Monday, April 16, 2012

The Station Churches of the Easter Octave

For the newly baptized Christians of the church of Rome, the octave of Easter was the culmination of both their baptismal preparation, and of the seven-week long series of stational visits that brought them and the Pope to most of the important churches of the city.

The station of the Easter vigil is of course at the cathedral of Rome, the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior, where the Popes also resided from the time of the Emperor Constantine until the beginning of the 14th century. The city’s main baptistery, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, still stands behind the church where Constantine first built it, one of the few surviving parts of the once very large complex of structures that surrounded the Lateran Basilica. (Like the cathedral itself, it has been rebuilt and renovated several times.) After hearing their final set lessons from the Old Testament, the twelve prophecies sung after the Exsultet, the catechumens would process with the Pope and clergy to the baptistery; there the waters of the font were blessed, and the catechumens finally received the sacrament by which they were “buried together with (Christ) into death; that as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life”. (Romans 6, 4) As a symbol of the new life into which they had just entered, they were then clothed in white garments; they would wear these at Mass each day of the Easter octave, and at Vespers, which they attended daily at the Lateran.

A view of the Lateran Baptistery from within the colonnade that surrounds the font in the center, showing the various phases of its building and restoration. The colonnade itself was made in the fifth century of ancient materials despoiled from various structures; the window shows the crest of Pope Urban VIII Barberini, (1623-44), who also restored the lantern; next to it on the left is a portrait of Carlo Card. Rezzonico, Archpriest of the Lateran Basilica from 1780-81, and nephew of Pope Clement XIII; the paintings above are modern copies of originals by Andrea Sacchi (1599-1661). Photograph courtesy of Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.
Having begun the celebration of Easter at a church dedicated to the Savior, the six stations that follow form a hierarchical itinerary of visits to the Roman churches of the most important Saints. In other seasons, the stations are often determined by the liturgical texts, particularly the scriptural lessons, which in many cases were part of the lectionary well before the legalization of Christianity and the building of public churches. In the case of Easter and its octave, the hierarchical nature of this itinerary established the order of the stations, and many of the liturgical texts were then chosen in reference to them.

On Easter Sunday, the Mass is held at St. Mary Major, the Virgin’s most ancient Roman church, a short distance from the Lateran; the Mass is wholly occupied with the Resurrection, and contains no reference to the Queen of all the Saints. This silence is fitting, for the Gospels themselves do not tell us when the risen Christ first appeared to Her. Over the next three days, the newly-baptized were brought to the tombs of Rome’s three principal patron Saints, the Apostles Peter and Paul, and the martyr St. Lawrence; the three churches that keep their sacred relics are also grouped together in the stational observances of Septuagesima, the very beginning of that part of the temporal cycle which is formed around Easter.

The Mass of Easter Monday contains several references to St. Peter, the first being the Introit, from Exodus 13: “The Lord has brought you into a land that floweth with milk and honey, alleluia, that also the law of the Lord may be always in your mouth, alleluia, alleluia.” In their original context, these words are spoken by Moses to the children of Israel, who have been delivered from the land of slavery and bondage. The Exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea have been understood by the Church from the earliest times as symbols of the soul’s delivery from sin and death in the sacrament of Baptism. In the New Testament, St. Peter is the first to preach and exhort the people to receive Baptism, at the very first Pentecost (Acts 2, 37-41); in early Christian art, therefore, he is often depicted as the new Moses, and shown making water run from a rock as Moses did in the desert. The “law of the Lord… always in your mouth” refers to the new Law given to the Church by Christ to replace the Mosaic Law; this is the basis of another common scene in early Christian art in which St. Peter also figures prominently, the “traditio Legis – handing down of the Law.”
The “traditio Legis” scene depicted on a sarcophagus in the Vatican Museums’ Pio-Christian collection; note the streams of water flowing from the rock between Peter and Paul.
This oblique reference to the “traditio Legis”, in which the Church receives its new Law from Christ through St. Peter, also determines the choice of the Epistle, Acts 10, 37-43. Here Peter testifies to the Resurrection before the Roman Cornelius, no ordinary gentile, but a centurion, and as such, a representative of the might of the empire which then ruled over the Holy Land. Peter speaks in the house of a Jew, Simon the tanner, but to a mixed crowd of Jews and Roman pagans, right after the vision of the clean and unclean animals in the linen sheet; by this vision, it is revealed to him not only that the Mosaic dietary laws are now laid aside, but also that no man shall be called common or unclean. Those among the newly-baptized who still felt themselves close to their Jewish roots were thus reminded by this reading that they were no longer obliged to observe the Law of Moses, while those of pagan origin were reminded that they were not second-class citizens within the Church. “There is neither Jew nor Greek … for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you be Christ’s, then are you the seed of Abraham, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3, 28-29) The Communion antiphon of the Mass then also refers to Peter, in the words of the day’s Gospel, St. Luke 24, 13-35, “The Lord has risen, and hath appeared to Simon, alleluia.”

