Tuesday, June 02, 2020

The Feast and Fast of Pentecost

On the vigil of Pentecost, as on that of Easter, the Roman station church is the cathedral of the Most Holy Savior, popularly known as St John in the Lateran. This is, of course, because of the day’s very ancient character as one of the two occasions for the celebration of baptism, following what the Acts of the Apostles say about the very first Pentecost (2, 41), when St Peter baptized about 3,000 people. In ancient times, it was an almost universal custom that a cathedral should have a baptistery right next to it, and Rome was no exception; furthermore, the administration of baptism was principally a duty of the bishop. This is also why the traditional Roman vigil of Pentecost repeats several elements from the vigil of Easter, most significantly, a series of catechetical prophecies, and the blessing of the baptismal font, a custom attested in all of the ancient liturgical books of the Roman Rite. [1] The collect of the Mass refers to the baptismal character of the rite even more explicitly than that of the Easter vigil, and the Hanc igitur of Easter is said, which speaks of those “whom (God has) deigned to regenerate of water and the Holy Spirit”, as also throughout the octave. [2]

The interior of the Lateran Baptistery
After the celebration of the Easter vigil at a church dedicated to the Savior, the stations of Easter week bring the newly baptized to the churches of the most important Saints, arranged in hierarchical order. Easter Sunday is celebrated at St Mary Major, the Virgin’s most ancient Roman church; the Masses of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are held at the tombs of Ss Peter, Paul and Lawrence respectively, the city’s three principal patrons. On Thursday the station is at the church of the Twelve Apostles, and on Friday at the Pantheon, dedicated to all the martyrs; Saturday returns to the Lateran, where St John represents the confessors. As detailed in the first article linked above, each one of these Masses contains clear references to the Saint or group of Saints to whom the station church is dedicated.

Of the seven station churches of the vigil, feast and octave of Easter, five are also kept at Pentecost, albeit in a different order. Starting from this fact, and from the common station for the vigil, the Bl. Ildephonse Schuster attempts in his book The Sacramentary (vol. 2, p. 397) to explain the stations of Pentecost and its octave in reference to those of Easter, according to a “deliberate design of making the two feasts equal”, and posits various reasons for the change in order. His explanation seems to me, however, to run aground by starting from an a priori assumption that since Pentecost imitates Easter in some ways, we should expect it to imitate Easter in all or most ways, which it clearly does not. For example, at the beginning of the Pentecost vigil, there is no blessing of a fire, even though this would arguably be an especially appropriate rite to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire. [3] But much more significantly in regard to the stations, the texts of the Pentecost Masses, unlike those of Easter, have almost no relationship to the churches where they are celebrated. [4]

The organizing principle of the stations of Pentecost is rather that they are arranged in deliberate imitation of those of the first week of Lent, as shown in the following chart.

First Week of Lent Pentecost
Sunday Lateran St Peter’s
Monday St Peter in Chains St Peter in Chains
Tuesday St Anastasia St Anastasia
Wednes. St Mary Major St Mary Major
Thurs. St Lawrence
in Panispera
St Lawrence
Friday Twelve Apostles Twelve Apostles
Saturday St Peter’s St Peter’s

There are two places where the lists differ, Sunday and Thursday, both of which are easily explained. Before the creation of Ash Wednesday as a part of the liturgical year, Lent began on the First Sunday; the station is held at the cathedral as the most appropriate place for the Pope to begin the catechumenal rites which were such a prominent feature of the season. In the case of Pentecost, the station is at the Lateran on the vigil, and so on the feast, it is kept at St Peter’s instead. As the largest church in Rome, this is the logical choice for a solemnity of such importance, which would presumably draw a very big congregation; and indeed, the station is also held there on Epiphany, on the Ascension, originally on Christmas day, and on the city’s patronal feast.

In the case of Thursday, in Lent, it was originally an “aliturgical” day on which no Mass was celebrated, and this was also true of the Thursday after Pentecost. The custom of having aliturgical days was abolished in the early 8th century, for reasons which I have explained elsewhere, and stations appointed for those days; the Thursdays of the First Week of Lent and of Pentecost were then both assigned to churches dedicated to St Lawrence.

The Martyrdom of St Lawrence, by Titian, from the Spanish Royal Monastery of the Escorial. This is traditionally said to have taken place on the site where the church of St Lawrence in Panisperna now stands.
The question naturally arises as to why the stations of one of the greatest and most solemn feasts copy those of the beginning of the great fast. The answer lies, of course, in the Ember days. We have a total of 22 sermons by Pope St Leo I (444-61) preached on these fast days, four on those of Pentecost, and nine each on those of September and December. In them, he states several times that they were of apostolic institution; we cannot prove that this is in fact the case, but they are unquestionably very ancient. The stations for the Ember Days are always held at Mary Major on Wednesday, at the Twelve Apostles on Friday, and at St Peter’s on Saturday; this being the case, and the necessary exception having been made for Sunday, those of Monday and Tuesday simply reproduce those of the Monday and Tuesday of the First Week of Lent.

The liturgical texts for Pentecost and its octave, including the Ember days, and the stations of the vigil and the first four days of the feast, are attested with a very notable degree of consistency in the oldest liturgical books of the Roman Rite. However, it is also the case that in many early books, the Ember days appear as a feature of the liturgical year separate from the Pentecost octave. In the older version of the Gelasian Sacramentary (Vat. Lat. Reg. 316), they are placed between Pentecost and its octave day, but in the modified form attested in the Gellone Sacramentary, and in the earliest lectionaries, they are not just after the octave, but further separated from it by four feasts and two Sundays. The Mass of Ember Wednesday originally had the following preface, which is modeled fairly closely on a part of Pope Leo’s first sermon on the fast of Pentecost. [5]

“Truly it is worthy… For after those days of rejoicing, which we have kept in honor of the Lord who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, then indeed have holy fasts been foreseen as necessary to us, so that those thing which have been divinely bestowed upon the Church may abide (i.e. continue to be present) in those who keep a pure manner of living. Through Christ our Lord.”

