Thursday, March 31, 2011

An Important Liturgical Reform of the Eighth Century

Prior to the first part of the eighth century, the church of Rome shared the custom of Byzantium and Milan in abstaining from the celebration of Mass on a regular basis during Lent; all of the Thursdays of Lent were “aliturgical”, (with the obvious exception of Holy Thursday,) as were the Saturday before the first Sunday of Lent, and the Saturday before Palm Sunday. (The term aliturgical refers, of course, only to the Eucharistic liturgy, not to the Divine Office.) The Würzburg Lectionary, the oldest surviving lectionary of the Roman Rite, represents the Roman tradition of the mid-seventh century, and contains the oldest list of Lenten Stations; in it, we find no stations or readings appointed for these days.

The collection of papal biographies called the Liber Pontificalis tells us that Pope St. Gregory II (715-731) changed this custom, “establish(ing) that on Thursday in the Lenten season there should be a fast and the solemn celebration of Mass, which the blessed Pope Melchiades (311-314) had prohibited.” Under Melchiades himself, it is also noted that “the blessed Gregory (the Great) in arranging the offices (i.e. liturgies) left Thursday within Lent empty.” This is the reason why even in the Missal of St. Pius V, the masses of the Thursdays of Lent have no proper chant parts, borrowing their introits, graduals, offertories and communions from other masses; the respect for the tradition codified by Gregory the Great was such that it was deemed better not to add new pieces to the established repertoire. The two formerly aliturgical Saturdays, on the other hand, simply repeat the Gregorian propers from the previous day, indicating that their masses were added by a different Pope.

The question naturally arises, however, as to why the Pope felt the need to change the long-standing tradition. The answer seems to be in the controversies between the Popes of that era and the Byzantine Emperors over the Quinisext Synod. The peculiar name of this assembly, “Fifth-Sixth”, derives from its purpose, to supplement the work of the fifth and sixth ecumenical councils, which had both adjourned without issuing any disciplinary decrees. In 692, twelve years after the sixth ecumenical council ended, it met in Constantinople in the same domed hall, or “trullo”, as the previous assembly, whence its more common name in English, “the Synod in Trullo”.

In the ancient church, regional councils were free to legislate for themselves, and could expect from the Apostolic See broad tolerance of most local customs and traditions. The Synod in Trullo, however, was called by the Emperor Justinian II to legislate for the whole Church, without reference to the Pope; even the one bishop present from the territory of the Latin Patriarchate was a Greek. Like many Byzantine emperors of that era, Justinian did not believe that his absolute rule ended at the church’s doors; when Pope Sergius I refused to approve or recognize either the council or its canons, Justinian would have forced him to do so by arresting him and bringing him to Constantinople, as another emperor had done less than 40 years earlier to Pope St. Martin I. Unlike Martin, who died of the rigors of his exile and is venerated as the last martyred pope, Sergius was spared such violence by a popular uprising against the official sent to arrest him, and the deposition of Justinian three years later.

The anti-Roman force of the Trullan decrees has at times been exaggerated, but some of the canons are clearly criticisms of the church of Rome and its customs; for example, canon 55 pretends to impose the Eastern law of fasting in Lent upon Rome itself. “Since… in the city of the Romans, in the holy fast of Lent they fast on the Saturdays, contrary to the ecclesiastical observance which is traditional, it seemed good to the holy synod that also in the church of the Romans the canon shall immovably stands fast which (prohibits fasting on Saturday).” Most famously, this synod was also the occasion on which the church of Byzantium ruled that married men might enter the clergy without separating from their wives; this decree is framed in canon 13 in opposition to the “…rule of the Roman Church that those who are deemed worthy to be advanced to the diaconate or presbyterate should promise no longer to live with their wives.” Canons 12 and 48 maintain the discipline that bishops shall not be married, but the former also speaks of deposing bishops who violate the canon, mentioning specifically those in Africa and Libya, who are part of the Latin Patriarchate, not that of Constantinople.

