Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Mass of the Ember Wednesday of Pentecost

The question of the historical relationship between the octave of Pentecost and the Ember days is a very complicated one, which I do not intend to address in full here. Suffice it to say that the sermons of Pope St Leo I (440-61), who believed the Ember days to be of apostolic institution, make it very clear that they were originally part of the octave. For example, in the first chapter of his second sermon “on the fast of Pentecost”, he says, “It is most evidently clear that among God’s other gifts, the grace of fasting, which follows upon today’s festivity without interruption, was then (i.e. at Pentecost) also granted (to us).” (PL 54, 419A) This is fully in harmony with what we find in the very earliest surviving liturgical books of the Roman Rite. For example, in the oldest Roman Sacramentary, known as the Old Gelasian Sacramentary, the Masses of the Ember days are placed between the feast and octave day of Pentecost.
It is true that in the Carolingian period, starting about 780 AD, the two observances were separated; many liturgical books (but not all) place the Ember days after the octave of Pentecost, and attest to a completely separate set of Masses and readings for them. One very odd point, however, which admits of no ready explanation, is that none of the surviving chant books attest to any Gregorian propers for the Ember day Masses thus observed. In any event, it appears certain that in the reign of Pope St Gregory VII (1073-85), whose feast day was yesterday, the Ember days were definitively reincorporated into the octave. This commentary will therefore discuss the Mass as it stands in the Missal of St Pius V, without reference to prior historical variants.
The Mass of Ember Wednesday of Pentecost, celebrated earlier today at the church of St Eugène in Paris, home of our dear friends of the Schola Sainte Cécile.
The Introit is taken from Psalm 67, which is sung at Matins of the whole octave, and also provides the Offertory of the feast itself.
Introitus Deus, dum egrederéris coram pópulo tuo, iter faciens eis, hábitans in illis, allelúja: terra mota est, caeli distillavérunt, allelúja, allelúja. Ps. Exsurgat Deus, et dissipentur inimíci ejus: et fugiant, qui odérunt eum, a facie ejus. Gloria Patri. Deus, dum egrederéris…
Introit O God, when Thou went forth before Thy people, making a way for them, dwelling among them, alleluia, the earth was shaken, the heavens rained down, alleluia, alleluia. Ps. Let God arise, and let His enemies are scattered, and those that hate Him flee before His face. Glory be. O God, when Thou went forth.
This chant looks forward to the Epistle, Acts 2, 14-21, in which St Peter in his sermon on the first Pentecost cites the prophet Joel, “And I will shew wonders in the heaven above, and signs on the earth beneath.” In its original context, these verses of the Psalm speak of God’s manifestation as He led the Israelites from the Red Sea to Mount Sinai. The rest of the line after “the heavens rained down” is “at the presence of the God of Sinai, at the presence of the God of Israel.” Although these words are not sung here as part of the liturgy, the Introit would remind the attentive listener of the second reading of the vigil of Pentecost, repeated from Easter night, which is the Crossing of the Red Sea at the end of Exodus 14.
The station on this day is at the basilica of St Mary Major, as on every Ember Wednesday, but also on Christmas night; the words “when thou went forth” may also be intended to remind us of the birth of Christ, who came forth from the Virgin. “Dwelling among them” would then be a reminiscence of the Gospel of Christmas day, which says that “the Word dwelt among us”; “the heavens rained down” is vaguely similar to the second responsory of Christmas Matins, which says that “heavens have become flowing like honey.”
The Preaching of St Peter at Pentecost, by Masolino da Panicale, 1426-27, in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence.
Most of the first Epistle (verses 17-21) is St Peter’s quotation of the second chapter of Joel, verses 28-32a, following a different recension from the Hebrew text and the Vulgate of St Jerome which depends on it. The original passage is read as the first prophecy of Ember Saturday, and the verses preceding it (23-24 and 26-27) on Ember Friday.
The Psalm verse said with first Alleluja was often used by the Church Fathers as a proof of the doctrine of the Trinity. “Verbo Dómini caeli firmáti sunt, et spíritu oris ejus omnis virtus eórum. – By the word of the Lord the heavens were established; and all the power of them by the spirit of his mouth.” (Ps. 32, 6) For example, St Ambrose says, “Since the Holy Spirit also proceeds from the Father and the Son, he is not separated from the Father, he is not separated from the Son. For how can he be separated from the Father, who is ‘the Spirit of his mouth’? And this indeed is both a proof of his eternity, and expresses the unity of the divinity.” (De Spiritu Sancto libri tres ad Gratianum Aug., 11, 120; PL 16, 733A)
As I noted yesterday, certain aspects of the Mass of Pentecost Tuesday suggest that it may have been a day associated with the reconciliation of heretics. Today, therefore, the Church unites this verse of the Psalm to an account of the first Pentecost, to proclaim that the orthodox teaching on the Trinity is the very same doctrine held and taught by the Apostles, which began to be diffused through the world on Pentecost. This is also suggested by the preface which we now use on the feast of the Holy Trinity, but which first appears in the Old Gelasian Sacramentary two centuries before that feast was instituted as the preface of the octave of Pentecost.
