Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Myth of a Sunday with No Mass

Those who follow the traditional Divine Office and Mass closely will have noticed in them an unusual feature this weekend. In the Mass, the same Gospel, St Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration (17, 1-9), is read on both Ember Saturday and today. In the Divine Office, there are only four antiphons taken from this Gospel, where the other Sundays have six; those of the Benedictus and Magnificat are the same on both days, and today, the same antiphon is said at both Prime and Terce, which happens nowhere else. At today’s Mass, all of the Gregorian propers except for the Tract are repeated from the Mass of Ember Wednesday.
The traditional explanation for this given by Dom Guéranger (The Liturgical Year, vol. 4. p. 183 of the 1st English ed.), the Bl. Schuster (The Sacramentary, vol. 2, p. 73 of the English ed.) and others is as follows. In many ancient liturgical books, the Masses of the Ember Saturdays are titled “duodecim lectionum – of the twelve readings” or something similar. This was understood to mean that there were originally ten readings from the Old Testament, rather than the five which we have now, plus the Epistle and Gospel. (Mario Righetti, Manuale di Storia Liturgica, vol. 3, p. 232) According to a custom attested in several ancient sources, the readings at the papal Mass were each done twice, once in Latin, and again in Greek; a form of this custom is still to this day kept from time to time. (A friend of mine who is a priest of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church served as the Greek deacon at two Masses celebrated by St John Paul II.)
The chanting of a Gospel in Church Slavonic at a Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Croatia in June 2011.
This would mean an effective total of twenty-four readings. These were also the traditional days for ordinations in Rome, which were held at St Peter’s Basilica. The combination of twenty-four readings and seven ordination rites within a single Mass would have made for an extraordinarily long service that lasted through the length of the night. Therefore, the Mass of the Ember Saturday effectively became the Mass of Sunday morning.
What was taken to be further confirmation of this is found in several ancient liturgical books of various kinds, in which the Second Sunday of Lent is marked with the rubric “Dominica vacat – the Sunday is empty”, i.e., had no Mass of its own. The liturgical texts for this Sunday would therefore have their current arrangement because it was only given its own Mass and Office later. According to this theory, the custom of saying the Saturday Mass with so many readings and the ordinations was specifically Roman; when other places received the Roman Rite, they did not observe this same lengthy service through the night, and having confined the Ember Saturday to Saturday itself, could not leave the Sunday without a Mass.
This would also explain why in many Uses of the Roman Rite, the Mass of the Second Sunday of Lent differs in one detail or another from that of the Missal of St Pius V. To this very day, for example, the Dominican Missal has two Tracts on this Sunday, rather than a Gradual and Tract. Many medieval liturgical books also attest to a different Gospel on the Sunday; at Sarum, that of the Canaanite woman was read (Matthew 15, 21-28), preceded by a unique Tract taken from the Gospel itself, rather than from a Psalm. (This Gospel is read in the Roman Rite on the previous Thursday.)
Folio 29r of the Gellone Sacramentary, ca 780 AD., with the rubric “Dominica vacat”, followed immediately by the words “II Domi(nica) in Quadra(gesima) – the Second Sunday in Lent.” (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 12048)
For several reasons, I believe this explanation to be incorrect on every point.
First of all, there is a strong antecedent improbability (I do not say an absolute impossibility) to the very idea of doing such a lengthy service at all under any circumstances. The median date for the Ember Saturday of Lent is March 3rd; in Rome, the sun sets on that date just after 6 p.m., and rises the next morning at 6:40 a.m. Assuming the liturgy started after None, in accordance with the well-attested ancient custom of the Church, this would make for a ceremony about 17-18 hours long. (I do not grant the absurd and unattested possibility of a liturgy designed with breaks for food, sleep, and visits to the bathroom in mind.) This is made all the more improbable by the fact that the main celebrant, the Pope, would usually be elderly, and in the days of the Church’s more serious Lenten fasting discipline, would have to do this on an empty stomach.
Secondly, there is not a single liturgical source that attests to the supposed twelve different readings on any of the Ember Saturdays. The Wurzburg lectionary, the oldest of the Roman Rite (ca. 650 AD), has four Old Testament readings in Lent and after Pentecost (without the reading from Daniel 3 that is now common to all four Ember Saturdays), plus an Epistle and a Gospel; “twelve readings” would therefore refer to the custom of doing each of these six readings twice, in Latin and in Greek. This source also has six Old Testament readings at the Ember Saturday of September, and five in Advent, indicating that there was originally some flexibility to this rite. But in every subsequent lectionary, every Mass of an Ember Saturday has five Old Testament readings, plus an Epistle and a Gospel. The term “twelve readings” would therefore have been understood to refer to the six before the Gospel, each done twice.
Furthermore, all of the ancient lectionaries, including Wurzburg, also have the two different epistles for the Ember Saturday and the following Sunday (1 Thess. 5, 14-23 on the former, chapter 4, 1-7 of the same epistle on the later), in the same order, and in the same place. If the Mass of Ember Saturday was in fact the Mass of the following Sunday, celebrated in the early hours after the ceremony had lasted through the night, what need would there be of this second epistle?
