Friday, May 15, 2020

A Few Notes on the Reform of the Readings of the Easter Vigil

Following up on yesterday’s article about the Epistles of Easter, my colleague Matthew Hazell provided me with some information which may prove of interest. The post-Conciliar reform of the Roman liturgy was done by splitting the work up into various subcommittees, which reported back to the famous (or infamous) Consilium ad exsequendam, the committee for implementing Sacrosanctum Concilium established by Pope Paul VI on January 25th, 1964. These subcommittees were called “coetus – assemblies, gatherings” in Latin; the reform of the lectionary was done by Coetus 11. Here are the accounts of what they said in their deliberations about the Epistles of Easter specifically, the readings discussed by Charles Coebergh, as I explained in my article yesterday. What is said in these deliberations does not bear out my surmise that the post-Conciliar reformers may have been influenced either by the theory of Coebergh himself, or of something similar to it; they seem to have arrived at a result which suggests his influence by a different path.

At a meeting held in Rome from April 28-30, 1966, Coetus 11 noted that “we cannot propose anything definitively” about the readings of the Easter vigil “until we know (its) final structure … which is to be prepared by Coetus 17.” At this point, Sacrosanctum Concilium is less than 2½ years old; it had said that “there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them,” and yet the committee in charge of reforming the lectionary does not seem certain that enough of the traditional structure of the vigil will remain in place for them to propose a set of readings for it.

“Nevertheless, we think that the greater part of the 12 traditional readings in the Roman Rite should be used again, at least ad libitum.” This makes for an interesting admission that one aspect of the 1955 Holy Week reform was a terrible mistake. In the end, this wise proposal was only very partially implemented. Of the seven prophecies currently assigned to the Easter vigil, five correspond in whole or in part to the traditional twelve, only one more than survived the mistake of 1955. Two of these can also be read in shorter forms, and up to five may be omitted for the usual vaguely defined reasons. However, ten of the twelve did find a place somewhere in the new lectionary, in whole or in part.

The Sacrifice of Isaac, Genesis 22, 1-19, depicted on a sarcophagus made for the prefect of Rome, Junius Bassus, who died in 359 AD. This is one of the most frequently depicted stories in early Christian art, since Isaac represents the Son of God, willingly sacrificed for the salvation of mankind, an interpretation already found in the very first surviving sermon on Easter, the Pascha homily of St Melito of Sardis, ca. 165 AD. This reading was removed from the Easter vigil in the reform of 1955, and restored to it in the reform of 1969.
By July of that year, Coetus 17 had still not said anything about the structure of the Easter vigil, and Coetus 11 was therefore still not able to make a definitive proposal about its readings. They did, however, submit drafts, first of a scheme which explains the principles on which the new order of readings should be drawn up, and second, of the new order of readings itself. According to this draft proposal, the Epistle of the Easter vigil would become Romans 6, 3-11, “as in the Byzantine, Hispanic (i.e. Mozarabic) and Gallican tradition… as a text of the greatest importance, in which the relationship between baptism into the death of Christ and His and our own resurrection are set forth. In this case, the current reading of the Roman Missal will be transferred to Sunday.” This was in point of fact put into practice in the Novus Ordo lectionary.

The notes go on to say, in regard to the Easter Sunday, “the Epistle, 1 Corinthians 5, 7-8, which is currently read in the Roman Missal, presents many difficulties of a pastoral nature in its argument founded on the concept of the unleavened bread. From a pastoral point of view, it therefore seems more useful to read Colossians 3, 1-4 (heretofore the Epistle of the vigil), which more effectively sets forth the duties of the Christian life that derive from our communion with the Paschal mystery of Christ.”

In and of itself, this proposal seems harmless enough, but the implications of it are simply monstrous. At that point, these two verses of Scripture had been the Epistle of Easter Sunday for over 13 centuries; it is impossible that the members of Coetus 11 did not know this. And yet, they accept the premise that it is so difficult that no preacher can explain its meaning to the faithful. This is turn derives from the premise which poisoned the whole of the reform from start to finish, that its purpose was not to elevate the faithful to the level of the liturgy, but to dumb the liturgy down to the (supposed) level of the faithful.

This proposal was repeated in October, in a summary of the reports sent from Coetus 11 to the Consilium, in order to aid further discussion. In the end, however, wiser heads prevailed; Colossians 3 was indeed moved to Easter Sunday, but 1 Corinthians 5 was not deleted, and one or the other is read. Subsequent discussions seem to have been concerned primarily with the Gospels, rather than the Epistles. This would lead ultimately to the addition of an extra Sunday dedicated to reading a Gospel about the Resurrection, and thus the forward displacement of Good Shepherd Sunday.

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