Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Durandus on the Minor Litanies

The following excerpts are taken from book VI, chapter 102 of William Durandus’ treatise on the Divine Offices.

On the three days before the feast of the Lord’s Ascension, the Rogations, which are also called the Litanies: the Greek word “litania” in Latin is “supplication”, or “rogation” (from ‘rogare – to ask’), on which the Holy Church asks God… to destroy the counsel of those who wish to live outside Her peace. At the same time, we also beseech God that He may defend us from a sudden death, and from every infirmity, and we ask the Saints, that they may intercede for us before God. …

The Procession of St Gregory the Great, by an anonymous Sienese painter of the mid-16th century. The traditional story recounts that when the procession described below reached the Mausoleum of Hadrian, which is fairly close to St Peter’s Basilica, an angel appeared over it with a drawn sword in his hand, which he then sheathed, symbolizing the end of the plague as in 2 Samuel 24.
Now the Litanies are two, the Greater and the Lesser. The Greater is on the feast of the blessed Mark, and was created by the blessed Gregory (the Great), because of a plague, which caused a swelling of the groin. Paul, a monk of Monte Cassino, the author of “The History of the Lombards”, wrote the story of its institution, saying that in the time of Pope Pelagius (II, 579-90) there was so great a flood in Italy, that the waters rose as high as the upper windows of the temple of Nero in Rome … Then there came forth up the Tiber a multitude of serpents, and one very large dragon among them, whose breath corrupted the air; from this came the plague in the groin, from which men died suddenly all over the place. When nearly the whole population of Rome had been destroyed, Pelagius declared a fast and procession for all, but during it, he himself died, along with seventy others. Gregory I, who is also called the Great, took his place, and commanded that this Litany be observed throughout the world; it is therefore called the Gregorian or Roman Litany. It is also called “Black Crosses”, since, as a sign of mourning for the death of so many men, and as a sign of penance, people wear black clothing, and the crosses and altars are veiled in black.

A folio of the Echternach Sacramentary, 895AD, with the stational prayers for the Greater Litanies as they were done in Rome; the stations are at the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, St Valentine (very far up the Tiber), “ad Pontem Olbi”, a corruption of “ad Pontem Milvium – at the Milvian bridge”, “at the Cross”, whcih was a station set up along the way, and two “in the atrium” of St Peter’s Basilica. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 9433; folio 76r.)
The Lesser Litanies, which are also called Rogations and processions, take place on the three days before the Ascension, … they were created in Vienne by the blessed Mamertus, bishop of that city. Because of a plague of wolves and other wild beasts, who were ferociously killing men in Gaul, and because of the dangerous earthquakes which were frequently taking place there, he enjoined a fast of three days on the people, and instituted the Litanies. But when the danger had passed, the fast became a custom of annual observance … This latter is called the Lesser Litany, because it was instituted by a lesser person, that is, by a simple bishop, and in a less important place, Vienne, while the Greater (Litany) is so called because it was instituted in a more important place, namely, Rome, and by a greater person, namely, Gregory the Great, and because of a great and very serious plague. However, the Lesser Litany is older, since it was instituted when Zeno was Emperor (ca. 470 AD), and the Greater in the time of the Emperor Maurice (582-602)

Litanies are also held for many other reasons, wherefore Pope Liberius established that a litany should be held for war, famine, pestilence, and other imminent adversities of this sort, so that we may escape from them by supplications, prayers and fasts. Therefore, because in this time of the year especially wars are wont to break out, and the fruits of the earth, which are still in bud or flower, can easily be corrupted in many different ways, the litanies are held, so that we may ask God to turn these things away from us, and to defend and deliver us from bad weather, and war, and the enemies of the Christian religion, as we also implore the patronage of the Saints …

… we beseech the Saints, because of our poverty, and their glory, and reverence for God. And when we celebrate the Litany because of imminent dangers, in penitential and mournful garb, we represent that last procession of the women who wept after the Lord when He was being led to the Cross, weeping, according to the Lord’s command, for ourselves and our children.

The imposition of ashes before the Rogation procession celebrated last year in Milan; in the Ambrosian Rite, the penitential character of the Rogation days is far more marked than in the Roman Rite.
The Litanies also take place in this time, since the Church now asks more confidently, because Christ ascends, Who said, “Ask and ye shall receive.” (In the Gospel of the Sunday before the Ascension, John 16, 23-30.) She fasts at this time and prays, that through the mortification of the flesh, She may have little to do with it, and gain wings for herself through prayer, which is the wing by which the soul flies up to heaven. Thus is She is able to freely follow Christ as He ascends, and opens the way for us, and flies upon the wings of the wind. This is the reason why we join the last litany, the last fast, to the Ascension, so that through prayers and fasts, we may be able to lay aside the weight of the flesh, and follow Christ as He ascends.

