Thursday, March 11, 2021

A Lenten Station Mass in the Roman Forum

Today’s Mass is one of the series instituted by Pope St Gregory II (715-31) when he abolished the older custom of the Roman Rite, by which the Thursdays of Lent were “aliturgical” days on which no Mass was celebrated. The station appointed for the day is at the basilica of Ss Cosmas and Damian, which was constructed by Pope St Felix IV (526-30) in the Roman Forum, partly by rebuilding two earlier structures. As we see it today, this church preserves very little of its original appearance. The one surviving part of its earliest decoration, the apsidal mosaic, has been heavily restored more than once. Because the Forum is within the Tiber’s flood plain, the church was very badly damaged over the course of the Middle Ages, and in 1632, Pope Urban VIII had a new floor put in roughly 23 feet above the level of the old one, effectively cutting the building in half.
The Stational Mass at Ss Cosmas and Damian in 2017; photo by the great Agnese. The forward tilt of the apsidal mosaic is determined in part by the fact that it was meant to be seen from a vantage point more than 20 feet lower than the current floor of the church.
This Mass is unique in that three of its prayers, the Collect, Secret and Post-Communion (but not the prayer “over the people” at the end), were originally composed for the feast of the Saints to whom the station church is dedicated; in the Old Gelasian Sacramentary, the oldest sacramentary of the Roman Rite, they are assigned to the feast of Ss Cosmas and Damian on September 27th. It is not at all evident why the compilers of the Gregorian Sacramentary decided to move them from the feast to the station without altering their wording, so that the Collect speaks of the “blessed solemnity of Cosmas and Damian”, and the Secret of the sacrifice offered “in the precious death of Thy just ones.” (On the feast itself, these prayers are replaced with the ones found in the Missal of St Pius V.) The only other prayer of a stational Mass that refers to a Saint in this way is the Collect of Sexagesima Sunday, which mentions St Paul, at whose tomb the station is held. However, this prayer was composed specifically for the Mass of Sexagesima, and does not refer to the day as a feast, nor is there any mention of St Paul in the other prayers.
In the Lent volume of The Liturgical Year, Dom Prosper Guéranger attempts to explain this anomaly as an imitation of the Byzantine Rite, and is followed in this by the Blessed Schuster. The Byzantine Third Sunday of Lent is effectively kept as a feast, known as the Veneration of the Holy and Life-Giving Cross. The following Thursday, today, marks the middle of Byzantine Lent, and has some special liturgical texts which encourage the faithful to persevere in the fasting and other exercises which they have already half-completed. Guéranger and Schuster therefore both explain the festal character of today’s Roman stational Mass as an imitation of the festal character of the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross and of Mid-Lent.
The church of the Pontifical Russian College in Rome on the Third Sunday of Lent in 2015. The cross is brought from the sanctuary and set in the middle of the church in this fashion at the end of Orthros, and removed after the Ninth Hour on the following Friday.
However, Mid-Lent is in point of fact a very minor feature of the Byzantine liturgy. There are references to it on each weekday after the Veneration of the Cross (as Guéranger does note), but there are far more of them on Wednesday and Friday than on Thursday, and in any case, they are on every day vastly outnumbered by references to the Cross. Furthermore, the texts about Mid-Lent are encouragements to perseverance, but do not have a festal character such that one would call it a “blessed solemnity.” For example, the very first such text on Monday begins “having now completed half the hard toil of our self-restraint...”
If the Byzantine Rite had any influence on the Roman in this regard, it seems much more likely it would be felt rather on Laetare Sunday, which has a similarly festive tone, and would determine the station for that day at the basilica of the Holy Cross. It may also perhaps have influenced the choice of Gospel for the Tuesday after Laetare, John 7, 14-31, which begins with the words, “Now about the middle of the feast.” However, it is difficult to see what any of this has to do with Ss Cosmas and Damian; they were indeed Saints from the Byzantine East, but hardly the only ones with a church in Rome.
Folio 35r of the Gellone Sacramentary ca. 780 AD. The Mass of today’s station at Cosmas and Damian begins with the next-to-last rubric; the prayers are not those of the Saint’s feast day.
There is a further problem with this explanation. The Old Gelasian Sacramentary was copied out ca. 750 AD, but represents the state of the Roman liturgy of about 50 years earlier, before the aforementioned reform of St Gregory II. The manuscript therefore contains nothing at all for the Thursdays of Lent. However, later Gelasian sacramentaries, made towards the end of the 8th century or beginning of the 9th, do include Masses for these Thursdays, but the prayers which they have for that of the third week are not those of Ss Cosmas and Damian, and have nothing festive about them. This means that the festive character of the station suggested by the prayers currently in use may well not be original, and would therefore have played no role in determining the station. It seems to me that it would therefore be better to simply recognize that the anomaly cannot be satisfactorily explained.
