Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Vigil of All Saints

In the Roman Rite, the term “vigilia – vigil” traditionally means a penitential day of preparation for one of the more important feasts. The Mass of a Saint’s vigil is celebrated after None, as are the Masses of the ferias of Lent or the Ember Days, and in violet vestments; however, the deacon and subdeacon do not wear folded chasubles, as they do in Lent, but the dalmatic and tunicle. The Mass has neither the Gloria nor the Creed, the Alleluja is omitted before the Gospel, and not replaced with a Tract, and Benedicamus Domino is said at the end in place of Ite, missa est.

A folio of the Echternach Sacramntary, 895 AD, with the Mass of the vigil of All Saints, and the collect of the feast. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 9433)
Before the Tridentine reform, the vigil of a Saint consisted solely of the Mass, and had no presence in either the Roman version of the Divine Office, or in that of most other Uses. A minority custom, which seems to have been predominantly German, gave an Office to the vigils of Saints, which consisted of a homily at Matins, and the use of the collect of the vigil as the principal collect of the day; the rest of the Office was that of the feria. The Breviary of St Pius V adopted this latter custom for the vigils of Saints, a rare example of change in an otherwise extremely conservative reform; but even for the Roman Rite, this was not an absolute novelty. Historically, the vigils of the major feasts of the Lord (Christmas, Epiphany etc.) did include the Office, and the change in 1568 simply extended the scope of a well-established custom.

The feast of All Saints was not definitively established as a major solemnity of the Roman Rite until the mid- to late 9th century, but in every book in which it is attested, it is accompanied by such a vigil. It seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that were instituted at the same time. Because of the preeminent position of the martyrs in Christian devotion as the first and most widely venerated Saints after those who appear in the New Testament, the liturgical texts of All Saints are often borrowed or imitated from those of the feasts of martyrs, and the same is true of its vigil.

The Introit of the vigil is taken from the third chapter of the book of Wisdom, the source of many liturgical texts of all kinds for the feasts of martyrs. “Júdicant Sancti gentes et dominantur pópulis: et regnábit Dóminus, Deus illórum, in perpétuum. Ps. 32 Exsultáte, justi, in Dómino: rectos decet collaudatio. Gloria Patri. Judicant. – The Saints judge nations, and rule over peoples, and the Lord their God shall reign for ever. Ps. Rejoice in the Lord, O ye just: praise becometh the righteous. Glory be. The Saints.”


The Epistle is taken from the Apocalypse, chapter 5, 6-12; this part of the book, St John’s vision of God on His throne with the heavenly court and the Saints standing before Him, has long been a favorite source for artistic depictions of Heaven. This specific passage contains the first mention of Christ as “the Lamb that was slain”, and the book’s first occurrence of the word “Saints”.

“In those days, behold I, John, saw in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb standing as it were slain, having seven horns and seven eyes: which are the seven Spirits of God, sent forth into all the earth. And he came and took the book out of the right hand of him that sat on the throne. And when he had opened the book, the four living creatures, and the four and twenty ancients fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints: And they sung a new canticle, saying: Thou art worthy, O Lord, to take the book, and to open the seals thereof; because thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God, in thy blood, out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation. And hast made us to our God a kingdom and priests, and we shall reign on the earth. And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne, and the living creatures, and the ancients; and the number of them was thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘The Lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power, and divinity, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and benediction.’ ”

As I described in an article two years ago, the feast of All Saints was instituted in part as a response to the iconoclast heresy which the Byzantine Emperors invented, and enforced with a brutal persecution. Roughly a generation before iconoclasm began in 726, the Emperor Justinian II had called a synod now known as either “the Synod in Trullo” or “the Quinisext Council”, which among other things forbade any representation of Christ as an animal. In response, Pope St Sergius I (687-701) added the Agnus Dei to the Mass, and the church of Rome began regularly depicting Christ as a lamb in art. This Epistle, in which the Bible itself calls Him a lamb, was most likely chosen in reference to this; likewise the Epistle of the feast itself, chapter 7, 2-12, in which John sees “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne, and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb.’ ” In the same vein, the Magnificat antiphon for Second Vespers of the feast says “O how glorious is the kingdom where all the Saints rejoice with Christ; clothed in white robes, they follow the Lamb wheresoever he goeth!”

In the church of Ss Cosmas and Damian in Rome, Pope Sergius added the gold-background mosaic on the proscenium arch, filled with images from the book of the Apocalypse, including the Lamb of God on His throne. (Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew.) 
The Gradual is taken from Psalm 149, “Exsultabunt sancti in gloria; laetabuntur in cubilibus suis. V. Cantate Domino canticum novum; laus ejus in ecclesia sanctorum. – The Saints shall rejoice in glory: they shall be joyful in their resting places. V. Sing ye to the Lord a new canticle: let his praise be in the church of the Saints.” The first part of this is frequently said in the Office of Several Martyrs, and was chosen in reference to the fact that the original focus of devotion to the Saints was always at the place of their burial. (There is no recording of it on available on YouTube, but it is very similar to the Gradual Tecum principium of the First Mass of Christmas.)


The Gospel, Luke 6, 17-23, is taken from the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain; this is St Luke’s shorter version of the Beatitudes with which St Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount begins (chap. 5, 1-12), the latter being the Gospel of the feast. As St Ambrose explains in the breviary sermon on this Gospel, “Saint Luke sets out only four of the Lord’s Beatitudes, while Saint Matthew gives eight; but in those eight are contained these four, and in these four those eight. For the former in these four embraced the cardinal virtues, and the letter in those eight set forth a number full of mystery. … For as the eighth beatitude names the perfection of what we hope for (i.e., the kingdom of Heaven), so it is also the sum of the virtues.”

The Offertory is taken from the same Psalm as the Gradual, and includes a small variant from the Old Latin version, rather than the Vulgate version of St Jerome. “Exsultabunt sancti in gloria; lætabuntur in cubilibus suis. Exaltationes Dei in faucibus (“gutture” in the Vulgate) eorum. – The Saints shall rejoice in glory: they shall be joyful in their resting places. The high praises of God shall be in their mouth.”


Finally, the Communion also comes from Wisdom 3, and in fact has the same text as the Offertory of the feast, without the Alleluja at the end; the music, however, is completely different.

“Justórum ánimae in manu Dei sunt, et non tanget illos tormentum malitiae: visi sunt óculis insipientium mori: illi autem sunt in pace. – The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and the torment of malice shall not touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: but they are in peace.”


In the Middle Ages, October 31 was also celebrated in England, France and the Low Countries as the feast of St Quintinus (“Quentin” in English), a Roman who came to Gaul, preached in the area of Amiens, and was martyred at a town which is now named for him. In many parts of Germany, it was the feast of St Wolfgang, bishop of Regensburg in Bavaria. Where one of these or some other feast was kept, two Masses would be celebrated on the day, one of the Saint after Terce, and the other of the vigil after None, with First Vespers of the feast normally following immediately after the second Mass. The vigil of All Saints receives little attention from medieval liturgical commentators such as Sicard of Cremona or William Durandus, but they do note that it was supposed to be kept with a fast, which was not to be broken until after None and Mass, and was not to be dispensed with because of the occurring feast.

The south façade of the basilica of St Quentin. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by René Hourdry; CC BY-SA 4.0)

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