Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Ambrosian Gospel of St Stephen

In the Roman Rite, the Gospel of the feast of St Stephen is traditionally St Matthew 23, 34-39, as attested in the very oldest surviving lectionaries.

“Behold I send to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them you will put to death and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city: That upon you may come all the just blood that hath been shed upon the earth, from the blood of Abel the just, even unto the blood of Zacharias the son of Barachias, whom you killed between the temple and the altar. Amen I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered together thy children, as the hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldest not? Behold, your house shall be left to you, desolate. For I say to you, you shall not see me henceforth till you say: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”

This passage was perhaps chosen because of what St Jerome writes about it in his commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew, as read in the Breviary, that among the prophets, wise men and scribes named by Christ, “Stephen was stoned, Paul killed, Peter crucified, and the disciples scourged (as stated) in the Acts of the Apostles.” (Commentary on Matthew, book 4)

In the Ambrosian liturgy, on the other hand, a completely different passage is used, Matthew 17, 23-26. This is the only Milanese Gospel of the Christmas octave which diverges completely from the Roman lectionary tradition. [1]

“When they were come to Capharnaum, they that received the didrachmas, came to Peter and said to him: Doth not your master pay the didrachmas? He said: Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying: What is thy opinion, Simon? The kings of the earth, of whom do they receive tribute or custom? of their own children, or of strangers? And he said: Of strangers. Jesus said to him: Then the children are free. But that we may not scandalize them, go to the sea, and cast in a hook: and that fish which shall first come up, take: and when thou hast opened its mouth, thou shalt find a stater: take that, and give it to them for me and thee.”

The Tribute Money, by Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone (1401-28), better known as Masaccio, 1425; in the Brancacci Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence.
St Hilary of Poitiers (ca. 310-365, bishop ca. 350) interpreted the fish in this episode as a figure of St Stephen, the first to be caught by the hook of St Peter’s preaching, (Commentary on Matthew, cap. 17, 13), who then “preached the glory of God, beholding the Lord Christ in his passion.” St Ambrose, who became bishop of Milan roughly a decade after St Hilary’s death, repeats this interpretation in three different places.

“Therefore, he cast the nets, and seized hold of Stephen, who was the first to arise from the Gospel, having the stater of justice in his mouth.” (Hexameron, 5, 6, 16)

“And perhaps this first fish is the first martyr, having the didrachma, that is, the price of the census, in his mouth. Christ is our didrachma. Therefore, the first martyr, Stephen, had in his mouth the treasure, when he spoke of Christ in his passion” (Exposition of the Gospel according to Luke, 4, 75)

“In this ship, Peter is fishing, and is ordered to fish now with the net, now with a hook. A great mystery! For this seems to be a spiritual fishing, by which he is ordered to cast the hook of teaching into the world, so that he might raise up the first martyr, Stephen, from the sea, who contained the price of Christ within himself; for Christ’s martyr is the Church’s treasure. Therefore, that Martyr who was the first to come up to heaven from the sea, captured as a minister of the altar by Peter, is lifted up not with a net, but with a hook, so that by the stream of his blood he might be lifted up to heaven. And in his mouth was the treasure, when the spoke of Christ in his confession. (On Virginity 120)

We see, therefore, that St Ambrose was well aware of the tradition that linked this Gospel to the passion of St Stephen. As in many other cases, he bears witness to the earliest stage of the codification of a liturgical tradition, which he receive from his predecessors, and from which he then draws inspiration for his own theological and catechetical reflections. And indeed, this tradition is also attested in the very oldest liturgical books of both the Ambrosian and Gallican rites, although they date from several centuries later.

In yet another example of the false irenicism so predominant among the post-Conciliar reformers, the traditional Roman Gospel for St Stephen was not just changed on the feast itself, but deleted from the lectionary entirely. When the time comes to reform the liturgy correctly, and fix the innumerable mistakes of this sort which plague the new lectionary, we would do well the follow the example of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, who received what was passed on to them, and faithfully transmitted it to the generations that followed, rather than change liturgical tradition to chase after the approval of the passing age.

The lighting of the “faro” at the parish church of St Stephen in Santo Stefano Ticino (west of Milan), earlier today.



[1] At the three Masses of Christmas, the Ambrosian Rite reads the same Gospels as the Roman, but exchanges the places of those of the Midnight and Day Masses. At the Midnight Mass, the Prologue of St John is shortened to just five verses (9-14), but the complete passage is read at the Mass within the octave on December 31. The Ambrosian Gospel of St Thomas of Canterbury is longer by two verses (John 10, 11-18).

This article is partly taken from an item written by Nicola de’ Grandi.

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