The choice of some of the other liturgical texts for this Mass, however, is quite easy to understand. By the time of St Gregory II’s reform, the chant repertoire for the Masses was already regarded as a closed canon; therefore, new Gregorian propers were never composed for the Thursdays of Lent, which instead borrow them from other Masses. The Introit is taken from the 19th Sunday after Pentecost: “I am the salvation of the people, saith the Lord; from whatsoever tribulation they shall cry out to me, I will hear them, and I will be their Lord forever.”
The Latin word for “salvation” here, “salus”, also means “health”, and was clearly chosen because Cosmas and Damian were doctors; in the East, they are two among several Saints known as “moneyless” healers, those who did not charge their patients for their services. This theme is also reflected in the Gospel, Luke 4, 38-44, which recounts Christ’s healing of St Peter’s mother-in-law, followed by various other healings of physical ailments (vs. 40) and the expulsion of many demons (vs. 41). These physical healings look back to the Gospel chosen by Gregory II for the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, the healing of the centurion’s servant (Matt. 8, 5-13). The healing of the possessed looks back to the healing of the possessed daughter of the Canaanite woman on the Thursday after that (Matt. 15, 21-28), and forward to the Gospel of Passion Thursday, Luke 7, 36-50, the anointing of Christ’s feet by the sinful woman. This woman has long been understood in the West to be St Mary Magdalene, “from whom seven demons had gone out”, as stated at the beginning of the next chapter. (Luke 8, 2)
At the end of the Gospel, the people of Capharnaum “stayed (Jesus) that he should not depart from them, to whom he said, ‘To other cities also I must preach the kingdom of God.’ ” These words are appointed to be read in the first Christian church built in the Forum, the very heart of ancient Rome, which the Romans themselves often called simply “The City.” Ending the reading with Christ’s own words about preaching to other cities therefore reminds us of the providential role which the Roman Empire played in the spread of the Gospel: first, by pacifying the world, as noted in the Martyrology entry of Christmas, which states that Christ was born “in the forty-second year of the rule of Octavian Augustus, when all the world was set at peace”; second, by building the road system which Christian missionaries used to travel to every corner of the empire. This may be why the Communion antiphon was also taken from the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, “Thou hast commanded thy commandments to be kept most diligently. O! that my ways may be directed to keep thy justifications.” (Psalm 118, 4-5).
It also reminds us specifically of the German mission of St Boniface, who came to Rome in 718 to receive confirmation of and authority to continue his missionary activities in Germany from St Gregory II. Four years later, he returned to Rome, and was consecrated a bishop for the entire region by the same Pope, given the pallium, and authority to organize a hierarchy. And indeed, considering the significance of this mission, and the active interest which Gregory II took in it, we may well posit that this Gospel was chosen for the Mass first, and then the station chosen as an appropriate place to read it.
All of these themes appear also in the Epistle of the day, Jeremiah 7, 1-7. “Stand in the gate of the house of the Lord, and proclaim there this word…” The original gates of the church of Saints Cosmas and Damian on the Forum side are to this very day preserved from the original building out of which the church was made, and date back to the beginning of the fourth century. As one stands at them, one can look into the Forum and see several of its most important monuments, including the regia, the ancient home of Rome’s chief religious authority, the pontifex maximus, and the temple of the first divinized emperor, Julius Caesar. More than anything else, it was the refusal of the early Christians to participate in the cult of the divinized emperors that led the Romans to persecute them; the admonition of verse 6 to “walk not after strange gods to your own hurt” would therefore refer to the conversion of Rome, the former persecutor, her renunciation of her ancient and false gods, and her role in leading other peoples (at that point, the Germans) to do the same.
The basilica of Ss Cosmas and Damian, seen from the Palatine Hill. The bronze doors seen near the bottom of this photo are the ones mentioned above. Going left from this point of view, but right when exiting the church, the regia is just a few steps down the street which passes in front of it, known as the Via Sacra, and the temple of Julius Caesar is next to the regia.
That none of this is accidental is confirmed by the prayer “over the people” at the end of the Mass, which asks that “the heavenly propitiation may increase (‘amplificet’) the people subject to Thee.” The verb “amplificet” can mean both to increase in number, but also to broaden, in the sense of spreading the Church beyond the former territories of the Roman Empire, as St Boniface was then doing in Germany. The word “subject” is placed first for emphasis in the Latin. The Romans subjected many peoples to their empire, which then became the means of their evangelization. These peoples are now subject to Christ, and worship Him in the very heart of that empire, led by one who now more truly bears the title “Pontifex Maximus.”

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