Folio 83v of the Gellone Sacramentary, ca 780AD, with the preface cited above incorporated into the Mass of Ember Wednesday within the Octave of Pentecost in the middle of the page. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 12048)
Therefore, just as the Ember days of Lent mark the beginning of the Church’s fast in preparation for the baptismal rites of Easter, this text presents the fast after Pentecost as a preparation for the rest of the liturgical year, the longest part of it, once all of the catechumens have joined the company of the faithful. “Therefore did these teachers (i.e. the Apostles), who imbued all the sons of the Church with their examples and traditions, begin the first service of Christian warfare with holy fasts, so that those who are about to fight against spiritual wickedness might take up the arms of abstinence, by which to cut off all incentives to vice.” (St Leo, ibid. cap. 2)

As in interesting aside, the title of the Ember days in the ancient Roman liturgical books is not “Quatuor Temporum”, as it is in the Tridentine books. Those of Pentecost are called “the fast of the fourth month”, those of September and December, “of the seventh” and “of the tenth month” respectively. [6] These titles come from a verse of the prophet Zachariah, 8, 19, which is included in the fourth prophecy of the Mass of Ember Saturday in September, “Thus saith the Lord of hosts: * The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Juda joy and gladness, and great solemnities: only love ye truth and peace.” That this is not mere coincidence is demonstrated by several early epistle lectionaries, in which the words “jejunium primi – the fast of the first (month)” are added to the Biblical text at the place marked with a star above, in order to include the Ember days of Lent.

The fourth prophecy of Ember Saturday of September, Zachariah 8, 14-19, in the so-called Lectionary of Alcuin, an epistolary of the 9th century whose contents represent the state of the Roman lectionary in the early 7th century. The words “jejunium primi” are in the 5th and 4th line from the bottom. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 9452; folio 99r, image cropped.)
It is tempting to speculate that the “fast of the fifth month” may have been fulfilled with the four vigils kept at the end of June, those of Ss Protasius and Gervasius, St John the Baptist, Ss John and Paul, and Ss Peter and Paul, the second and fourth of which are still kept in the Extraordinary Form to this day. The very end of the reading serves as the ferial chapter of Prime in the Roman Breviary, a reminder to continually cultivate the virtues which the Church seeks to instill in us by periods of fasting throughout the year.

NOTES: [1] This is also attested well before any surviving liturgical book, already at the end of the fourth century, in a letter of Pope St Siricius (384-399) to Himerius, bishop of Tarragon in Spain. (Epist. ad Himerium cap. 2: PL XIII, 1131B-1148A) Pope St Leo I (440-461) also asserts that this was the practice of the Church in a letter to the bishops of Sicily, exhorting them to follow the example of the Apostle Peter noted above. (Epist. XVI ad universos episcopos per Siciliam constitutos, PL LIV, 695B-704A).

[2] Further similarities between the vigils of Easter and Pentecost: the rite begins in the penitential color, violet. Six prophecies are repeated from the vigil of Easter, and the three tracts from Easter night are also repeated in their respective places. Each prophecy is followed by a prayer; the six prayers are different from those of the Easter vigil, but express many of the same ideas. At the Mass, the ministers change vestments and color; there is no Introit, and the bells are rung at the Gloria in excelsis. After the Alleluja of the Mass, the same Tract is sung as on Easter night. At the Gospel, the acolytes do not carry candles. Just as on Easter night the Resurrection is watched for, but not anticipated, so also with this same gesture, the Church watches for the coming of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire, as Christ told His disciples to do, but does not anticipate it.

[3] Note further that the Divine Office of Pentecost has only one nocturn at Matins, like that of Easter, but otherwise shares none of the Paschal Office’s unique characteristics.

[4] The Mass of Pentecost Monday, with its station at St Peter in Chains, is a partial exception. The basilica was originally dedicated to both Ss Peter and Paul; the Collect refers to God giving “the Holy Spirit to (His) Apostles”, and the Epistle, Acts 10, 34 & 42-48, to the baptism of the gentiles, a mission fulfilled by both Peter and Paul in Rome.

[5] The Preface: VD: Post illos enim laetitiae dies, quos in honore Domini a mortuis resurgentis et in caelos ascendentis exigimus, postque perceptum sancti Spiritus donum, necessaria etenim nobis ieiunia sancta prouisa sunt, ut pura conversacione uiuentibus que diuinitus sunt aecclesiae conlata permaneant: per Christum dominum nostrum.
St Leo: Igitur post sanctae laetitiae dies, quos in honorem Domini a mortuis resurgentis, ac deinde in caelos ascendentis, exegimus, postque perceptum sancti Spiritus donum, salubriter et necessarie consuetudo est ordinata jejunii: ut si quid forte inter ipsa festivitatum gaudia negligens libertas et licentia inordinata praesumpsit, hoc religiosae abstinentiae censura castiget: quae ob hoc quoque studiosius exsequenda est, ut illa in nobis quae hac die Ecclesiae divinitus sunt collata permaneant. (De jejunio Pentecostes I, 3)

[6] The Roman calendar originally counted only ten months, starting with March, with the days between December and March as a month-less period. Although this impractical system was traditionally said to have been changed less than 50 years after the founding of the city, the Romans were a people who knew how to honor tradition; this is why the names of the last four months, which derive from “septem – seven”, “octo – eight” etc., were never changed. By this reckoning, March is the first month, and June the fourth.

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