Friday, July 01, 2016

Vespers of the Precious Blood

Although the feast of the Precious Blood is very new to the general Calendar, added in 1849 by Bl. Pius IX, the exegetical tradition behind some of its liturgical texts is very ancient indeed. Here I will focus on the antiphons sung with the Psalms of Vespers, four of which are taken from Isaiah chapter 63, and one from Apocalypse 19, both passages long associated with the Passion of Christ and the Redemption effected by it.

The high altar of the Jesuit church in Mindelheim, Germany, with the motif of Christ in the wine-press on the antependium. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Thomas Mirtsch
Aña Who is this that * cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? this one, that is comely in His apparel.  Isa. 63, 1
Aña I that speak * justice, and am a defender unto saving.  ibid.
Aña He was clothed * with a garment sprinkled with blood, and His name is called The Word of God.  Apoc. 19, 13
Aña Wherefore then * is Thy apparel red, and thy garments as of them that tread in the wine-press?  Isa. 63, 2
Aña I have trodden * the wine-press alone, and of the nations there was no man with Me.  Isa. 63, 3

The passage from Isaiah is traditionally the first of two Old Testament readings on Spy Wednesday, when the station is held at St. Mary Major. In the middle of Holy Week, as the Church of Rome commemorates Christ’s Passion, and visits its principle sanctuary of the Mother of God, this Mass begins with a prophecy of the Incarnation, which took place in Mary’s sacred womb. The full reading is Isaiah 63, 1-7, preceded by a part of verse 62, 11.
Thus sayeth the Lord God: Tell the daughter of Sion: Behold thy Savior cometh: behold his reward is with him. 63, 1 Who is this that comes from Edom, with dyed garments from Bosra, this beautiful one in his robe, walking in the greatness of his strength? I, that speak justice, and am a defender to save. Why then is your apparel red, and your garments like theirs that tread in the winepress? I have trodden the winepress alone, and of the gentiles there is not a man with me: I have trampled on them in my indignation, and have trodden them down in my wrath, and their blood is sprinkled upon my garments, and I have stained all my apparel. etc.
The Fathers of the Church understood this passage as a prophecy of the Passion of Christ, starting in the West with Tertullian.
The prophetic Spirit contemplates the Lord as if He were already on His way to His passion, clad in His fleshly nature; and as He was to suffer therein, He represents the bleeding condition of His flesh under the metaphor of garments dyed in red, as if reddened in the treading and crushing process of the wine-press, from which the laborers descend reddened with the wine-juice, like men stained in blood. (Adv. Marcionem 4, 40 ad fin.)
This connection of these words with the Lord’s Passion is repeated in very similar terms by St. Cyprian (Ep. ad Caecilium 62), who always referred to Tertullian as “the Master”, despite his lapse into the Montanist heresy; and likewise, by Saints Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechesis 13, 27) and Gregory of Nazianzus (Oration 45, 25.)

The necessary premise of the Passion is, of course, the Incarnation, for Christ could not suffer without a human body. Indeed, ancient heretics who denied the Incarnation often did so in rejection of the idea that God Himself can suffer, which they held to be incompatible with the perfect and incorruptible nature of the divine. St. Ambrose was elected bishop of Milan in the year 374, after the see had been held by one such heretic, the Arian Auxentius, for twenty years. We therefore find him referring this same prophecy to the whole economy of salvation, culminating in the Ascension of Christ’s body into heaven, thus, in the treatise on the Mysteries (7, 36):
The angels, too, were in doubt when Christ arose; the powers of heaven were in doubt when they saw that flesh was ascending into heaven. Then they said: “Who is this King of glory?” And while some said “Lift up your gates, O princes, and be lifted up, you everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in.” In Isaiah, too, we find that the powers of heaven doubted and said: “Who is this that comes up from Edom, the redness of His garments is from Bosor, He who is glorious in white apparel?”
In the next generation, St Eucherius of Lyon (ca. 380-450) is even more explicit: “The garment of the Son of God is sometimes understood to be His flesh, which is assumed by the divinity; of which garment of the flesh Isaiah prophesying says, ‘Who is this etc.’ ” (Formulas of Spiritual Understanding, chapter 1).
The Risen Christ and the Mystical Winepress, by Marco dal Pino, often called Marco da Siena, 1525-1588 ca. Both of the figures of Christ in this painting show very markedly the influence of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.
In his Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah (book 18) St Jerome explicitly connects this passage with St John’s vision in Apocalypse 19.
John also in the Apocalypse bears witness that he saw these things: “I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called faithful and true, and with justice doth he judge and fight. And his eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many diadems, and he had a name written, which no man knoweth but himself. And he was clothed with a garment sprinkled with blood; and his name is called, the Word of God. And the armies that are in heaven followed him on white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth proceedeth a sharp two edged sword; that with it he may strike the nations.” The Lord and Savior sat upon a red horse, taking on a human body; to whom it is said “Why are thy garments red?” and “Who is this that cometh from Edom, his garments bloodied from Bozrah?” St Jerome presumes his reader’s familiarity with the exegetic tradition that the “garment” and “bloodied vestment” in Isaiah 63 refer to the Incarnation. He does even need to finish the thought by pointing out that both passages refer to a “wine-press” as a symbol  of the instrument of Christ’s sufferings.
The Rider on the White Horse, Apocalypse 19, from the Bamberg Apocalypse, 1000-1020 A.D. The lower part shows the angel calling to the birds of prey in verse 17 of the same chapter.
Well before St Jerome, the great Biblical scholar Origen had also described this vision of St John as a prophecy of the Incarnation and the Passion.
Now, in John’s vision, the Word of God as He rides on the white horse is not naked: He is clothed with a garment sprinkled with blood, for the Word who was made flesh and therefore died is surrounded with marks of the fact that His blood was poured out upon the earth, when the soldier pierced His side. For of that passion, even should it be our lot some day to come to that highest and supreme contemplation of the Logos, we shall not lose all memory, nor shall we forget the truth that our admission (into heaven) was brought about by His sojourning in our body. (Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book II.4)

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: