Monday, April 05, 2021

The Ambrosian Gospels of Easter Week - Part 1: the Gospels “of the Solemnity of Easter”

This week, we will present a series on the Ambrosian liturgy of Easter week; the articles are based on notes written by our long-time Ambrosian writer Nicola de’ Grandi, translated and expanded in a few places by myself.

In the Ambrosian Rite as in the Roman, the Octave of Easter is often called “in albis – in white”, from the color of the garments worn by the neophytes who had been baptized during the Easter vigil. This custom is attested already in the time of St Ambrose, who writes in the De Mysteriis (7, 34), “After these things you received the white garments”, and in the De Sacramentis (5, 3, 14), “The Church rejoices at the redemption of many, and is glad that the family (of those dressed in) white stands with Her in spiritual exultation.”
The Biasca Missal
However, it is a uniquely Ambrosian custom to call the octave day of Easter “Dominica in albis depositis – the Sunday on which the white (garments) are laid aside.” Already in the Biasca Missal, dated from the end of the 9th century to the middle of the 10th, this title is also applied to the Saturday within the octave, since the ceremony at which the newly-baptized laid their white garments aside took place at Vespers of that day. Low Sunday is thus effectively outside the octave, which begins with the Easter vigil and concludes on the following Saturday. To this very day, the Ambrosian Rite preserves this custom in its use of liturgical colors; white is worn during the Easter octave, but green in the season after Easter, starting at First Vespers of Low Sunday.
An Ambrosian Mass of Eastertide celebrated in green vestments at the church of Santa Maria della Consolazione; notice how the chasuble is help up very high during the incensations.
A similar custom seems to have obtained in the Roman Rite, since the Gospel for the “clausum Paschae – the closure of Easter”, as it is called in some liturgical books, John 20, 19-31, was originally read on Low Saturday, then later moved to Low Sunday. This change may well have taken place during the pontificate of St Gregory the Great, whose homilies preserve traces of the reading of this Gospel on Saturday.
Another uniquely Ambrosian characteristic is the presence of a very ancient series of two Masses for each day within the octave, one “of the solemnity”, and the other “for the baptized.” The former are, of course, the Masses of the feast of Easter itself; the latter form a final series of lessons for the newly-baptized former catechumens.
A reconstruction of the cathedral complex of Milan, with the summer church of St Thecla on the left, and the winter church of the Virgin Mary at the right. The octagonal structure in front of St Thecla is the baptistery of St John “ad fontes”; the smaller structural beneath it is another baptistery, which was dedicated to St Stephen. At the lower right is a partial reconstruction of the interior of the baptistery of St John.
The Duomo of Milan as it stands today is the result of a project which began in 1386, to replace the two cathedrals which had hitherto served the see of St Ambrose. The “winter church”, as it is still named in Ambrosian liturgical books, was the smaller of the two, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and used from the Third Sunday of October, the feast of its Dedication, until Holy Saturday; it stood where the modern cathedral stands, but was nowhere near as large. The larger “summer church” stood on the opposite end of the modern Piazza del Duomo, and was dedicated to St Thecla, for which reason her name is included in the Canon of the Ambrosian Mass. During each day of the Easter octave, the Mass “of the solemnity” was originally celebrated in the summer church, and the Mass “for the baptized” in the winter church. After the latter was demolished in 1543, the Masses for the baptized were celebrated at one of the new duomo’s side-chapels.
The ruins of the baptistery of St John, which are now under the parvis of the modern duomo.
The ruins of the baptistery of St Stephen, under the sacristy on the north side of the duomo.
