Wednesday, November 23, 2022

From All Saints to Advent: the Dedication Feasts of November

In the Roman Breviary, the Matins lessons for the dedication feasts of the Lateran and Vatican basilicas state that Pope St Sylvester I (314-35) consecrated them on November 9th and 18th respectively. However, there is no contemporary or early historical source that attests to this. The Liber Pontificalis, which dedicates a considerable amount of space to Sylvester’s career, says nothing of it; neither do his contemporary Eusebius of Caesarea, the famous Church historian, or the acts of Sylvester mentioned in the Gelasian Decree (ca. 500 A.D.) as one of the reliable lives of the Saints to be read in the liturgy. The tradition of these dates seems to have been popularized by a much later sermon which was commonly read at Matins of a church dedication. [1]
The Consecration of the Lateran Basilica by Pope St Sylvester I; fresco in the transept of that basilica, by Giovan Battista Ricci (1597-1601). The decorations in this part of the church were commissioned by Clement VIII (1592-1605), the same Pope who issued the Roman Pontifical, the liturgical book which contains the rite of a church consecration. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)
The earliest liturgical books of the Roman Rite do not have these feasts, nor indeed, any annual commemoration of a church’s dedication at all. Such feasts are one of the enrichments introduced into the liturgy in the Carolingian period, and these particular two examples are indisputably post-Carolingian. As I noted in an article last week, in the Middle Ages they were kept only in Rome itself, and did not begin to be celebrated by other churches until after the Tridentine reform, when those churches adopted the Breviary and Missal of St Pius V, and their calendar with them.
This means that they also post-date the institution of the feast of All Saints, and I here make bold to offer an explanation of why this may be relevant. It is impossible to say, and I certainly do not pretend to say, whether this was a deliberate choice of the unknown persons who instituted them, or another happy example of the mysterious providence by which God refines the liturgy towards ever great beauty and intricacy.
On October 31st, the Church militant upon the earth prepares itself for the great solemnity of All Saints with a day of fasting, as it does for all the greatest feasts. On November 1st, it celebrates all the Saints in the Church triumphant in heaven, and the following day, prays for all those in the Church suffering in Purgatory. Thus, the three liturgical days are dedicated to the three parts of Christ’s mystical body, on earth, in purgatory, and in heaven.
Speaking only of those feasts which are attested on calendars of the Roman Rite from the earliest times [2], November continues with at least one feast of each of the traditional classes of Saint: the Apostle Andrew on the 30th; a martyred bishop, Pope St Clement I, on the 23rd; a martyr, St Chrysogonus, on the 24th (plus the Eastern martyrs Theodore and Menna); a group of several martyrs, the Four Crowned Martyrs, on the 8th; a confessor, St Martin, on the 11th; a virgin and martyr, Cecilia, on the 22nd, and a matron, St Felicity, also on the 23rd. Thus the month itself becomes, so to speak, an icon of all the Saints.
The calendar page for November in a Gregorian sacramentary produced in the second half of the 9th century at the abbey of St-Amand-les-Eaux, about 130 miles north north-east of Paris. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 2290). All of the Saints named above are included except for the Egyptian martyr Menna, whose feast coincides with that of St Martin, kept in Gaul as a solemnity of the highest degree, and therefore without commemoration. 
With the exception of Martin, each of these Saints is also very Roman. St Andrew is the Apostle Peter’s brother, and has been the subject of great devotion in the Eternal City from earliest times. The rest are either Roman themselves or have important Roman connections. Clement, Chrysogonus, Cecilia and the Crowned Martyrs all have large and prominent basilicas in the city; Felicity had one near the catacomb where she was buried, and the feast of her seven sons on July 10th is in all Roman liturgical books, going back to the so-called Leonine Sacramentary.
Looking back to the earliest calendars, there is no other month which has such a variety of different kinds of Saints, and almost all of them Roman. Perhaps this was the inspiration for placing the annual commemoration of the dedication of Rome’s cathedral in November as well, once such a commemoration had been instituted as a regular feature of the liturgy. And when this was done, the logical thing would be to also add the commemoration of the dedications of the basilicas of Ss Peter and Paul, the Roman church’s two apostolic founders and principal patrons. This complex month-long celebration of the church of Rome and its Saints would then serve as the link between All Saints and the beginning of the new liturgical year in Advent, the season which draws our mind both to the first coming of Christ in the Incarnation, and His second coming in glory at the end of the world, when all the Saints shall be perfected in the fullness of His Redemption.
The placement of the two dedication feasts between All Saints and Advent thus also reminds us of the mediating role which the Church itself plays in bringing us to our own place in heaven among the angels and the saints. And perhaps it is not too extravagant to posit that there is some intentional symbolism in placing them at intervals of nine days, the number of the choirs of angels in heaven: the dedication of the Lateran is on the 9th, of Ss Peter and Paul on the 18th, and the earliest possible beginning of Advent on the 27th.
The interior of the dome of St Peter’s basilica, with Christ, the Virgin, the Baptist and the Twelve Apostles, and above them, the choirs of angels, with God the Father in the mosaic inside the lantern. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Gary Ullah, CC BY 2.0)
[1] The first part of this sermon, which opens with the words “Consecrationes altarium”, was read as the lessons of the first nocturn of a church dedication in the pre-Tridentine Roman breviary, and the Office of many other liturgical Uses. In the breviary of St Pius V, it is rewritten according to the general literary criteria of that reform, and read in part in the second nocturn of November 9, and in part on the 18th, with various other material added to it. The lessons for these two days were considerably expanded in later additions, in order to give more of the history of the three churches as they were rebuilt and renovated in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
[2] All of these are in their places by the time the first version of the Gregorian Sacramentary was created towards the end of the 8th century.

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