Folios 27v and 28r of the 9th century Lectionary of Alcuin, with the Epistles of the Ember Saturday and Second Sunday of Lent. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 9452)
Third, even doing all seven of the readings twice would not have made the liturgy so inordinately long that it would last through the night. The Roman Rite is almost always more succinct in its presentation and use of Scripture than any other historical Christian rite, and the Ember Saturdays are no exception to this; the longest of them in terms of the Scriptural readings is that of September, in which they amount to 51 verses, just under 900 words. Likewise (and this is a far more significant point), the ordination rituals which are attested in the oldest liturgical books of the Roman Rite are very much shorter and less complicated than the ones we know today, which began to take something more like their current (EF) form in the mid-10th century. The Ember day Masses also have no Gloria and no Creed, and were instituted before either the Offertory prayers or the Agnus Dei were added to the Mass.
Fourth, and I think most decisively, the ancient sacramentaries of the Roman Rite ALL have separate Masses for the Second Sunday of Lent. The very oldest, the Old Gelasian Sacramentary, simply titles it “the Second Sunday in Lent”, but many others include the rubric “Dominica vacat” in the title. This is noteworthy because the Old Gelasian and certain other manuscripts like the Wurzburg lectionary attest to the very ancient arrangement by which the Thursdays of Lent had no Mass at all, but these Thursdays do not have a rubric “feria quinta vacat”; there is simply nothing at all between Wednesday and Friday. Clearly, there was a distinction between a day with NO Mass and a day that “vacat”.
To this it may be objected that these manuscripts are of the Roman Rite, but are not from Rome; they were all copied out in Merovingian or Carolingian Gaul. We may therefore legitimately surmise that what they attest to on the Ember Saturdays represents an adaptation of the Roman custom, dropping the liturgy that lasts through the night. To this I answer that all these manuscripts preserve many things that are Roman, but were clearly not of any use outside of Rome, or at any rate, not useful in Gaul. For example, the Wurzburg lectionary lists all the Roman stational churches, and the Old Gelasian Sacramentary gives the text of the Creed in Greek for the day when the catechumens had to show that they had learned it. In the absence of any source attesting the custom of twelve separate readings, and any source that specifically states that the liturgy was done over the night and into the morning, we have no reason to believe that these Gallic manuscripts have in fact changed the Roman custom in this regard. Quite the contrary, the general tendency in the history of the liturgy is the opposite; places which receive a liturgical tradition from somewhere else tend to be MORE conservative in maintaining its oldest forms, while it continues to evolve in its place of origin.
What, then, did the rubric “Dominica vacat” actually mean? It seems clear that originally, it must have simply meant a day without a Lenten station. Although the Mass of Ember Saturday was not as monstrously long as proposed by the scenario given above, it was still, of course, lengthy, and likely very taxing to the elderly celebrant, who would have had to travel with his court across the city from the ancient papal residence at the Lateran to get to the Ember Saturday station at St Peter’s Basilica, and then back. The Popes therefore gave themselves a well-deserved day of rest by staying home on the Second Sunday of Lent, before resuming the regular observance of the stations on the following afternoon.
A modern drawing of the old St Peter’s Basilica.
We know from certain features of the ancient liturgical books that there was not an absolute uniformity of practice even within Rome itself, and it can also hardly be supposed that every person in Rome would attend the Papal Mass at St Peter’s. Therefore, the parishes would have had their own separate Masses on Sunday morning, and this would explain why the Gospel (but again, not the Epistle) was repeated from the previous day. The people who attended Mass in the parishes on the Sunday would thus hear the important story of the Transfiguration, which did not get its own feast day until the 15th century, and was read nowhere else in the liturgy.
A 16th-century Russian icon of the Transfiguration
This would also explain the discrepancies between the Gregorian propers of the Mass of the Second Sunday as it appears in various Uses of the Roman Rite. In Rome, the cantors would know their own tradition well enough to know which Mass they sang on the day with no propers of its own. When people outside of Rome received their copies of the Roman liturgical books, the Second Sunday of Lent was marked as “Dominica vacat”, so they filled in the gaps in their chant book and lectionary as they saw fit. But even here, the variation is limited to a very narrow range; already by the 10th century, it had become the established custom to repeat the Mass of the previous Ember Wednesday.
If the repetition of the Gospel of the Transfiguration was instituted in Rome for the benefit of those who had not been present at the previous day’s station, it seems likely that the custom of repeating the chants of Ember Wednesday on the Second Sunday of Lent also originated in Rome. The two Masses are connected by the fact that the two Epistles of that Wednesday are about the forty day fasts of Moses and Elijah respectively, who appear in the Gospel of the Sunday as witnesses to the Transfiguration. This custom also does not fit at all with the idea that the Mass of Ember Saturday was said on Sunday morning; if this had ever been the case, one would reasonably expect that the Mass chants of the Saturday would be used on the Sunday.
Finally, in regards to the Divine Office, the oldest Roman Office antiphonary does in fact have on Ember Saturday six antiphons taken from the Gospel of the Transfiguration, three of which are repeated on Sunday. The current arrangement by which two of these have dropped out of use appears to be an historical accident of no significance.

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