The Introit of Tuesday’s Mass also clearly refers to the Saint at whose church the station is kept. As the Pope comes to the tomb of St. Paul, the “vessel of election, to carry (Jesus’) name before the gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel”, the Church sings “He gave them the water of wisdom to drink, alleluia; he shall be made strong in them, and he shall not be moved, alleluia: he shall exalt them forever, alleluia, alleluia.” In the Epistle from Acts 13, St. Paul preaches the Resurrection in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia.
And when they had fulfilled all things that were written of Him, taking Him down from the tree, they laid Him in a sepulcher. But God raised Him up from the dead the third day: Who was seen for many days, by them who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who to this present (day) are His witnesses to the people. And we declare unto you, that the promise which was made to our fathers, this same God hath fulfilled to our children, raising up Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Each day of the Easter octave, the first part of the Gradual is the same verse of Psalm 117, “This is the day which the Lord hath made: let us be glad and rejoice therein.” The verse, however, changes daily, and on this day is taken from Psalm 106: “Let them say so that have been redeemed by the Lord, whom He hath redeemed from the hand of the enemy, and gathered out of the countries.” St. Paul himself was such a one, redeemed from the hand of the enemy whose purposes he served when he persecuted the Church; and by his work, many were gathered from the nations of the world. The Alleluia verse that follows looks back to the first words of the Epistle cited above, “The Lord hath risen from the sepulcher, even He who for us hung upon the tree.” The Communion antiphon then cites the Epistle of St. Paul which is sung at the Mass of the Easter vigil: “If you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above; where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, alleluia: mind the things that are above, alleluia.” (Colossians 3, 1-2)

Detail of Michelangelo’s Conversion of Saul in the Capella Farnese, Vatican City (1542-5)
In the Mass of Wednesday at the tomb of St. Lawrence, the Introit is taken from the Old Latin version of the Gospel of the first Monday of Lent, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, receive ye the kingdom, alleluia, which was prepared for you from the beginning of the world, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” These words are spoken by Christ in Matthew 25 to those who practice the corporal works of mercy, doing to Him whatever they do to even the least of His brethren. This was indeed the work of St. Lawrence, who was placed in charge of the Roman church’s charitable funds by Pope St. Sixtus II in the mid-3rd century. When ordered to hand over to the Romans the riches of the Church, Lawrence distributed everything at his disposal to the poor, whom he then brought to the house of the city prefect, saying, “These are the riches of the Church.”
Detail of Fra Angelico’s St. Lawrence Distributing Alms in the Capella Niccolina, Vatican City (1447-9)
In this same Mass, St. Peter also figures prominently once again. The Epistle is taken from the speech which he makes to the crowds after healing the paralytic at the Beautiful Gate, (Acts 3, 13-15 and 17-19), the Alleluia repeats the words of the Communion antiphon of Monday, cited above, and the Gospel, John 21, 1-14, tells of the appearance of the Lord to Peter and several of the other Apostles at the sea of Tiberias. The liturgy appropriately celebrates the witness of the first Pope to the Resurrection at the tomb of a martyr who served so nobly under a successor of Peter in the see of Rome.

On Thursday, the church commemorates the whole of the “glorious choir of the Apostles” at the basilica dedicated to them, also the station church of the four Ember Fridays. It was originally dedicated only to Ss. Philip and James, whose relics are kept in the large crypt beneath the main altar. The Apostle Philip was often confused with the deacon Philip (Acts 6, 5) who evangelized Samaria and converted the eunuch of the Queen of Ethiopia, (Acts 8, 5-14 and 26-40); as we find, for example, in book 3, 31 of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. This is certainly part of the reason why the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is read at this Mass. It is also a reminder that the Apostles instituted the diaconate under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to help their evangelizing mission, and that the true preachers of the Gospel are those sent by them and their successors, the bishops of the Catholic Church.