Pope Sergius’ response to the synod was not only his refusal to recognize or approve it, in defiance of the emperor. He also added the Agnus Dei to the Mass, and the great scholar Msgr. Louis Duchesne rightly points out that this was probably done in part as “a protest against canon 82 of the Synod in Trullo, which forbade the symbolic representation of the Savior in the form of a Lamb.” (in his critical edition of the Liber Pontificalis, quoted in the Catholic Encyclopedia under “Agnus Dei”.) At the same time, St. Sergius added to the church of Ss. Cosmas and Damian, where the Station is held today, a mosaic arch in front of the older mosaic apse.

In it we see an image of the Lamb of God solemnly enthroned at the top, sitting on the same type of jeweled throne which, 250 years earlier, had been used for the Cross itself at St. Mary Major.

Detail of the central part of the mosaic of the triumphal arch of Ss. Cosmas and Damian.
Photograph courtesy of Bro. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

The same motif as it appears at Saint Mary Major.

The mosaics of Ss. Cosmas and Damian. Apse made under Pope St. Felix IV (526-30), triumphal arch under Pope Sergius I (687-701). Photograph courtesy of Bro. Lawrence Lew. O.P.

All of the imagery surrounding the Lamb is taken from the Apocalypse, the only book of the New Testament which is never read in the Byzantine Liturgy, even to this day: the seven candlesticks from chapter 1, the scroll with the seven seals from chapter 5, the angels with censers from chapter 8. The Lamb Himself is first spoken of in chapter 5; in the previous chapter, the twenty-four elders lay their crowns before the throne of God. These elders were also originally present in the mosaic in Ss. Cosmas and Damian, but were obliterated during a 17th century restoration; they are still present, however, in the mosaic arch at Santa Prassede, which faithfully copies the program of the mosaics at Cosmas and Damian. It would appear, then, that the entire program of the latter's arch was conceived of as a response to the Synod in Trullo and the customs of the Byzantines.

The mosaics of the sanctuary of Santa Prassede, made under Pope Paschal I (817-24),
reproducing the motifs of the two mosaics in Ss. Cosmas and Damian.

Before his election to the Papacy, Gregory II had served the church of Rome under four Popes. Ordained a subdeacon by Sergius I, in 710 he accompanied Pope Constantine on a year-long visit to the imperial capital, and negotiated a compromise with the reinstated Justinian II on Rome’s acceptance of the Trullan decrees. This compromise was probably no more than an agreement to disagree; neither Rome nor Byzantium changed its mind or policy on any of the disputed points. Two months after their departure, Justinian was deposed and executed; he was succeeded first by an active supporter of the heresy condemned at the sixth ecumenical council, and then, after two very brief reigns, by Leo III, the inventor of Iconoclasm. As the latter initiated a brutal persecution which gave many martyrs to the Church, relations between him and the Pope deteriorated; in a famous letter, Gregory writes “It grieves us that the savages and barbarians are becoming tame, while you, the civilized, are becoming barbarous.” (The “savages” are the peoples of northern Europe, then being converted to Christianity by St. Boniface, who was sent to Germany by Gregory himself.)

In such a climate of tension between the Pope and Emperor, the institution of the Lenten Masses of Thursday should probably be seen as another rejection of Byzantine practice as established at the Synod in Trullo under Justinian II; according to canon 52, “On all days of the holy fast of Lent, except on the Sabbath, the Lord's day and the holy day of the Annunciation, the Liturgy of the Presanctified is to be said.” Since the Byzantine council had established that the Mass not be celebrated on the ferial, fasting days of Lent, Gregory II all but abolished the practice in Rome. It is likely not a coincidence, therefore, that Station appointed for one of these new Thursday Masses, that of the third week, should be at the church of Ss. Cosmas and Damian, which his honored predecessor Sergius had already decorated with works of the same anti-Byzantine stamp.

Although the points of discipline disputed by Rome and Byzantium in the seventh century remain such to a great degree in our own time, the short-lived détente first worked out in 710 between St. Gregory II and Justinian II has in some ways returned. While the Roman Rite refrains from the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice only on Good Friday, Catholics of the Byzantine Rite, in accordance with the perennial custom of their churches, do so throughout the Lenten season. For this reason, even in Rome itself one can attend the extraordinarily beautiful ceremony known as the Liturgy of the Presanctified in the churches and colleges of the oriental Rites.

The Liturgy of the Presanctified at the Pontifical Russian College.

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