Monday, February 01, 2010

The Station Churches of Septuagesima

The institution of the three Sundays before Lent, Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, is attributed to Pope Saint Gregory the Great, who reigned from 590 to 604. The plague which killed his predecessor, St. Pelagius II, and lead to his election, was only one in a long series of disasters that befell the city of Rome and the Italian peninsula in the course of the sixth century. Constant warfare between the Goths, the Lombards and the Byzantines had brought to ruins much of the former Capital of the World, which in Gregory’s time was also largely abandoned. In the year 546, the Gothic king Totila had expelled most of the inhabitants from the city; small numbers of people returned, but the city would not be properly re-populated for centuries. The introit of the first of these Sundays, Septuagesima, reflects the turbulent and mournful age in which it was composed: “The groans of death have surrounded me, the pains of death have surrounded me, and in my tribulation I called upon the Lord, and he heard my voice from His holy temple.” The theme of calling upon the Lord in a time of tribulation is repeated frequently though the Masses of these Sundays. (Pictured right - a penitential procession lead by St. Gregory the Great, from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry)

The station churches of this pre-Lenten period comprise a series of visits to the tombs of the major patrons of Rome, invoking their aid and protection for the beleaguered city. On Septuagesima, the station is kept at the church of Saint-Lawrence-outside-the-Walls, built over the tomb of the famous deacon and martyr. On Sexagesima, the station is at Saint-Paul’s-outside-the-Walls, and on Quinquagesima at Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, both of which have the tombs of the Apostles for whom they are named under the main altar. On the following Sunday, the first of Lent, the station is at the cathedral of Rome, the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior, commonly called Saint John in the Lateran. The stations of the pre-Lenten period therefore repeat those of the Easter octave in reverse order: Saint John on the Easter vigil, Saint Peter on Easter Monday, Saint Paul on Tuesday and Saint Lawrence on Wednesday. The station at Mary Major for the feast of the Purification, which often falls within the season of Septuagesima, corresponds to the same stational observance on Easter Sunday.

The epistles of the three Masses are chosen in reference to the station churches. On Septuagesima, St. Paul compares the Christian life to the athletic contests of the ancient Romans: “but they contend for a corruptible crown, we for an incorruptible one.” (1 Cor. 9, 24 – 10, 5) From the earliest times, the martyrs have been called the ‘athletae – champions or combatants’ of Christ par excellence, and the word ‘athleta’ is used in countless liturgical Offices. The symbol of victory in the Roman athletic stadium, the palm branch, is still used as a symbol of martyrdom; this epistle is therefore fittingly read at the tomb of St. Lawrence. Over the course of Lent, stations will be kept at four different churches dedicated to this most renowned among Rome’s many martyrs; a great many other churches and chapels, including the private chapel of the Papal household, were dedicated to him in the Middle Ages.

The entrance to the tomb of Saint Lawrence at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura

The epistle of Sexagesima is the longest Sunday epistle of the year. (2 Cor. 11, 19 – 12, 9) The collect of this Mass is one of two in the temporal cycle that refer to the saint in whose honor the stational church is dedicated; it may have been borrowed from a group of collects originally used on the Commemoration of Saint Paul on June 30th, also celebrated with a station at his church. At the tomb of Saint Paul, the Church reads his lengthy apologia for his works as an apostle, in which he recalls the sufferings he has undergone in his mission to proclaim the Gospel. In the Ambrosian rite, this same epistle is read on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29th; the church of Milan seems to have borrowed this reading from the Mass of Sexagesima.

On Quinquagesima, although the station is at St. Peter’s, the epistle is not taken from either of his Biblical letters; rather, the so-called Hymn of Charity from the first Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians is read. (chapter 13) The Vatican is not only the site of Saint Peter’s tomb, but also of his death in the circus of Caligula, in the area on the south side of the Basilica. An ancient tradition tells us that Peter was crucified upside-down at his own request, saying to the Roman executioners that he was unworthy to die in precisely the same manner as the Lord, and wished his cross to be turned so that he might look towards Heaven. This happened in fulfillment of the words of Christ to Peter, “thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another will gird thee, and lead thee where thou wouldst not.” This prophecy was given just after Peter had three times answered the question “Simon, do you love me?” with the answer, “Lord, you know that I love you”, rendering a threefold confession for his threefold denial, as Saint Augustine says. At the place where the sacred relics of the Prince of the Apostles are kept and venerated, it is his fellow Apostle and co-founder of the Roman Church who speaks of the love of God, for the sake of which St. Peter embraced his martyrdom, a stone’s throw away from his tomb.

