Friday, November 26, 2021

The Five Week Advent

The most ancient liturgical books of the Roman Rite attest that the Roman Advent was originally five weeks long, rather than four. The oldest surviving sacramentary, known as the Old Gelasian Sacramentary, dates to about 750 AD, and represents the Roman Rite as it stood about 50 years earlier; it has five Masses “de Adventu(m) Domini” (although these are not assigned to specific Sundays), and Masses of the three Ember days of December. About 30 years later, in the Gellone Sacramentary, we find five Sundays of Advent, the first of which is placed after the Mass of St Chrysogonus on November 24; these are counted backward from Christmas as “the fifth Sunday before the birth of the Lord, the fourth Sunday”, etc. All the prayers of the First to Fourth Sundays of Advent in the Missal of St Pius V are found in the same places in Gellone on the Second to Fifth Sundays.

Folio 122r of the Gellone Sacramentary, with the Mass of the “Fifth Sunday before the birth of the Lord”, under the header “Here begin the prayers of the Advent of the Lord.” (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 12048)
The Wurzburg lectionary, the oldest of the Roman Rite, was copied out in about 700 AD, but its contents date to about 650. The Gospel section has no readings for Advent at all, nor any hint of the season’s existence. The Epistle section places the readings for the December Ember days after the feast of St Andrew on November 30th; all but one of these are identical to those of the Tridentine Missal. They are followed by five Epistles “de Adventu Domini”, which include the four Sunday Epistles read in Advent today, in a slightly different order.

The Roman Missal still preserves a reminder of this older custom, even though in the final decades of the 8th century, with the transition to the so-called Gregorian Sacramentary, Advent was shortened to four weeks. The Collect of the last Sunday of the liturgical year begins with the same word, “Excita – stir up”, as those of the 1st, 2nd and 4th Sundays and Ember Friday of Advent, and the Gospel, Matthew 24, 15-35, has an apocalyptic theme similar to that of the First Sunday of Advent, Luke 21, 25-33.
Another relic of this is found in the Divine Office. Normally, any given week of the year (or set of weeks) has about 8-12 responsories for Matins. Depending on the season, 7 or 9 of these are said on Sunday, the rest on Monday, with some series running into Tuesday; once they have all been said, those of Sunday are repeated on the remaining weekdays. In Advent, however, there is a special set of responsories which are said on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of both the first and second weeks of Advent. This set was apparently originally said in the second week of a five-week Advent; when the season was shortened, these texts were preserved by means of a unique arrangement found nowhere else in the Office, which fits five weeks’ worth of responsories into only four weeks.
This table shows the distribution of the Matins responsories of the first two weeks of Advent; those of the first Sunday are marked with red numbers, those of the second with blue numbers, and those of the extra series with green numbers. (Click to enlarge.)
In the Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites, Advent is six weeks long, beginning on the Sunday after November 11, the feast of St Martin. The keeping of a fast similar to that of Lent in preparation for Christmas, and beginning around St Martin’s day, is first attested towards the end of the fifth century. The oldest sources agree that it was less strict than that of Lent, originally kept only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and over time, it gradually fell out of use altogether. However, nothing in the ancient sources indicates that this was ever the liturgical custom of the Roman Rite, or that the Roman Advent was ever tied to the feast of St Martin, which is not in the Old Gelasian Sacramentary or the Wurzburg epistolary. The oldest Roman liturgical texts for Advent speak of fasting only in connection with the Ember days.
All of these customs long predate any period when people thought to write down explanations of why they made specific additions or changes to the liturgy, although we are often able to glean such reasons from other writings or historical facts. In the case of the Roman Advent, we can reasonably speculate, but perhaps no more than that, that its varying lengths derive from the different ways the Fathers of the Church divided the history of the world before the coming of Christ.
In his book “On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed” (22.39), St Augustine divides the history of the world into six periods, each marked by a covenant between God and His people.
“…five ages of the world having passed, the first of which is from the beginning of the human race, that is, from Adam, who was the first man to be made, down to Noah, who constructed the ark at the time of the flood; then the second goes to Abraham, who was chosen as the father indeed of all those nations which should follow the example of his faith, … the third age is from Abraham to King David, the fourth from David to that captivity by which the people of God migrated to Babylon, and the fifth from that migration down to the coming (adventum) of our Lord Jesus Christ. From His coming, the sixth age begins, so that now that spiritual grace, which was then known to a few patriarchs and prophets, may be made manifest to all nations…”
In this context, the conclusion of this passage could very well be taken as a reference to the liturgical season which runs from Christmas to Epiphany, in which God’s grace is indeed “made manifest to all nations.”
Ss Gregory and Augustine, ca. 1510, by the Spanish painter Juan de Borgoña (1470 ca. – 1536; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
St Gregory the Great became Pope 160 years after the death of St Augustine; it hardly needs to be said that his writings were especially influential on the Roman liturgical tradition. In his sermon on the Gospel of Septuagesima Sunday, Matthew 20, 1-16, he modifies Augustine’s division of time as follows, according to the hours at which the workers are hired to work in the vineyard. “The morning of the world (i.e., the first hour) is from Adam to Noah; the third hour is from Noah to Abraham; the sixth is from Abraham to Moses, the ninth from Moses to the coming of the Lord; and the eleventh is from the coming of the Lord to the end of the world.” This may also have been inspired by a different tradition found in various writings of Augustine himself, which gives a four-fold division of the entire history of humanity: “before the Law”, from creation to Moses; “under the Law”, from Moses to Christ; “under grace” from Christ to the end of the world; and “in peace”, which is to say, eternity. (De diversis questionibus LXXXIII 66.3, cited in “Bede and the End of Time” by Peter Darby, p. 24, footnote 40.)
The original Roman Advent of five weeks would therefore correspond to St Augustine’s six-fold division of time: five weeks to represent the five ages of the world before the coming of Christ, and the season from Christmas to Epiphany to represent the sixth age. The reduction of Advent to four weeks would correspond to St Gregory’s four ages before the coming of Christ, with one age after. The fourth week of Advent is only complete in those years in which Christmas falls on a Sunday; this would represent the fact that humanity has not yet come to the fullness of time in which it will live “in peace” after the end of this world, and the coming of the new creation.

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