Thursday, April 08, 2021

The Ambrosian Gospels of Easter Week - Part 2: the Gospels “for the Baptized”

We continue with our series of Nicola de’ Grandi’s notes on the Ambrosian liturgy of Easter week, translated by myself.

As noted in the previous article in this series, the Ambrosian Rite has a particularly interesting feature in its celebration of Easter week which is unique to itself, and very ancient. Each day within the octave, there are two Masses, one “of the solemnity”, and the other “for the baptized,” a final series of lessons for the newly-baptized former catechumens. The former were originally celebrated in the larger of the two cathedrals which served the see of St Ambrose in antiquity and the Middle Age, also known as “the summer church”, and dedicated to St Thecla. The latter were celebrated in the smaller “winter church” dedicated to the Virgin Mary, where the neophytes would come together with the archbishop each day for a special post-baptismal Mass. Since the consolidation of the two churches into one, starting in the later 14th century, the custom has been to celebrate the Mass “for the baptized” in a side-chapel; this was also traditional in all of the city’s collegiate churches.
Partial ruins of the basilica of St Thecla were discovered under the Piazza del Duomo when construction began on a subway station in the early 1960s.
The celebration of two Masses at least on the Easter vigil, which is now done only in the Ambrosian Rite, is attested by the pilgrim Egeria in her diary of her visit to Jerusalem at the end of the 4th century. “The Easter vigil is done in the same way as we do it (i.e. in her native Spain)… and when the Eucharistic offering has been completed, the people are dismissed. And after the dismissal at the vigil in the greater church (i.e., the Holy Sepulcher), at once they go to the Anastasis, and there again, the Gospel account of the Resurrection is read, the prayer is said, and again the bishop makes the Eucharistic offering.” (Itinerarium Egeriæ XIII, 1-2) This seems, therefore, to be another case in which Milan owes its Paschal liturgical customs to Jerusalem.
A similar practice was also formerly observed in other churches of the Milanese ecclesiastical province, many of which also had two churches in their cathedral complex; among them (according to Mons. Klaus Gamber) Aquileia, which was, however, detached from the province of Milan already in the 5th century.
The church of Santa Maria de Dom in Brescia, built in the first half of the 12th century to replace an older “winter church” on the same site which was destroyed by a major fire in 1095. Further details are given in an article based on Nicola’s photos published last July.
In regard to the oldest liturgical sources of the Ambrosian Rite: a codex kept in the Capitular Library of the basilica of St John the Baptist in Busto Arsizio contains a very ancient order of readings, one which certainly predates the major reform which the Ambrosian lectionary underwent in the Carolingian period. This codex has two different lists of Gospels, a “capitulary”, which is older, and gives only the incipits, and a later “evangeliary”, which gives the full texts. Both lists attest the two Gospels only for the Easter vigil, exactly following the use of Jerusalem. The presence of two Masses for each day of the octave, on the other hand, is characteristic of the post-Carolingian sources, in particular, of the so-called Gospel book of the Cardinal Deacons.
As described in the first article in this series, the Gospels for the Masses “of the solemnity” of Easter are all attested in the same period, or at least within the Easter season, in other Western Rites, albeit on different days. The Gospels of the Masses for the baptized, on the other hand, are completely unique to the Ambrosian tradition, and form a mystagogical catechesis, centered principally on the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, which were both administered at the Easter vigil, and but also more broadly on the Christian life and beliefs that inform it.
A page of an Ambrosian Missal printed at Milan in 1548. The Gospel of Easter Sunday Mass “for the Baptized” is towards the upper part of the left column.
The Gospel of the Mass for the baptized on Easter itself, John 7, 37-39a, is one of the shortest, but nevertheless, one of the most important for the entire liturgical year.
“On great day of the festivity, the Lord Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If any man thirst, let him come to me, and drink. He that believeth in me, as the scripture saith, Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now this He said of the Spirit which they should receive, who believed in him.”
The Ambrosian is the only Western rite that reads this Gospel during the octave of Easter; elsewhere, it was read in Lent, either in connection with the Passion, as in the Roman Rite (on Passion Monday, verses 32-39), or as the continuation of an earlier reading of John 7, as in the Mozarabic Rite and some Gallican lectionaries. In the context of the Milanese celebration of Easter, it appears as a description of the effects of the Sacraments newly received by the neophytes, first among them, of course, baptism. This was, of course, followed immediately by their first reception of the Holy Eucharist, much as the Eastern churches still to this very day administer Communion immediately after baptism.
St Ambrose himself attests to this custom when he describes the actions of the neophytes as they have come out of the baptismal font: “Cleansed and enriched by these signs, the people comes forth to the altar of Christ, saying ‘And I will go in to the altar of God, to God who giveth joy to my youth.’ ” (De Mysteriis 8,43), Likewise, the fourth book of the De Sacramentis concludes as follows: “Finally, hear David once again, saying ‘Thy youth shall be renewed as the eagle’s. (Ps. 102, 5). You have begun to be a good eagle, one who seeks heaven and disdains the things of earth. Good eagles are around the altar, ‘for where there is the body, there also are the eagles. (Matt. 24, 28). The form of the body is the altar, and the body of Christ is on the altar; you are eagles, renewed by the washing away of your sin.”
A further proof of the connection between the two Sacraments in the context of Easter is found in an ancient Ambrosian chant which is now used as the Transitorium (like the Roman Communio) on Easter Thursday and Pentecost, but is found in some antiphonaries on Easter itself.
“Hymnum canite Agni mundi, lavacro fontis renati, satiati corpore Christi. Hallelujah, hallelujah. – Sing ye the hymn, o pure lambs, renewed by the washing of the font, sated by the Body of Christ, alleluia, alleluia”.
This text is also used in the Rite of Benevento as the Communio of the Easter vigil.
This tradition likewise explains why the during the Easter octave, the catechetical Gospel readings focus on both baptism and the Eucharist.
Easter Monday: Matthew 5, 1-12, the Beatitudes. This same Gospel is read on the first Monday of Lent, followed by the rest of the Sermon on the Mount on the ferias of the first four weeks of that season. The post-baptismal mystagogical catechesis thus parallels the pre-baptismal catechesis.
Easter Tuesday: John 5, 1-15, the healing of the paralytic at the sheep pool.
Easter Wednesday: Matthew 5, 44-48, Christ’s command to love our enemies and do well to those that hate us.
Easter Thursday: John 6, 51-58, Jesus describes Himself as the living Bread, necessary for eternal life.
Easter Friday: John 6, 35-40, Jesus describes Himself as the living Bread come down from heaven.
Low Saturday: John 13, 4-15, the washing of the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. (The Evangeliary of Busto Arsizio gives John 6, 1-14, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.)
The following articles of this series will offer some more detailed explanations of the liturgical use of these passages.

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