Therefore, during the Litanies, there is a procession, and in some churches, (the antiphon) Exsurge, Domine is sung at the beginning. The Gospel canticle “Holy God, holy mighty one, holy immortal one, have mercy on us,” is also to be sung repeatedly by the boys’ choir, for John of Damascus tells the story … that in Constantinople, litanies were held because of some trouble, and a boy was taken up to heaven from the midst of the people, and there taught this chant; and returning to the people, sang it before everyone, and at once the trouble ceased. This chant was approved by the Council of Chalcedon, and therefore it is considered praiseworthy and authoritative …

… in the procession itself, the Cross goes first, and the reliquaries of the Saints, so that by the banner of the Cross, and the prayers of the Saints, demons may be repelled…

A banner is also carried to represent the victory of Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, since He went up to heaven with great spoils … just as the multitude of the faithful follow the banner in the procession, so also a great gathering of the Saints accompanies Christ as He ascends. Banners are also carried in imitation of that which is said by Isaiah (11, 12), “And he shall set up a standard unto the nations, and shall assemble the fugitives of Israel, and shall gather together the dispersed of Juda from the four quarters of the earth.” The Church took the carrying of banners and crosses from Constantine, who, when in a dream he saw the sign of the Cross, and heard the words ‘By this sign thou shalt conquer’, ordered the Cross to be marked on his war banners. The fact that in the Litanies the cross-bearer takes his cross from the altar reminds us that Simon of Cyrene took it from Christ’s shoulders.

Rogation procession held in the village of Balatonderics, Hungary in 2017.
In some places, the litany is done in the fields, so that demons may be expelled from the crops, or rather, so that the crops may be preserved by the Lord. … It has also become the custom that a dragon with a long tail, upright and inflated, should go before the Cross and banners on the first two days, but on the last day, looking back, with its tail deflated and lowered, it follows behind. For this dragon symbolizes the devil, who in three periods, that is, before the law, and under the law, and in the time of grace, which these three days symbolize, has deceived men, and even now seeks to deceive them. In the first two periods, he reigned, and as if he were the lord of the world, had a long tail, which shows his power, and inflated, which symbolizes his pride. For this reason, Christ calls him the prince of this world (John 12, 31) and John says in the Apocalypse (12, 4) that the dragon, falling from heaven, drew with him the third part of the stars, which symbolize people. And the Lord says in the Gospel, “I saw Satan falling like a lightning bolt from heaven” (Luke 10, 18), as a figure of which, on two days he goes at the head … But in the time of grace, he is beaten by Christ, and power is given to the Apostles to cast out unclean spirits; therefore, on the third day he follows after the Cross, to show that his power is lost through the spread of the Faith, and his tail is deflated, and hangs down, and is not long, because he does not dare to reign as mightily as he formerly did, but rather seduces men through suggestion, and in a hidden way, those whom he sees to be lazy and remiss in good works, and who follow not the way of life, as if he were looking back like a thief, to see if someone may wander and fall away from the righteousness of the Faith, so that he can draw that person to himself …

A page from an 1882 scholarly edition of the Sarum Processional, by W.G. Henderson, showing the order of the Rogation procession. The rubric above the image mentions both a dragon and a lion carried in the procession, the latter presumably in reference to the words of Apocalypse 5, 5, “Behold the lion from the tribe of Judah hath conquered.”
On the Litanies, all must abstain from servile labor, … and be present for the procession until the end, so that, just as all have sinned, so all may ask for forgiveness, and all raise their hearts to God, with their hands, that is, raise up their zeal for prayer.

But since on the preceding days, a double Alleluia, is sung, why on these days is only one sung? And again, since Alleluia is not said on other fast days, why is it said on this one? To the first question, we answer that ... a double Alleluia is sung on the preceding days because of the double stole which will be given in the general resurrection, namely, that of the soul and of the body. But the liturgy of Easter, which this signifies, is now finished, and therefore, the cause being taken removed, the effect is also removed . To the second, we answer that on the other fast days, Alleluia is not sung because it is a song of joy, and those fasts are held because of sins, wherefore they are called fasts of mourning; but this fast, and that of Pentecost, are matters of rejoicing, because they are not held for sins, but so that the power of the devil, and the plague, may be removed; and therefore, Alleluia is sung on them.

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