Saturday, April 06, 2019

Sitientes Saturday, The Last Day of Lent

In the liturgical books of the traditional Roman Rite, today is the last day of “Quadragesima”, the Latin word for Lent; since the mid-ninth century, tomorrow has been called “Dominica de Passione”, usually translated in English as “Passion Sunday.” The last two weeks of the season are collectively known as “Tempus Passionis – Passiontide”; the custom of joining them as a liturgical period distinct from the rest of Lent is unique to the Roman Rite. However, the specific liturgical character of this period is older than its formal nomenclature, and the traditional Mass for today marks the transition in several ways.


The Introit, Isaiah 55, 1, is a rare example of one taken from a prophetic book, rather than the Psalms; the text is slightly different from that of the Vulgate. “Sitientes, veníte ad aquas, dicit Dóminus: et qui non habétis pretium, veníte et bíbite cum laetítia. – Ye that thirst, come to the waters, saith the Lord; and ye that have not the price, come and drink with rejoicing.” On the Easter vigil, these words are read as part of the fifth prophecy, Isaiah 54, 17, and 55, 1-11, in reference to the waters of baptism. At the beginning of Lent, on Tuesday of the first week, a shorter version of the same passage is read, starting at verse 6, “Seek ye the Lord, while He may be found; call upon Him, while He is near.” The fuller reading indicates that those who began to seek the Lord by enrolling themselves in the catechumenate, having completed their initiation into the Faith over the course of Lent, will indeed find Him when they come to the waters.

The Epistle is taken from a different chapter of Isaiah, 49, 8-15, and is deliberately chosen to mark the closure of the first part of Lent. On the First Sunday of Lent, the Epistle, 2 Corinthians 6, 1-10, begins with a citation of this passage: “We exhort you, that you receive not the grace of God in vain; for he saith, ‘In an accepted time have I heard thee; and in the day of salvation have I helped thee.’ (Isaiah 49, 8) Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” Before Ash Wednesday was instituted in the 7th century, this passage of St Paul was the very first Scriptural reading of Lent. These two readings form the bookends of the first four weeks, which emphasize catechumenal lessons and the discipline of fasting, before the shift in tone towards meditation on the Lord’s Passion that marks the last two weeks much more notably.

Today, the passage from Isaiah continues: “I have preserved thee, and given thee to be a covenant of the people, that thou might raise up the earth, and possess the inheritances that were destroyed: that thou might say to them that are bound, ‘Come forth!’, and to them that are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves. … For he that is merciful to them, shall be their shepherd, and at the fountains of waters he shall give them drink.” The “inheritances that were destroyed” are the various nations of men, lost in the darkness of sin. Three days earlier, the catechumens heard the story of the man born blind (John 9, 1-38), whom the Church Fathers understood to represent the condition of Man before the coming of Christ. As St Augustine writes “… the whole world is blind. Therefore Christ came to illuminate, since the devil had blinded us. He who deceived the first man caused all men to be born blind.” (Sermon 135 against the Arians) In baptism, at “the fountains of waters”, Christ calls them out of darkness, as He did the man born blind.

Christ Healing the Blind Man, from the church of Sant’Angelo in Formis, Capua, Italy, ca. 1080.
The words that follow, “Behold these shall come from afar, and behold these from the north and from the sea, and these from the south country,” (verse 12) would certainly have been read in Rome, “the head of the world”, as a reference to the many nations of the Empire present in its capital. From the very beginning, the Church had always been concerned to assert that Christ came to the Jewish people, to whom the promises of mankind’s redemption were made, but came as the Savior and Redeemer of all nations.

The Gradual from is taken from Psalm 9: “To thee, o Lord, is the poor man left: thou wilt be a helper to the orphan. V. Why, O Lord, hast thou retired afar off? why dost thou slight us in our wants, in the time of trouble? While the wicked man is proud, the poor is set on fire.” This text refers to the original Roman station of this day, which was kept at the church of St Lawrence Outside-the-Walls, where the great martyr is buried. He was very famously one of the deacons to whom the care of the poor was left in the Lord’s name; the words “the poor man is set on fire” refer to the manner of his martyrdom, which took place after he had given away all of the Church’s charitable funds.

The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, by Titian, 1567; from the Spanish Royal Monastery of the Escorial.
The station was later was transferred to the church of St Nicolas ‘in Carcere’, i.e., in the prison, where, according to a late and unreliable tradition, the Saint was imprisoned by the Emperor Constantius for refusing to accept the Arian heresy. The Bl. Ildephonse Schuster posits in his book The Sacramentary that this change was made in part because the procession to the former station had become inconvenient “in the showery weather of March.” This seems to me a very improbable explanation, since the two stations are almost exactly the same distance from the medieval residence of the Popes at St John in the Lateran, and the weather cannot have been radically different on one route as opposed to the other.

On the preceding Thursday, the station is held at the church jointly dedicated to Ss Silvester and Martin, who were among the first Confessors to be venerated as Saints, and certainly the most popular. On Friday, it is held at the church of St Eusebius, a Roman priest who was also a Confessor, but in the original sense of the term, one who suffered for the Faith, but was not violently put to death. With the addition of this new station, the season of Quadragesima closes with a celebration of the newer Saints, those who came after the age of the Apostles and Martyrs.

The Gospel of the day, John 8, 12-20, begins with another reference to the upcoming ceremonies of baptism, referring back to the words of the Epistle about calling the nations out of darkness. “I am the light of the world: he that followeth Me, walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” But it is the closing words which shift the liturgy’s thought forward to the Lord’s Passion. “These words Jesus spoke in the treasury, teaching in the temple: and no man laid hands on Him, because His hour was not yet come.” Very shortly, however, when hands are laid on Him to bring Him to trial, He will say, “When I was daily with you in the temple, you did not stretch forth your hands against Me; but this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” The Gospels read after this day, in Passion week and Holy Week, will all speak far more clearly than those of the first four weeks about Christ’s impending arrest, trial, condemnation and passion, and frequently in reference to the temple. “They took up stones therefore to cast at him. But Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.” (Passion Sunday, John 8, 59) “then He also went up to the feast, not openly, but, as it were, in secret. … And there was much murmuring among the multitude concerning Him, for some said, ‘He is a good man,’ and others said, ‘No, but he seduceth the people.’ ” (John 7, 10 and 12, Passion Tuesday)


The Communion antiphon forms part of a series which begins on Ash Wednesday with Psalm 1, and continues through the Psalms in numerical order until the Friday of Passion week. (The series is interrupted several times for various reasons, and does not include Holy Week.) On this day, it is the beginning of Psalm 22, “The Lord ruleth me: and I shall want nothing. He hath set me in a place of pasture. He hath brought me up, on the water of refreshment.” “Pasture” refers back once again to the Epistle from Isaiah 49, specifically the verses “They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in every plain.”, while the final words speak yet again of Baptism.

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