Monday, December 23, 2013

St. Anastasia and the Second Mass of Christmas

It has always struck me as a charming and poignant detail that the commemoration of the ancient martyr Saint Anastasia takes place at the second Mass of Christmas, the Mass at Dawn (Introit Lux fulgebit). One might think: This is Christmas, one of the principal feasts of the liturgical year -- no time for thinking about saints! And yet, we have here a gentle, persistent reminder that if our Lord Jesus Christ is "the light [that] shall shine upon us this day," the saints are the garment of light He wears about Him, the radiant beams that shine from His holy face. We are reminded, too, that we are members of a family in which our Lord is the firstborn of many brethren, and that we need our older brothers and sisters to pray for us as we approach so bright and burning a light:
     Grant us, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that we on whom the new light of Thine Incarnate Word is poured, may show forth in our works that brightness, which now doth illuminate our minds by faith. Through the same Lord...
     Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that we who devoutly keep the Feast of blessed Anastasia, Thy Martyr, may feel the effects of her pleadings with Thee. Through our Lord...
We have here also a sign of how willing our ancestors were to take things together in their real-life complexity, and how conservative they were about retaining what had developed over time. According to her passio, St. Anastasia was beheaded on December 25, and so great was the devotion to her that we simply had to remember her, even on the feast of the Nativity itself. All the way down to the 1962 Missal we find her commemorated at the Mass of Dawn.

Of course, the place we most often encounter St. Anastasia is in the Roman Canon, in the second series of saints mentioned at the "Nobis quoque peccatoribus." In the years when I was first immersing myself in the traditional Roman Rite and savoring each new discovery I made, I distinctly remember how much these lists of saints meant to me: pondering these names of God's friends was such a comforting and familiar touch: I felt that I was in their presence begging to be counted among them, that invoking them by name brought them close and somehow collapsed the distance between the Church right now and the Church at the time of her miraculous birth upon the stage of the world.

Around that time, I heard a talk given by Fr. Cassian Folsom, OSB, the Prior of the Monastero di San Bendetto in Norcia, about the numerological symbolism contained in the saints of the Roman Canon. I was therefore delighted to see that Fr. Cassian preached on this very subject this past Solemnity of All Saints. Hence, in honor of Saint Anastasia and all her companions in this venerable anaphora, I present part of Father Prior's meditation. The whole homily may be found here.
     How many saints are there?  The first reading which we just heard, from the book of Revelation, speaks of 144,000.  That’s it?  It doesn’t seem like that many!  The text then explains how it arrived at that total.  There are 12,000 people in each of the twelve tribes of Israel.  The symbolism is clear.  Twelve is a mystical number which means totality and completeness.  If we were to indicate a large number of completeness, we would say “12” twice.  Even in Italian, words are repeated to underline their importance:  “pian, piano” means “go really slowly.”  (Think of the Gospels, when our Lord says “Amen, Amen, I say to you”; what He’s about to say is important!)  Therefore, “twelve by twelve” is a way to express a really large, important number.  And what if we were to go over and above, and indicate an astronomically large number?  The ancients would indicate this concept adding the number 1,000.  Therefore, “12” is already large.  “12 by 12” or 144 is a really big number.  But, 144,000 is a number so big that it’s almost impossible to count.
     The Roman Canon uses the same numerology.  There are two lists of saints in the Roman Canon.  Count with me those listed before the consecration.  First, there are the apostles:
          Peter and Paul,
          Andrew, James,
          John, Thomas,
          James, Philip,
          Bartholomew, Matthew,
          Simon and Jude. (12)
 There are twelve saints.  Next, the martyrs:
          Linus, Cletus,
          Clement, Sixtus,
          Cornelius, Cyprian,
          Lawrence, Chrysogonus,
          John and Paul,
          Cosmas and Damian. (12)
How many saints are named?  12 and 12 – which multiplied together makes 144. Completeness, totality, all of the saints.
     Now, let’s count those named in the second list, following the consecration.  John the Baptist gets mentioned first because of his unique relationship to the Church in Rome.  In fact, the Cathedral of Rome is the Basilica of St. John the Lateran, not St. Peter’s Basilica.  So, after St. John the Baptist, the head of the choir of saints, two groups of saints follow, a list of male saints and a list of female saints.  Let’s count them:
          Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter. (7)
          Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia. (7)
     Seven men and seven women.  The number seven, just like the number 12, means perfection, fullness.  Therefore, the second list, just like the first, means “All of the saints”, a huge multitude, which no one can really count…the communion of saints.  Many saints have a feast day in the liturgical calendar, and still others have their name etched in the martyrology, but don’t have a special feast day.  Finally, there are still many unknown saints – or rather, those who are only known to God. 
The full homily is available here.

A beautiful meditation on the saints of the Roman Canon, by Rev. Nicholas Gihr (1918), is available here.

Last but not least, Shawn Tribe published two NLM articles on these saints: part 1, part 2.

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