These same three Roman patron saints, Peter, Paul and Lawrence, were also essential to the transformation of the heart of pagan Rome into a Christian sacred space. The main street of the Roman Forum was called the Via Sacra, the Sacred Way, because it passes by several of the most ancient and notable temples. Close to the Capitoline Hill, from which the great temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus looked down over the city, it comes very close to the Mamertine Prison, where important prisoners awaited judgment and execution. In 141 A.D., the Emperor Antoninus Pius built a new and imposing temple on the Via Sacra about half way through the Forum, in honor of his recently deceased and divinized wife, Faustina; when Antoninus died in 161, he was in due course divinized himself, and added to his wife’s temple.

Saint Justin Martyr and other early Church fathers knew of the tradition that Simon Magus, who sought to buy the power of the Holy Spirit from St. Peter (Acts 8), was in Rome at the same time as the Eternal City’s founding Apostles. The apocryphal Acts of St. Peter tell the story that Simon sought to win the Emperor Nero to his teachings, which he would prove to be true by flying off a tower built in the Forum specifically for this purpose. As he was lifted up into the air by the agency of demons, Peter and Paul knelt on the street and prayed to God, whereon Simon was dropped, and soon after died of his injuries.

The Fall of Simon Magus, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1461-62

The legend goes on to say that the enraged Nero arrested Peter and Paul and threw them into the Mamertine prison before their execution. There they converted the two wardens, Processus and Martinian, in whose acts it is told that St. Peter caused a well to spring up from the ground so that he could baptize them. The site has been venerated as the place of the Apostles’ imprisonment for many centuries, and pilgrims can still visit it to this day; a plaque near the door lists the famous Roman prisoners, such as King Jugurtha of Numidia, who were killed there, the saints who suffered and died within its walls, and the later saints who have come to venerate the site. On the opposite end of the Via Sacra, Pope St. Paul I built an oratory dedicated to Peter and Paul, nicknamed ‘ubi cecidit magus – where the magician fell.’ This oratory contained as its principal relic the stone upon which St. Peter knelt to pray for the defeat of Simon Magus (pictured right) and the vindication of the Christian faith. The oratory was later demolished, but the stone itself is preserved in the nearby church of Santa Maria Nuova. (Photo courtesy of J.P. Sonnen.)

Some of the numerous churches in Rome dedicated to Saint Lawrence are connected with the events of his martyrdom, such as San Lorenzo in Panisperna, which is venerated as the place where he was killed by being grilled over a fire. A tradition of uncertain origin claims that the great deacon-martyr was tried and sentenced to death on the steps of the temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina. Sometime in the seventh or eighth century, the central part of this temple was complete rebuilt and transformed into a church, called San Lorenzo in Miranda.

The Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda, within the temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina

The Mamertine, the Oratory of Ss. Peter and Paul, and San Lorenzo in Miranda are not the first Christian sites in the Roman Forum. Indeed, the church of Saints Cosmas and Damian fronts on the Via Sacra, and was dedicated in 527 A.D., less than twenty years before the depopulation of the city. However, Cosmas and Damian, although highly venerated throughout the Christian world, were Arabians, not Romans, and are depicted as such in their church. The later churches discussed here are particularly important, partly because they are on the Via Sacra, but much more so because they are dedicated to three Roman saints, honoring Peter and Paul on either end of the Forum, and Saint Lawrence right in the middle. Regardless of the truth or falsehood of the legends with which they are associated, by the end of the eighth century, the Sacred Way itself had become sacred to Christ, and to the memory of some of His most illustrious and most Roman ‘athletae’.

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