Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Station Mass of the Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Before the early eighth century, the church of Rome kept the Thursdays of Lent (with the obvious exception of Holy Thursday) and the Saturdays after Ash Wednesday and Passion Sunday as “aliturgical” days. (The term aliturgical refers, of course, only to the Eucharistic liturgy, not to the Divine Office.) This is attested in the oldest liturgical books of the Roman Rite, and in the collection of papal biographies called the Liber Pontificalis, which tells us that Pope St Gregory II (715-31) instituted the Masses of these days. This is why even in the Missal of St Pius V, the Thursdays of Lent borrow their chant parts (the introits, graduals, offertories and communions) from other Masses; the respect for the tradition codified by St Gregory the Great was such that it was deemed better not to add new pieces to the established repertoire. (The two formerly aliturgical Saturdays simply repeat the Gregorian propers from the previous day, indicating that their Masses were added by a different Pope.)
From the first post of the 2018 edition of our annual series on the Lenten stations; part of the portico of St George ‘in Velabro’, and in the distance, the Palatine hill. The hut of Romulus is near the trees seen furthest to the right. (Photo by the Roman Pilgrim, Agnese Bazzucchi.)
The Roman station for the Thursday after Ash Wednesday is held at a church dedicated to St George in an area known as the Velabrum, a small valley at the base of the Palatine hill. (In the Middle Ages, this term was sometimes misunderstood as the romantic-sounding “velum aureum – the golden sail.”) This is a place of tremendous historical importance to the Romans. It is very close to a bend in the Tiber which was said to be where the basket carrying the infant Romulus and his brother Remus came to rest, and where they were discovered and nursed by a she-wolf before being taken in by a shepherd and his wife. When standing in front of the church, one can look up and see the site on the Palatine of an ancient settlement said to be the place where Romulus himself lived; a wooden hut believed to be his very house was still to be seen there in the early decades of the 4th century AD.
The church was originally also dedicated to another soldier and saint, one associated directly with Rome in a way that George is not; namely, Sebastian, who is traditionally said to have been the captain of the imperial bodyguards at the time of the last and worst of the ancient persecutions of the Church, that of the Emperor Diocletian. It seems very likely that this dedication was determined by the church’s proximity to the Palatine, most of which was occupied by the official imperial residence, (and from which the word “palace” is derived). The victors of the persecution, Sebastian and George, are celebrated with proper Christian humility in a low place, while the monument of the persecuting power, the very place from which the edict of persecution was issued and enforced, stands in ruins on a high place.
St George, represented in the apsidal fresco of St George in Velabro, by Pietro Cavallini, 1296; photo by Fr Lawrene Lew, O.P.
The rest of the fresco, with (left to right) the Virgin Mary, Christ, St Peter and St Sebastian, the church’s cotitular; photo by Mr Jacob Stein, from his blog Passio Xpi.
The Gospel of this Mass is that of the healing of the centurion’s servant, Matthew 8, 5-13. In the Gospel of Matthew, the centurion is the first gentile to believe in Christ during His public ministry, saying to Him, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof: but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man subject to authority,…” To this Christ answers, “Amen I say to you, I have not found such great faith in Israel.” This text speaks to a very ancient theme of the Roman Lent, the calling of the gentiles into the Church; in one of the first commentaries on Matthew by a Latin Father, St Hilary of Poitiers calls him “the first man (principem) of the nations that were to believe.” (In Matt. Evang. Comment., 7.3; P.L. IX, col. 955B) The importance of this theme was renewed in the days of St Gregory II by the missions of men like Ss Boniface and Corbinian, whom he had sent north to convert the Germans.
As is the case with some of the other new Masses instituted by Gregory II, the choice of this Gospel was also motivated by the political and ecclesiastical difficulties of those days. For much of the preceding century, the Emperors in Byzantium, the heirs of the Roman Emperors whose ancient titles they still bore, had invented and actively promoted the heresy known as Monothelitism, not their first such invention, nor their last. The ecumenical council which finally condemned that heresy (the sixth in number, and third to be held in the New Rome), adjourned without issuing any disciplinary decrees, as had the one before it. In 692, twelve years after it ended, the Emperor Justinian II called a new council, which pretended to issue disciplinary legislation for the entire Church, and impose its decisions even on Rome itself. His attempt to violently force the Pope to accept this council’s decrees failed because of a popular uprising against the Byzantine authorities, but cannot have failed to remind the Roman church of the events of 50 years previous, when Pope St Martin I died in a distant exile in the Crimea for resisting Monothelitism. Within Gregory II’s reign, a new heresy had arisen from the palace in Constantinople, iconoclasm, followed by a new crescendo of imperial violence against the Church.
