Friday, May 11, 2018

Other Gospels for the Ascension

The Roman Rite has various ways of arranging the Masses during an octave. That of Easter, for example, has a completely proper Mass for every day, that of Pentecost for every day but Thursday, which was originally an “aliturgical” day; when its Mass was instituted later, it was given proper readings, but everything else is repeated from Sunday. The feast of Ss Peter and Paul is continued with one Mass for the days within the octave, and another for the octave day itself, plus the special Commemoration of St Paul on June 30th. Some others, however, especially the relatively late ones like Corpus Christi and All Saints, simply repeat the Mass of the day throughout the octave.

A folio of the Echternach Sacramntary, 895 AD, with the last two prayers of the Mass of St Paul, those of Ss Processus and Martinian on July 2, and the first two prayers of the octave of Ss Peter and Paul.
The feast of the Ascension falls into the latter category, although the Mass of the Sunday within the octave, which is older than the octave itself, is different. Octaves are for the contemplation of mysteries that are too great for a single day, and it is certainly true that “repetita juvant”, a proverb which the Roman Rite, with its habitual conservatism, historically took very much to heart. One might argue, however, that there was some room for expanding the repertoire of readings within this octave in particular, in a way that would have been fully consonant with the tradition of the Rite, and expanded the scope of such contemplation.

The very oldest lectionary of the Roman Rite, the Comes (the Latin word for “companion”) of Wurzburg, attests to the Roman system of readings as it was in the middle of the 7th century. (The manuscript itself was copied out in roughly 700-750.) Although there are some notable differences, it is unmistakably the same system as that of the Missals of Ss Pius V and John XXIII. Its Gospels for the entire Easter season are almost entirely the same, while those of the second oldest Comes, that of Murbach, are exactly the same. Both of them also attest to a feature which was not included in the late medieval Missal of the Roman Curia, the immediate predecessor of that of St Pius V, namely, a series of ferial readings for the Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year. In Wurzburg, this feature is very irregular; some weeks have readings for both days, some have one for Saturday as well, but others them have only for one day, and others have none. In Murbach, which is from roughly a century later, it has been completely regularized, and every Wednesday and Friday has readings assigned to it.

On the Wednesday after the Ascension, the Gospel is the very end of St Luke’s Gospel, chapter 24, 49-53. (Ss Matthew and John do not describe the Ascension, although Christ Himself refers to it in the Gospel of St John, 20, 17, in the words that form the antiphon for the Benedictus, “I go up to my Father and yours, my God and yours, alleluia.”) The Roman Rite tends to choose shorter passages than both the Ambrosian and Byzantine Rites, which have a longer selection from this passage, verses 36-53, (everything after the Supper at Emmaus) as the main Gospel of the feast; the Byzantines read the Roman Gospel at Orthros. In the Neo-Gallican Use of Paris, which expanded the Roman corpus of Scriptural readings considerably, while keeping to the traditional structure of the lectionary, verses 44-53 were assigned to the octave day of the Ascension.

Another passage which is connected to the feast is one of the most beautiful in St John’s Gospel, chapter 17, which Biblical scholars now often call the “priestly prayer.” On the vigil of the Ascension, the Missal of St Pius V has only the first 10 ½ verses, breaking off at vs. 11 “… and I come to thee.” The rest of the chapter is not read in either the temporal or sanctoral cycles, but verses 11-23 are the Gospel of the Votive Mass to remove a schism. In the Murbach lectionary, the rest of passage is read on the Wednesday following the Fourth Sunday after Easter; on the Sunday after the Ascension, the Ambrosian Rite reads the full chapter, while the Byzantine reads the first 13 verses. The revised Parisian Use kept the traditional Roman Gospel for the vigil, then very cleverly divided the rest into two parts. Verses 11b-19, in which Christ prays for the Apostles, is read on the Friday within the octave of the Ascension; the rest of the chapter, in which He prays “also for those who shall believe in Me though their word”, is assigned to Tuesday.

Two leaves of the Parisian Missal of 1736, with part of the propers for the Mass for the Friday after the octave of the Ascension, and the beginning of the vigil of Pentecost.
The Parisian Use is in many respects inspired by tradition, as in the examples given above, but did not shy away from innovations, which vary in quality. One of its better innovations, which has no precedent in the ancient Roman lectionaries, is the Gospel chosen for the Friday between the Octave day and the vigil of Pentecost, which is traditionally celebrated as a kind of extension of the octave. (The Roman Missal repeats the Gospel of the Sunday). The liturgy of the Ascension often looks forward to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which, as we noted yesterday, Durandus describes as the consolation of Christ the Bridegroom to his Bride the Church. An example is the responsory “If I do not go, the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, will not come.” With the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles will go out in the world to preach the Gospel, for which they, and many others after them, will receive the crown of martyrdom. The Parisian Use therefore moves away from St John, who dominates the Easter season, and takes this passage from St Luke, (12, 8-12), which looks forward to the ongoing witness to the life and teachings of Christ in the mission of His Church.

“At that time, Jesus said to His disciples: Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God. But he that shall deny me before men, shall be denied before the angels of God. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but to him that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven. And when they shall bring you into the synagogues, and to magistrates and powers, be not solicitous how or what you shall answer, or what you shall say; For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what you must say.”

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