Saturday, April 03, 2021

The “Kyrie puerorum”: An Ancient Tenebrae Tradition

Our thanks to Mr Jehan-Sosthènes Boutte for sharing with us this artice about a particularly interesting medieval variant found in the Tenebrae Offices of various Uses.

Most readers of this site are familiar with the Tenebrae services traditionally held on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and with the particular ceremonial which accompanies them according to the Breviary of Saint Pius V, and its subsequent revisions until the 1950s. What they may not know is how different Tenebrae could be in other uses of the Roman rite. While the structure and most of the content was the same everywhere, many Uses had some variations to the service, and kept them for a long time; indeed, some have kept them to this very day.
One such variation regarded the end of the service. As it is widely known, in the Tridentine Breviary, Tenebrae ends with the singing of the “Christus factus est”, the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 50 (Miserere mei Deus), the prayer “Respice quaesumus Domine” and the “Strepitus”, which was described thus by an article written here some years ago:
Then the strepitus begins--the noise that symbolizes the earthquake that took place at Christ's death, which is made by banging books on the choir stalls. While this symbolism maintains, it is also as if, with the strepitus, we’re begging Christ to come out of the tomb, especially on Holy Saturday. While the strepitus is still going on, the Christ candle--the Light which the darkness cannot overcome--is brought back out and replaced in the hearse, and all depart in silence.
On this point, however, the Tridentine Office was more an exception than a rule, since most Uses of the Roman Rite concluded Tenebrae with a short and unusual litany, sometimes called the “Kyrie puerorum” (Kyrie of the children), which differed only in some slight details from one Use to another. ~ There are reasons to believe this litany was once part of the Roman Office. The incredibly rich site of the Schola Sainte-Cécile tells us the following:
When the Roman Office was simplified due to the exile of the Papacy in Avignon, the singing of the Gradual Christus factus est replaced a very curious and old litany – present in the Antiphonary of Compiègne – in which that same text, Christus factus est, was sung, in between several verses, on another melody. This ancient litany was kept by most French diocesan rites, particularly that of Paris.
The Antiphonary of Compiègne being one of the most ancient Roman antiphonaries we have today, it’s presence in the ancient basilical Roman Office is plausible, even though one can wonder how such a strange text could have found a place in the austere Office of the Roman Church.
In any case, this litany was sung in most French uses, with the notable exception of the Use of Lyon; it was also present in the Sarum and Dominican Uses. Here is the text of this litany as it appears in this latter rite (the text is virtually identical to that of the Sarum liturgy):
Kyrie, eleison. Kyrie, eleison. Kyrie, eleison.
Dómine, miserére.
Christus Dóminus factus est oboediens usque ad mortem.
Kyrie, eleison. Kyrie, eleison. Kyrie, eleison.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ the Lord became obedient unto death.
On Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday, the following is then sung:
℣. Qui passúrus advenisti propter nos. ℟. Christe eleison.
℣. Qui expansis in cruce mánibus, traxisti omnia ad te sáecula. ℟. Christe eleison.
℣. Qui prophétice prompsisti: Ero mors tua, o mors. ℟. Christe eleison.
℣. Thou who camest to suffer for our sake. ℟. Christe eleison.
℣. Thou who with hands outstretched upon the cross didst draw all ages unto Thyself. ℟. Christe eleison.
℣. Thou who prophetically foretold: I shall be thy death, o death. ℟. Christe eleison.
On Good Friday, this part is replaced with the following:
℣. Agno miti basia cui lupus dedit venenósa. ℟. Christe eleison.
℣. Vita in ligno móritur: infernus et mors lugens spoliátur. ℟. Christe eleison.
℣. Te qui vincíri voluisti, nosque a mortis vínculis eripuisti. ℟. Christe eleison.
℣. Let us greet with a kiss the gentle Lamb to whom the wolf gave poisoned kisses. ℟. Christe eleison.
℣. Life upon the Tree did die: hell and death in anguish are despoiled. ℟. Christe eleison.
℣. Thyself wert willing to be bound, and so didst redeem us from the bonds of death. ℟. Christe eleison.
In both cases, it is concluded as follows:
Dómine, miserére.
Christus Dóminus factus est oboediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis.
Kyrie eleison. Kyrie eleison. Kyrie eleison.
Dómine, miserére.
Christus Dóminus factus est oboediens usque ad mortem.
Mortem autem crucis.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ the Lord became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.
Kyrie eleison. Kyrie eleison. Kyrie eleison.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ the Lord became obedient unto death.
Even the death of the Cross.
When those words are sung, the friars prostrate themselves or kneel, and recite a silent Pater noster, after which, Psalm 50 is recited recto-tono. The celebrant says the prayer “Respice quaesumus”, without “Dominus vobiscum” or “Oremus”, then strikes his hand on a book or on his choir-stall and all leave in silence.
Of course, as I said earlier, this rite has some variations depending on the local use. For instance, in the Parisian rite, after the Kyrie came the verse “Domine miserere, parce famulis tuis” (Lord have mercy, spare Thy servants). And in the Hungarian rite of the diocese of Esztergom, the litany ended with the singing of the Christus factus est as it is known in the Tridentine Breviary:
Being no theologian, I will not risk a comment on all verses of this litany; it is perhaps enough to look at the last verse of Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday, which always struck me: “Thou who prophetically foretold: I shall be thy death, o death”. This is a perfect example of a Christian liturgical interpretation of the Old Testament; this verse is taken from Hosea 13, 14: “O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite”, and is also used as the first antiphon of Lauds on Holy Saturday. It reminds us that the victory of Christ over death is not a metaphor: He did not “merely” give us life after death (although that would have already been most merciful from Him), nor did He conquered death in an allegorical way. He did really and permanently conquer physical death for all those who shall be saved; such is the meaning of the resurrection of the dead, of whom Christ was the first. This is also what separates Christianity from all other religions; while the latter often speak of a life after death, in which death is seen as a necessary (or even a good and desirable thing) step to eternal happiness, Christ and His Church promise us not only to live after death, but also to rise from our graves; for as the Byzantine Easter troparion says, “upon those in the tomb, He hath bestowed life”.
After the reforms which followed Vatican II, Tenebrae fell out of use in most places; and consequently, the few churches which kept a distinct Use for Tenebrae largely abandoned them. But just as Tenebrae has in recent years won a good deal of popularity back among Catholics, we can hope the same will happen for the “Kyrie puerorum”, especially considering the fact that it never was completely absent. The Order of Preachers has kept it intact in its proper version of the Liturgy of the Hours; indeed, I discovered this litany when attending Tenebrae in a Dominican convent. While the service itself was mostly an adaptation of the Dominican office in French, along with bits and pieces from various places, it ended nevertheless as it always had in the Order of Saint Dominic, with the Kyrie puerorum.
Here is the service of Holy Saturday as it is performed in the Dominican province of Toulouse, in Southern France. The litany starts at 1:34:30.
Moreover, the revived interest in Sarum Rite in the English-speaking world might also leave room for a rediscovery of its version of the “Kyrie” – especially considering there are now numerous resources for the rite of Salisbury in both Latin and in English.
Last but not least, the late professor Laszlo Dobszay of happy memory suggested that this litany be included ad libitum in a hypothetical revision of the Roman Breviary (pre-Divino Afflatu). Therefore, while rejecting archeologism, we ought to recover those ancient particular traditions where and when they were observed, inasmuch as they may be profitable for the faithful.

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