Thursday, December 16, 2021

Ancient Prefaces of Advent: Part 2 - The Old Gelasian Sacramentary

The Old Gelasian Sacramentary is the most ancient surviving liturgical book of the Roman Rite that contains all the priest’s part of the Mass: the Canon, plus the prayers and prefaces of individual Masses. Like all sacramentaries, it also contains various blessings, which vary from one manuscript to another, depending on their intended use. There are no chant propers or Scriptural readings, which were originally sung out of their own separate books.
Only one copy of it survives in this oldest form, a manuscript in the Vatican Library (Reginensis Latinus 316), which also owns the oldest surviving parallel book of the Byzantine Rite, known as the Barberini Euchologion (Barberini Graecus 336). It was first attributed to Pope St Gelasius I, who reigned from March of 492 to November of 496, by Cardinal Giuseppe Maria Tommasi in 1680; this attribution is now considered incorrect, although some of the prayers within the collection may indeed be the work of that Pope. The manuscript itself nowhere refers to Gelasius, and the title page simply calls it “the book of sacraments of the Roman Church.”
Folios 131v and 132r of the Old Gelasian Sacramentary: on the second page is the beginning of the second book. “Here begins the second book, orations and prayer for the feasts of the Saints.” (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 
Since it includes the four great Marian feasts instituted by Pope St Sergius I, who reigned from 687-701, but does not have the Masses of the Thursdays of Lent instituted in the reign of Pope St Gregory II, 715-731, its contents can safely be dated to about the year 700, although the manuscript itself was made about 50 years later than that. It was copied out in Gaul; there has been a good deal of scholarly discussion as to where specifically and for whom, but this does not concern us here. The term “Old Gelasian – Vetus Gelasianum” distinguishes it from versions of the following generation called “mixed Gelasian”, in which the contents have been in various ways changed or rearranged. For example, the Old Gelasian contains no Masses at all for the period between Epiphany and Septuagesima, whereas in the Gellone Sacramentary of about 30 years later, that season has been fully developed.
The liturgical texts are divided into three books. The first contains the Masses of the Temporal cycle, from the vigil of Christmas, the normal starting point of ancient Roman liturgical books, to the octave of Pentecost. These are followed by a large group of Masses and prayers for particular occasions, including ordinations and church dedications. The second book mostly contains the Masses of Saints, including a few commons, but also the Ember Days of September and December, and last of all, the Masses of Advent. The third book begins with 16 Masses labelled simply “for Sundays”, all of whose contents are found in later manuscripts on the Sundays after Pentecost, then the Canon, a group of a “daily Masses”, and a large number of votive Masses and prayers for special occasions, including the Masses for the Dead. The placement of Advent at the end of the second book, rather than with the rest of the temporal cycle in the first book, may be a survival from when it season was a fairly new addition to the rite.
The first folio of the Gellone Sacramentary: “In the name of the the Lord Jesus Christ, here begins the book of sacraments”, followed by the first prayer of the Mass of Christmas Eve. In the margin, the Virgin Mary is shown holding a cross and a thurible.
As I noted late last month, the Roman Advent was originally five weeks long, and the Old Gelasian Sacramentary has five Masses “in Adventu(m) Domini.” The Ember days are placed after the last of the five, rather than before it, but this is not significant, since early liturgical manuscripts are often not organized as logically as one would suppose. (In the Gellone Sacramentary, Septuagesima, which can occur as early as January 18th, is placed after the feast of St Gregory the Great on March 12.)
However, only two of these Masses have their own prefaces, the first Sunday, and Ember Wednesday. We may reasonably guess that the first of these two was also used on the other Sundays, although there is no rubric to that effect. The Ember Wednesday preface makes reference to the Virgin Mary, and the Gospel of the Annunciation is read on that day, which may indicate that it was only used on that day, but the Gospel of Ember Friday is that of the Visitation, and so it would also be appropriate there.
This, then, is Sunday preface; I have corrected some obvious spelling errors in the original. With a few minor differences, it is still used to this very day on the First Sunday of Advent in the Ambrosian Rite.
Uere dignum: Deus: cui proprium est ac singulare quod bonus es, et nulla umquam a te es commutacione diuersus. Propiciare supplicacionibus nostris et aecclesiae tuae misericordiam tuam quam confitentur ostende, manifestans plebi tuae unigeniti tui mirabile sacramentum, ut in uniuersitate nacionum perficiatur quod per uerbi tui euangelium promisisti, et habeat plenitudo adopcionis quod pertulit testificacio ueritatis: per Christum Dominum.
Truly it is worthy ... God: To whom along it belongeth that Thou art good, and in Thy very nature never subject to any change. Be appeased by our supplications, and show to Thy Church the mercy which She confesseth, making known to Thy people the wondrous mystery of Thy Only-Begotten Son; so that what Thou didst promise through the Gospel of Thy Word may be fulfilled in all the nations of the world, and the fullness of adoption may have that which the truth brought forth in witness. Through Christ our Lord (etc.)
The preface of Ember Wednesday, which, even allowing for changes in pronunciation, and hence in spelling, is full of mistakes; these are corrected in later manuscripts. The use of per with the ablative (“per supplicacionibus nostris”) is a good indicator of the bad state of Latin in early 8th century Gaul, even among those educated enough to produce such a manuscript.
Uere dignum: referentis (-es) graciarum de praeteritis (muneribus) deuocionem, prumpcius (promptius) quae uentura sunt praestanda confidemus; nec est nobis seminum disperanda fecunditas, cum per supplicacionibus nostris annua deuocione uenerandus etiam Matri Uirgine fructu (in later mss. ‘Matris Uirginis fructus’) salutaris interuenit Christus dominus noster. Quem laudent.
Truly it is worthy ... Giving devout thanks for the gifts of the past, more readily do we trust that the things to come shall be granted; nor should we despair of the fruitfulness of the seeds, since He is coming who will be venerated in our annual devotion through our supplications, who is also the saving fruit of the Virgin Mother, Christ our Lord. Whom the angels praise (etc.)
The words “the fruitfulness of the seeds”, and the reference to Christ as the “saving fruit of the Virgin Mary”, look back to the very earliest institution of the Ember days, as days of thanksgiving to God for the fruits of the earth, independent of the liturgical season to which they are attached. In the Missal of St Pius V, this aspect of them is much attenuated, notably present only in September.
Despite the grammatical problems, this second part is very cleverly composed in a way that does not readily admit of a good English translation. “Intervenire”, the verb which I have translated as “comes”, literally means “to come between” one thing and another, and hence, “to intervene” or “to interrupt”. This beautifully conveys the fact that in the Incarnation, which is read as the Gospel of this day, God interrupts the course of human history, and by doing so, brings about its salvation. He is presented as one “who will be venerated” in our annual devotion, which is to say, the feast of Christmas, then as the fruit of the Virgin Mary, but the main verb “intervenit” is saved almost for the end. The subject phrase “Christ our Lord” is placed in such a way that it connects with the closing formula of the preface, “Whom the angels praise”, looking forward to their appearance at the stable of Bethlehem, singing “Glory to God in the highest!”
The Nativity of Christ, by the Flemish painter Willem Benson (1521-74)

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: