Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Ambrosian Sundays “After the Beheading of St John the Baptist”

The oldest lectionary of the Roman Rite, a manuscript now in Wurzburg, Germany, dates to ca. 700, and represents the reading system used at Rome about 50 years earlier. It has a very disorganized and incomplete set of readings for the period after Pentecost, which is divided into four parts; the Sundays are counted as two after Pentecost, seven after Ss Peter and Paul, five after St Lawrence, and six after St Cyprian, a total of only 20.

The second oldest lectionary, from Murbach in eastern France, dates to about 100 years later, and represents the Roman Rite as used in France after Charlemagne had introduced it to replace the older Gallican Rite. It is much better organized and more complete than the Wurzburg manuscript, with 25 Sundays “after Pentecost.” This system has remained in use in the Roman Rite ever since, adjusted for the variable date of Easter, which can leave as few as 23 and as many as 28 such Sundays. The later medieval custom of counting Sundays after Trinity is no more than a variation on this theme.

A page of Ambrosian Misaal printed in 1522; the Ingressa (Introit) of the First Sunday after the Beheading of St John the Baptist is at the bottom of the lower right hand column.
In the Ambrosian Rite, however, the same period is divided into four different parts, as it anciently was in the Roman Rite. There are fifteen Sundays “after Pentecost”, followed by five “after the Beheading of St John the Baptist”; depending on the date of Easter, up to four of the former series will be omitted so the latter can begin. There are then three Sundays of October, on the third of which is celebrated the dedication of Milan cathedral, followed by three Sundays “after the Dedication”, which close the year before the beginning of the six-week Ambrosian Advent.

In the ancient use of the Roman Rite, the Saints whose feast days mark the divisions of this period are three patrons of the city of Rome itself, and one of the most prominent martyrs of the era before the Peace of the Church. The question therefore arises as to why the Ambrosian liturgy marks the second division with a feast which is certainly very ancient, but by no means the most prominent within the same period, where the Assumption might be seen as a more logical choice. This was answered by Prof. Cesare Alzati in his talk given last year at the Sacra Liturgia conference held in Milan.

On the Egyptian calendar, the New Year begins on the first day of the month of Tout, which corresponds to the Roman date of August 29th. [1] The Roman Emperor Diocletian began his reign on November 20th, 284, but the Egyptians backdated his regnal year to the start of their New Year, and the “Era of Diocletian” was thus counted from August 29th, 284. Since it was he who initiated the last, greatest and most systematic ancient persecution of the Church, the “Era of Diocletian” soon came to be known as the “Era of the Martyrs”; this term is still used to this very day by the Coptic Church, whose calendar begins in 284, making their current ecclesiastical year 1734.

A famous icon showing Christ with St Menas, one of the most revered of the early Egyptian Martyrs; his feast was even adopted at Rome, and he is still kept as a commemoration on the feast of St Martin in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. (Public domain image from Wikipedia.) This icon, which is now in the Louvre, is one of the oldest in existence, dated to the 6th or 7th century.
August 29th, therefore, becomes a crucial point within the Ambrosian ecclesiastical year both as the beginning of the Era of the Martyrs, and slightly later, as a feast of the Saint who is both forerunner and prototype of the Martyrs. This tradition, which is attested in the oldest Ambrosian liturgical books, would have come to Milan from the East in the 4th century.

After the Council of Nicea adopted the method of dating Easter followed by the churches of Rome and Alexandria, it became the latter’s responsibility to calculate the date of Easter, and communicate it to the other churches. St Ambrose speaks about this in one of his epistles. “In the eighty-ninth year from the reign of Diocletian, when the 14th day of the moon was on March 24th, we celebrated Easter on March 31st. The Alexandrians and Egyptians likewise, as they themselves wrote, when the 14th day of the moon fell on the 28th day of the month of Phamenoth), celebrated Easter on the fifth day of the month of Pharmuth, which is March 31st, and so they agreed with us.” (Ep. 13, alias 23, 14, PL XVI 1031A)

The church of Constantinople has perhaps preserved a memory of the same tradition, since the ecclesiastical New Year of the Byzantine Rite begins with the first day of the first Roman month after August 29th. The years, however, are counted from the creation of the world, and the year about to begin is reckoned as 7527.

[1] Since the Copts have not reformed their calendar according to the principle of the Gregorian calendar, Tout 1/August 29 currently falls on Gregorian September 11th.

Part of this article comes from notes written by Nicola de’ Grandi.

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