Christ and the Cenurion, ca.1571 by Paolo Veronese (1528-88); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The stational church for this day, therefore, associates the centurion, a representative of the authority of imperial Rome, with the victory of Christ over the powers and principalities of this world. That victory is represented first by him, one who humbly places himself under the authority of the King of kings and Lord of lords; secondly, by two of his fellow soldiers, martyrs at the hands of that same authority which they had all once represented, but which had lately betrayed the Faith by arrogating to itself the authority that properly belongs to the Church.
This same idea led to the choice of the Epistle, Isaiah 38, 1-6, the story of the illness of King Hezekiah. Isaiah tells him that he is soon to die, but his prayer to be spared is answered, and he is given fifteen more years of life. This indicates first of all that the prayers of a just man for God’s mercy are heard, another important theme for Lent. Isaiah also tells him that God “will deliver (him) and this city (Jerusalem) from the hand of the king of the Assyrians”; this is surely intended as a reference to both the violence which the Byzantine Emperors had perpetrated or attempted against Rome, and their ongoing Italian wars with the Lombards.
This reading also looks forward to that of the following Thursday, also instituted by Gregory II. The Epistle of that Mass, Ezekiel 18, 1-9, reads in part, “ ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the teeth of the children are set on edge.’ … this … shall be no more to you a proverb in Israel. … And if a man be just … he shall surely live.” It continues on the following day: “the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, and the father shall not bear the iniquity of the son.” (Ezek. 18, 20) Hezekiah was a just king, but the son of a wicked one, and the father of the wicked Manasseh, who repented. His son Amon was a wicked king, whose son was the just Josiah. In other words, Hezekiah and his descendants represent exactly what the next week’s readings from Ezekiel say.
Hezekiah, Manasseh and Amon, from the series of Christ’s ancestors painted in lunettes over the windows of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo, 1508-12.
As noted above, the Gregorian chant propers for the Masses of these formerly aliturgical Thursday are all taken from other Masses. This day’s Mass is unusual in that three of them, the Introit, Offertory and Communion, are all taken from the same Mass, that of the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. This is the Sunday on which the Roman Rite reads one of the most prominent Gospels on the theme of repentance, that of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18, 9-14). This choice seems to have been suggested by a passage from the writings of a notary of St Gregory the Great named Paterius, in a book called “On the Exposition of the Old and New Testament, assembled from different writings of St Gregory the Great” (PL LXXIX, col. 1069C in fine – C), which connects this Gospel with the story of Hezekiah.
“It often happens that the just and the unjust have similar words, but nevertheless their hearts are very different. God is offended by the unjust with the same words by which He is appeased when they come from the just. For the Pharisee entered the temple and said, ‘I fast twice each week, I give tithes of all I possess’, but the publican went out justified rather than he. Also King Hezekiah, when … he had come to the end of his life, grew remorseful and prayed, ‘I beseech Thee, Lord, remember, I ask, how I have walked before Thee in truth and with a perfect heart. And yet the Lord did not despise or refuse this confession of his perfection, … Behold, the Pharisee asserts that he was perfect in his work; Hezekiah asserts this also of his thoughts. From the source of the former’s offense did the latter appease the Lord. Why then is this so, if not because almighty God weighs the words of each man from his thoughts, and in His ears, those words are not proud that are brought forth from a humble heart?”
This connection also appears in the Collect of the Mass, which begins with the words “O God, who are offended by sins, and appeased by penance…”; the passage from Paterius twice contrasts “offended” with “appeased.”
The Communion antiphon was also taken from the Mass of the Tenth Sundy after Pentecost, as a reference to the change of the day’s formerly aliturgical status. “Thou wilt accept the sacrifice of justice, offerings and holocausts, upon Thy altar, o Lord.” This is now sung on a day on which formerly, no sacrifice was made and no altar was used.

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