Friday, February 15, 2019

The Beginning of Ambrosian Forelent

The Ambrosian season after Epiphany presents some interesting and unique characteristics compared with the same period in the Roman Rite. In the latter, from its first attestation in the Lectionary of Würzburg, the season has a full compliment of Gospel readings; in the Ambrosian Rite, on the other hand, the liturgical texts of the season were slow to evolve, but their evolution can be traced out from the surviving ancient manuscripts.

The traditional Roman rubrics are organized in such a way that none of the Sundays between Epiphany and Septuagesima are omitted; in the Tridentine reform, a system was created, and is still in use, of moving those which cannot be celebrated in their regular place to the end of the season after Pentecost. The Ambrosian Rite has no such tradition, with the exception of the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, which is never omitted, and always celebrated as the last Sunday before Septuagesima. (Prior to the Borromean reform of the Ambrosian liturgical books, this Sunday was called the Fifth after Epiphany, and there was no Sixth, since Easter very rarely occurs late enough for one to be necessary.) This custom is first attested in a liturgical ordo called the “Beroldus Novus” in the 13th century; its origin is to be found by tracing out the history of the period in Ambrosian liturgical books.

A page of an Ambrosian Missal printed in Milan in 1522, wth the Mass of the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, preceded by the rubric that it is always celebrated “next to” (juxta) Septuagesima.
A codex kept in the Capitular Library of the basilica of St John the Baptist in Busto Arsizio contains a very ancient order of readings, one which certainly predates the Carolingian period, when the Ambrosian lectionary underwent a major reform. This codex has two different lists of Gospels, a “capitulary”, which is older, and gives only the incipits, and a later “evangeliary”, which gives the full texts. The differences between these two bear witness to two different phases in the evolution of the lectionary tradition. The capitulary has readings for only the first two Sundays after Epiphany, with no signs of any later corrections, while the evangeliary gives Gospel pericopes for the first four Sundays, with corrections added later in a Romanizing direction.

Neither list mentions a Fifth Sunday, which in most medieval missals was given as the last of the season, since the Sixth Sunday only very rarely occurs. The Ambrosian Rite borrowed the three Sundays of the Roman Forelent at least two stages, and while both lists include the Sundays of Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, the capitulary does not include Septuagesima.

In the Ambrosian Missals of Bergamo (mid-9th century) and Biasca (end of the 9th century), which are fully in line with the Carolingian reform, the order of readings agrees with that of the “corrections” in the evangeliary of Busto. Furthermore, both of these have as the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday that which is now read on the Sixth, Matthew 17, 14-20. (As noted above, this will remain in place until the minor adjustment of the Borromean reform.)

“At that time: there came to the Lord Jesus a man falling down on his knees before him, saying: Lord, have pity on my son, for he is a lunatic, and suffereth much: for he falleth often into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him. Then Jesus answered and said: O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me. And Jesus rebuked him, and the devil went out of him, and the child was cured from that hour. Then came the disciples to Jesus secretly, and said: Why could not we cast him out? Jesus said to them: Because of your unbelief. For, amen I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, Remove from hence hither, and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you. But this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting.”

The healing of the possessed boy; folio 166r of Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry. Here it is used to illustrate the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Lent, Luke 11, 14-28, which begins with the expulsion of a devil from a mute, and in which Christ goes on to say “if I cast out devils by Beelzebub; by whom do your children cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if I by the finger of God cast out devils; doubtless the kingdom of God is come upon you.” (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
The fact that this pericope is always found just before Fore-Lent provides a useful clue as to its origin. Unlike the other Gospels of this season, it has no parallel at all in the Roman Rite, and therefore clearly does not derive from the Romanizing tendency attested by the corrections in the Busto manuscript. The final admonition to the practice of prayer and fasting gives it a clearly penitential character, which explains why it is always read just before the Ambrosian Forelent.

