days, however, it has become impossible to ignore the hideous consequences of the almost total abandonment of any kind of ascetic discipline in the life of the Church, and the free reign which this seems to have given to the devil. As a result, some bishops have called for the faithful to fast on the Ember Days this year, among them Robert Morlino of Madison and David Zubik of Pittsburgh, along with a number of Catholic commentators. If the Church does not wish this annus horribilis to become a lasting feature of its life, a permanent and universal restoration of the traditional discipline of fasting, including the Ember Days, would be a small but important step in that direction.

[1] In many medieval liturgical books, they are placed after the last Mass of the season after Pentecost, as for example in the Sarum Missal.

[2] The earliest manuscripts read “dominum” instead of “Deum”; the change would have been made since “Domine” is already said at the beginning. Many manuscripts read “puro corde – with a pure heart” instead of “pura mente.”

[3] It is tempting to think of this as proof that the Roman lectionary tradition, which is first attested in the lectionary of Wurzburg ca. 700 AD, was already set down 250 years earlier in Pope Leo’s time. This is quite possible, of course, but it is equally possible that the unknown compiler of the lectionary was inspired to choose this Gospel by reading Pope Leo’s sermon.

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