Thursday, November 07, 2019

The Feast of All Saints 2019: The Martyrs

From the Breviary according to the use of the Roman Curia, 1529, the continuation of the sermon for the third day in the Octave of All Saints.

After the aforementioned princes of the Church and standard bearers of her spiritual combat comes most readily the troop of the most elite soldiers, that is, the triumphant army of the holy martyrs, patient in their suffering, clothed in white in the contest of their passion, crowned with their precious blood. The ancient dragon, like a most fierce and roaring lion, found a new device for his deceptions; for he that once ordered men to worship the just as gods (as is read concerning the body of Moses), afterwards attacked those who worshipped the true God become man, the Lord Jesus Christ, with due honor. But because the holy martyrs fought manfully for the faith in the stadium of war, they were given a happy reward, and rightly crowned with glory and honor.

The central panel of an altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin Martyr St Margaret of Antioch, made in either Hamburg or Lüneburg, German, ca. 1520 now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Her legend says that she was swallowed by a dragon (seen here at her feet, and also in the lower panel immediately to the right of her), and destroyed it by bursting out of its side; this of course represents her spiritual triumph over the forces of darkness.
“As is read concerning the body of Moses.” These words refer to an episode in a Jewish apocryphal work, the Assumption of Moses, which is mentioned by St Jude in his Catholic Epistle (verse 9): “When Michael the Archangel, disputing with the devil, contended about the body of Moses, he durst not bring against him the judgment of railing speech, but said, ‘The Lord command thee.’ ” (The last words of this verse are quoted in Pope Leo XIII’s famous prayer to St Michael.) The Assumption of Moses is only partially preserved, and the episode in question is not in the part that survives, but ancient scholars such as Origen, who had the complete text to hand, claim it as the work cited by St Jude. The anonymous author of our sermon refers to a tradition going back to Tertullian that idolatry was taught to mankind by the devil, and here claims that in the story cited by St Jude, the devil’s purpose in trying to get the body of Moses was to have the Jews worship it as an idol.
The Dispute between St. Michael and the Devil over the Body of Moses, by Matteo da Lecce, ca. 1575. This painting is on the back wall of the Sistine Chapel, and for reasons which should be obvious, has been entirely overshadowed by the rather more impressive works of Michelangelo on the ceiling above.

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