Thursday, May 14, 2020

Bad Scholarship on the Easter Vigil

In the course of some research, I recently stumbled across an article published in the Revue Bénédictine in 1967 by one Charles Coebergh, entitled “The readings of the Apostle for Easter and their vicissitudes.” (Les lectures de l’Apôtre pour Pâques et leurs vicissitudes.) Although the thesis which it proposes was not wholly original, it makes for an interesting demonstration of the dire state of liturgical scholarship at the time of the post-Conciliar reform.

Its premise is that at Rome, there was originally only one Mass of Easter, that of the vigil, which was celebrated in the night at the Lateran basilica, and included the administration of baptism to the catechumens. The separate Mass of Easter Sunday, with its station at St Mary Major, would therefore have been instituted later. This idea is mentioned in the commentary on the 1955 Holy Week reform which Frs Annibale Bugnini and Carlo Braga published in Ephemerides Liturgicae 11 years before Coebergh, citing a 1942 article about the two Masses by E. Moeller.

Coebergh’s article is specifically concerned with the Epistles of these two Masses; he bases his case on their content, without citing Moeller or any other work on the subject. The Epistle of the vigil is Colossians 3, 1-4, that of the Sunday is 1 Corinthians 5, 7-8, and he claims that of these two, the second is clearly more suitable as a conclusion to the rites of baptismal initiation. It must therefore have been the one read originally read at the sole Mass of Easter, the vigil, which lasted through the night and ended on Sunday morning.

Folio 62v of the so-called lectionary of Alcuin, a manuscript of the 9th century whose contents represent the state of the lectionary in the pontificate of Pope Honorius I (625-38). The reading which begins in the middle of the page is the Epistle of the Easter vigil Mass, Colossians 3, 1-4; the Epistle of Easter Sunday, 1 Corinthians 5, 7-8, is on the next page. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 9452)
In support of this theory, he cites a letter of Pope St Siricius (384-99) to Himerius, bishop of Tarragon in Spain (PL XIII, 1131B-1148A), which inter alia addresses the bishop’s question about the appropriate days for the administration of baptism. The Pope assets that the only such days are Easter and Pentecost, and that the sacrament should be given “only to those of the elect who forty days previously or more put in their names, and were purified by exorcisms and daily prayers and fasts; so that the apostolic precept may be fulfilled, that, the old leaven being purged out, there may begin to be a new sprinkling.” (1 Cor. 5, 7, the beginning of the traditional Epistle of Easter Sunday.) This suggests, according to Coebergh, that at the end of the 4th century, this reading was done at the Easter vigil, as part of the baptismal ceremony par excellence.

He then acknowledges at once that there do not exist any Roman liturgical books of this period, and recognizes that his argument therefore cannot be fully proved. Later on, he also notes that all of the oldest surviving Roman liturgical books which attest to the readings of Easter have the Epistle from Colossians 3 on the vigil, and 1 Corinthians 5 on Sunday, and he claims that the first of these has nothing about it that is appropriate for the neophytes. (It is in fact the case that all Roman liturgical books as far back as we have them attest to the two Masses.)

In order to show that the reading from 1 Corinthians 5 is more appropriate for the Easter vigil, Coeburgh then lists four Gallican liturgical sources which place it at that ceremony, stating that “their agreement is all the more significant, since they belong to four different regions.” (Northern Italy, 7th century; southern Gaul, 8th century; Spain, mid-11th century; Germany, 2nd half of the 8th century). This would have been a good place to mention that at least three of these sources [1] also agree in having a Mass for Easter Sunday separate from that of the vigil, which is in fact a universal custom of Christian worship, also attested at Jerusalem by Pope Siricius’ contemporary, the pilgrim Egeria. It would have also been apposite to mention that the Spanish source, a Mozarabic lectionary, gives two different sets of readings for Holy Saturday, one for Mass in parishes, and the other for the baptismal vigil in a cathedral; in the first one, the Epistle is Colossians 3, 1-3.