The introduction of this final Sunday is further explained by a shrewd observation of the scholar Patrizia Carmassi about another lectionary in the Ambrosian Library (A 23 bis inf.), a codex of the 13th century, but certainly copied from a much older archetype. This contains a list of the prophetic readings for the whole liturgical year, with a very significant correction for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany; the rubricated title “Dominica Quinta post Epiphaniam” is cancelled out and replaced with “Dominica in Septuagesima.” We may therefore suppose that the archetype did not include Septuagesima, but did have the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, a problem which the later copyist remedied simply by changing the title, treating it as simply an alternative for the older title.

In the Codex Mediolanensis, an evangeliary from the area of Milan with liturgical notes that date it to the 7th or 8th century, Septuagesima is still missing. Nevertheless, in the early Carolingian period, when the liturgical books of Milan were being revised and Romanized, the fourth and fifth Sundays after Epiphany were added. From this, we may deduce that these Sundays were seen as part of Forelent, along with Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, and the adoption of Septuagesima was therefore felt to be unnecessary. The custom of always reading Matthew 17, 14-20, on the Sunday before Septuagesima therefore reflects an ancient understanding of it as part of Forelent, regardless of what that Sunday is actually called.

There are some interesting parallels to the Ambrosian Gospel in other non-Roman western rites. In the oldest form of the Mozarabic lectionary, there is only one Sunday of Forelent, called “ante carnes tollendas – before taking away meat.” The Gospel of this Sunday, Matthew 17, 1-20, includes both the episode of Christ’s Transfiguration, and that of the possessed child read in the Ambrosian Rite. In two lectionaries of the ancient Gallican Rite, that of Luxeuil (6th century) and a fragmentary manuscript at Würzburg (7th century) the Gospel of the same Sunday, which is called “the Sunday after St Peter’s Chair”, is only the first part, Matthew 17, 1-9, which the Roman Rite reads on the Second Sunday of Lent, and the preceding Ember Saturday.

The Transfiguration, by Raphael 1517-19; in the lower part, the possessed child and his father are seen before the remaining nine Apostles.
In this episode, Moses and Elijah, who appear to either side of the Lord, represent the catechumens, since they both undertook a fast of 40 days in preparation for a vision of the Lord, as the catechumens do in Lent, to prepare themselves for the illumination of baptism at Easter. The antiquity of the association between this episode and the discipline of Lent is shown by a passage of St Ambrose’s commentary on the Song of Songs.

“Moses, set on the mountain for forty days, and receiving the Law, required no food for his body: Elijah, hastening to his rest, asked that his soul be taken from him: Peter, also on a mountain, looking upon the glory of the Lord’s resurrection, did not wish to come down, saying ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here.’ ”

This passage is ideally placed between the Baptism of Christ celebrated on Epiphany, and his passion, as Ambrose again explains in his book “On the Holy Spirit” (16, 755b).

“So that you may know that (God) made mention of the Lord Jesus descent (from heaven in the Incarnation), he further adds that he proclaimed his Anointed one unto men (Amos 4, 13); for at the Baptism, he proclaimed this, saying, ‘Thou are my most beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ (Matthew 3, 17). He proclaimed this on the mountain, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, hear ye Him. (Matthew 17, 17). He proclaimed this in His Passion, when the sun departed, and the seas and land trembled.”

The Mozarabic Rite, however, extends the Gospel of the Sunday “ante carnes tollendas” to include the episode of the possessed boy. This can be explained from a sermon of St Isidore of Seville, who compares the exorcism which Christ performed on the boy to the one performed as part of the rite of baptism.

“Exorcism is a word (or ‘speech’) of rebuke against an unclean spirit in regard to the possessed, but is also done for the catechumens, and by it, the most wicked power of the devil and his ancient malice, or his violent incursion, is expelled and put to flight. This is signified by that lunatic whom Jesus rebuked, and the demon went out from him. But the power of the devil is exorcized, and they are breathed upon, so that they may renounce him, and being delivered from the power of darkness, may be taken over to the kingdom of their Lord though the sacrament of Baptism.”

However, it still remains to be explained why the Gallican tradition includes only the episode of the Transfiguration, the Mozarabic that of the Transfiguration and the possessed boy, while the Ambrosian includes only the latter.

This article is mostly a translation of notes written by Nicola de’ Grandi.

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