Philip the Deacon Catechizes the Ethiopian Eunuch, from a illustrated Bible by Jean de Tournes père, Lyons, 1558. Image courtesy of the Pitts Theological Library, Candler School of Theology at Emory University.
The Introit of this Mass is taken from the tenth chapter of the book of Wisdom, commenting on the Exodus: “They praised with one accord thy victorious hand, o Lord, alleluia; for wisdom opened the mouth of the dumb, and made the tongues of infants eloquent, alleluia, alleluia.” On Monday, the Church has sung of Baptism as the new Exodus, and Peter as the new Moses; today, she celebrates the unified witness to the Resurrection of all the Apostles together, whose “sound hath gone forth into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.” (Psalm 18) The “tongues of the dumb” here are those of the Apostles, which at the time of His Passion kept silent and betrayed Him, though they swore they would die with Him; in the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, they are made eloquent before all nations in their fearless preaching, for the sake of which they were all eventually martyred. The Offertory of this Mass also looks back to the Mass of Monday, partly repeating the words of its Introit, “On the day of your solemnity, sayeth the Lord, I will being you into the land that floweth with milk and honey, alleluia.”

In a number of early Christian sarcophagi, the Apostles are shown standing together around the Chi-Rho monogram, the symbol of Christ’s victory, and offering crowns in homage; the two soldiers kneeling before it are the symbol of His triumph over death and the devil. (Arles, later 4th century)
Alongside the Apostles, the martyrs were held in special honor among the early Christians; their feasts are the oldest and most universal in the early liturgical calendars, and the first among them, St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents, are celebrated immediately after the birth of Christ. It was anciently the custom in some places to commemorate those who have shared most especially in the Passion and Resurrection with a collective feast on the Friday of Easter Week, a custom still kept by Chaldean Christians. For this reason, the Roman station is held the same day in the ancient building known as the Pantheon, dedicated as a church with the name “St. Mary at the Martyrs” in 609 A.D.

The Pantheon, by Ippolito Caffi, first half of the 19th century
There is very good reason to believe that the Pantheon was not in point of fact a temple at all. (See Amanda Claridge’s Rome: An Oxford Archeological Guide, p. 206 of the 1998 edition.) Nevertheless, it was believed by early medieval Christians to have been a temple of all the countless gods of pagan Rome; its dedication as a church was therefore understood to have re-founded it as a monument to the triumph of Christianity over every pagan cult and superstition at once. This idea fits well with the stational Mass’ Gospel, Matthew 28, 16-20, and the Communion antiphon taken from it: “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth, alleluia; go and teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, alleluia, alleluia.”

On Saturday, the station was kept once again at the Lateran, eight days after the station of Holy Saturday. The Mass of the Easter vigil is not traditionally a first Mass of Easter, as the midnight Mass of December 24th is the first Mass of Christmas; it is a vigil, a keeping watch for the Resurrection, which is not truly revealed in the liturgy until the morning of Sunday. For this reason, the vigil Mass is textually incomplete; the Introit, Creed, Offertory and Agnus Dei are all omitted, the Alleluia which is said after the Epistle is nothing like the normal Alleluia said between the readings, and the Communion antiphon is substituted by Vespers. The Mass of Low Saturday, therefore, brings the Church back to the Archbasilica of the Holy Savior to celebrate Easter with the fullest solemnity on the octave day of Holy Saturday.

The Epistle of the Mass (1 Peter 2, 1-10) describes the baptized as “newly born infants”, words which are repeated in the Introit of the following day, when they would put off the white garments which they had worn throughout the week and take their place among the rest of the faithful. The Communion antiphon of the Mass is the same text sung by the Byzantines at the Easter vigil before the Epistle: “All ye who have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ, alleluia.”
Fragments of medieval Agnus Dei’s in the Vatican Museums’ collection of relics from the Sancta Sanctorum. These were traditionally distributed by the Pope on the Saturday of Easter Week at the stational Mass.
The final station, that of Low Sunday, is the only one kept at the Basilica of St. Pancras, an orphan who was martyred in Rome during the persecution of Diocletian at the age of fourteen. In the Roman world, this was roughly the earliest age at which a young man could receive the toga virilis, which signified that he was now entering adulthood. Thus, the white garments of spiritual infancy were laid aside at the tomb of one who gave his life for Christ when he had just become an adult, and legally capable of being killed for his faith. Over the course of Lent, the catechumens had visited the churches of many different martyrs; on the day they become adults within the Church, they are reminded that although they are just at the very beginning of their spiritual adulthood, they must give their whole lives to Christ, who gave His own for the salvation of the world.
The altar of San Pancrazio decorated for Mass on Low Sunday, following the common Polish custom of draping a stole over the Crucifix in Eastertide.

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