The Ambrosian Rite traditionally has three readings (including the Gospel) on all Sundays and feasts, but only two on ferial days, the putative model for the same arrangement in the post-Conciliar Roman lectionary. However, there are also exceptional ferial days which have three readings like a Sunday. These are the Saturdays of Lent, which are dedicated to the rites of preparation for the baptism of the catechumens, and those of both sets of Masses for the Easter octave, those “of the solemnity” as the continuation of the feast, and those “for the baptized”, which complete the catechumenal lessons of the Lenten season.
In all western liturgical traditions, the Gospels of the ferias “in albis”, including those of the Ambrosian Masses “of the solemnity”, are taken from the final chapters of the four Gospels, those which narrate the Lord’s appearances after the Resurrection. Here we note some of the affinities between the Ambrosian order of these readings and those of other western rites.
On Easter Sunday: John 20, 11-18, the meeting of Mary Magdalene with the Angels and with Jesus, whom she mistakes for the gardener, the “Noli me tangere” episode. This choice of Gospel reading, like those of the Triduum, comes from the ancient liturgy of Jerusalem, as attested in Armenian lectionaries derived from that rite, although the various codices do not agree on where the reading begins. In the Roman Rite, this passage is read on Easter Thursday; in the Gallican, on Easter Friday. In the Mozarabic rite, it is part of the Gospel on Easter itself, John 20, 1-18.
“Noli me tangere”, ca. 1498-1500 by the Milanese painter Bartolomeo Suardi, better known as Bramantino, one of his earliest surviving works; fresco detached from walls of the church of Santa Maria del Giardino in Milan, which was demolished in 1865, and now in the museum of the Sforza Castle. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Easter Monday: Luke 24, 1-12, the women at the tomb encounter the angel, and proclaim the Resurrection to the Apostles. At Aquileia, this was read on Easter Wednesday; in the Gallican Rite, on Easter itself.
Easter Tuesday: Matthew 28, 8-15, the women encounter the Risen Lord while departing from the tomb; He commissions them to proclaim the Resurrection to the Apostles; the bribing of the guards. 
The Ambrosian Rite is the only Western rite which reads this passage during the octave of Easter.
In the Roman Rite, these last two were originally part of a very ancient series of Gospels assigned to the ferial days of the Easter season, the former on Wednesday after Good Shepherd Sunday, and the latter on Friday after Low Sunday. In the tradition that became the Missal of St Pius V, the ferial Gospels were not included outside of the Lenten season and the Ember days, and these passages do not occur. They remained in many other medieval Uses until the era of the Tridentine reform.
Easter Wednesday: Luke 24, 13-35, the Supper at Emmaus. In the Roman Rite, this is the Gospel of Easter Monday; at Aquileia and in the Mozarabic Rite, of Easter Tuesday.
Easter Thursday: Matthew 28, 16-20, the appearance of the Lord to the Apostles on the mountain in Galilee, and the Great Commission. In the Roman Rite, this is read on Easter Friday, at Aquileia, on Easter Sunday.
Easter Friday: Mark 16, 1-7, the two Marys and Salome meet the angel, who proclaims the Resurrection to them. In the Roman Rite, this is the Gospel of Easter Sunday, in the Gallican Rite, it is read in a longer form (15, 47 – 16, 11) on Easter Monday.
Easter Saturday: John 21, 1-14, the appearance of the Lord at the Lake of Tiberias, and the miraculous drought of fish. The Ambrosian Rite shares this custom with the ancient Gallican liturgy; in the Roman Rite, it is read on Easter Wednesday, in the Mozarabic on Friday.
In the Roman Rite, the Gospel on Easter Saturday was originally that which is now read on Low Sunday, John 20, 19-31, the incredulity of St Thomas. When this passage was moved forward a day, it was replaced by John 20, 1-9, in which Mary Magdalene announces the Resurrection to Ss Peter and John, who then run to the tomb. In some ancient Ambrosian codices, this latter appears as an alternative Gospel for this day; at Aquileia, it was read on Easter Monday, in the Gallican Rite on Thursday, and in the Mozarabic, as part of the Gospel of Easter Sunday.
On Low Sunday: the Ambrosian Rite shares the long-standing custom of the Roman, Aquileian, Gallican, Mozarabic and Byzantine Rites, by which the story of the incredulity of St Thomas is read.

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