In the Gospel of the vigil of Pentecost (John 14, 15-21), Christ says that He “shall give you another Paraclete,” which, as St Augustine explains in the Breviary homily, shows that He is also a paraclete, a Greek word which means inter alia “advocate”, “intercessor” and “consoler.” As the Introit refers to God “dwelling among them”, perhaps specifically in reference to the Incarnation, the second prayer asks that “the Holy Spirit may come and make us a temple of His glory by dwelling worthily (therein).” This effectively equates the Son and the Spirit just as the verse of the preceding Alleluja does, and establishes the Holy Spirit’s role as “another Paraclete.” The word “temple” also looks forward to the “porch of Solomon”, a part of the Temple of Jerusalem, mentioned in the next reading as the place where the Apostles and the faithful gathered, but doomed to be destroyed, as Our Lord Himself predicted. This shows that with the coming of the Holy Spirit, each individual follower of Christ becomes the true temple of God.
The Holy Trinity, by a follower of the Flemish painter Artus Wolffort (1581-1641); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The second reading, Acts 5, 12-16, begins with the statement that “by the hands of the Apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people.” The Church Fathers often understood the first words of Psalm 18, “The heavens proclaim the glory of God”, to symbolically mean the Apostles’ proclamation of the faith. The Breviarum in Psalmos attributed to St Jerome states that “ ‘The heavens’ are the Apostles, ‘glory’ is (God’s) work, and ‘proclaim’ means ‘announce’, because they preach the glory of God.” (PL 26, 872C) This is also stated by St Augustine (Enarr. in Ps. 18) and St Gregory the Great (Hom. 30 in Evang.) among others. Since the Apostles work wonders, and “the heavens” symbolically means the Apostles, they are thus represented as the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel quoted by St Peter, “I will show wonders in the heaven above.”
The Gospel, John 6, 44-52 is part of the Eucharistic discourse which takes up most of that chapter. The reason for this choice of passage is not clear, but perhaps, since these Ember days are intended to prepare the Church for the longest stretch of the liturgical year, the time after Pentecost, it was intended as a reminder that on our pilgrimage through this time, we are always sustained by the Bread of Life, “the living bread that cometh down from heaven.” If the Introit is indeed to be read as a reference to the Incarnation as I posit above, then perhaps this Gospel would also be a reference to the today’s station at Mary Major. The chapel attached to the ancient basilica which housed the relics reputed to be those of the crib of Christ was known as “Sancta Maria in Bethlehem”, and as St Gregory the Great points out in his Christmas homily in the Roman Breviary, “Bethlehem” means “house of bread.” The words “Your fathers ate the manna in the desert, and died” look back to the Introit, in which God made the people’s way though the desert to Mount Sinai.
The Offertory chant is sung at the three of the four Ember Wednesdays, those of Lent, Pentecost (with an ‘alleluia’ added for Eastertide), and September. “Meditábor in mandátis tuis, quae dilexi valde, et levábo manus meas ad mandáta tua, quae diléxi, allelúja. – I will meditate upon Thy commands, which I have loved exceedingly, and I will lift up my hands to Thy commands, which I have loved, alleluia.” (Ps. 118, 47-48) The tense of the first verb is changed from the reading of the Vulgate and Septuagint, “meditabar” in the imperfect (“I was meditating”), to the future, for no clear reason. (This is more consonant with the tense, but not the meaning of the verb in Hebrew, “eshta‘asha‘ – I will delight”, but it is unlikely that the composer of the chant knew that.)
A beautiful polyphonic setting by Palestrina.
The Communio, like that of Monday and the first Alleluia of Tuesday, is taken from the Gospel of the feast, to which it therefore unites the Ember day. “Pacem relinquo vobis, allelúja: pacem meam do vobis, allelúja, allelúja. – Peace I leave to you, alleluia; My peace I give you, alleluia, alleluia.” (John 14, 27)

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