Folio 46v of an 8th century codex of the epistles of St Paul from the city of Freising in Germany, the fourth of the Gallican sources cited by Coebergh in his article. The marginal notation next to the left column, about half way down, says “primi pascha die dominico ad missa - of the first (day of) Easter, on Sunday at the Mass.” (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 6229.)
Apart from this failure to accurately report the contents of the sources, which seems difficult to justify, Coebergh’s argument also seems to me extremely weak as a matter of literary criticism. The Easter vigil was the culmination of the catechumens’ preparation for baptism, but it was not the last liturgy geared to them; on Easter itself and during the week that followed, all historical Christian liturgies had special rites for the neophytes, as they were called after baptism. I have elsewhere described the Roman arrangement of the station churches for the octave of Easter, and the many references to the neophytes in the texts of its Masses. Pope Siricius’ citation of 1 Corinthians 5 could just as well be read as a reference to Easter Sunday as the first day in which the newly baptized “begin to be a new sprinkling.”

As to the specific contents of the readings, it seems perfectly obvious that they are both wholly appropriate for the liturgical occasions on which they are traditionally read in the Roman Rite. The Epistle of the vigil is as follows.

“If you have risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God: mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ shall appear, who is your life, then you also shall appear with him in glory.”

How would the newly baptized have heard this at the Mass of the Easter vigil? “If you have risen with Christ”, as you did about an hour ago when you were baptized, “seek the things that are above etc. When Christ shall appear, who is your life”, as He will in the morning, when we celebrate the Easter Sunday Mass, which starts with the words, “I have risen and am yet with ye.” “Then you also shall appear with him in glory,” when you come to church in the morning, wearing the white baptismal robes which the catechumens wore for the whole week at the stational Masses of Easter.

The Baptistery of St John in the Lateran in Rome, photographed by William Henry Goodyear (1846-1923); from the Brooklyn Museum archives via Wikimedia Commons.
Likewise, this is the full Epistle of Easter Sunday. “Purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new paste (or ‘sprinkling’) [2], as you are unleavened. For Christ our pasch is sacrificed. Therefore let us feast, not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” It has long been a habit of liturgical scholars to forget that while there are certainly many aspects of the Lenten and Easter liturgies that are designed for the catechumens, they were not the only ones to participate in those rites. This Epistle, one of only three places outside the Gospels in which the New Testament uses the word “pascha” [3], serves as a reminder to the whole community, which has been fasting for six weeks, to keep the great feast as Christians should, but not to overdo things now that the fast is over, and the Easter season, in which fasting is prohibited, has begun.

In and of itself, this is a relatively minor issue, although we may note in passing that Coebergh’s theory or some other version of it seems to have been applied to the lectionary in the post-Conciliar reform. The Epistle from Colossians 3 has been moved from the Easter vigil to the feast, where it stands alongside the traditional reading as one of two options. Furthermore, the Easter vigil’s historical character has been mostly erased, and it has been turned into a first Mass of Easter on the analogy of the first Mass of Christmas.

However, the premise that underlies all of this is far more significant, namely, that the “original” Roman liturgy is not to be found in those customs or principles which are attested in every liturgical book from the very oldest until 1969. It is to be found, rather, in scholarly reconstructions based on sources that were either misunderstood or willfully misrepresented, and personal impressions of how things “must” have been. In an age in which “original” was a word to conjure with, too much of the Roman Church’s authentic liturgical patrimony was thrown out on the basis of such theories. The day must come when these mistakes are acknowledged and put right, and there is nothing to be gained by delaying it.

[1] Of the four sources which he gives, the first, Vat. Lat. 5575, is available for electronic consultation on the website of the Vatican library, but only with a low quality scan made from an earlier microfilm. It is extremely different to read, and I was not able to verify whether it also attests to a separate Mass for Easter Sunday.

[2] The Greek word φύραμα, “mixture, paste” is translated into Latin as “conspersio” or “consparsio”, “a sprinkling, a paste.” A commentary on the Epistles of St Paul, and long falsely ascribed to St Ambrose, but contemporary with him, explains this as a symbol of the replacement of human teachings with those of Christ.

[3] The other two, Acts 12, 4 and Hebrews 11, 28, are glancing references which would not make an appropriate reading for Easter.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: