Monday, November 21, 2022

The “Barbarous” Sequence of the Presentation

In the revised edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints by Fr Herbert Thurston SJ and Donald Attwater (1956), each main entry is followed by a series of notes of a more scholarly and technical nature. The notes on the feast of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary include the following statement: “In the Henry Bradshaw Society’s reprint of the Missale Romanum of 1474 (vol. ii, pp. 251-253) is an interesting note which, while pointing out that the Presentation feast does not occur in the calendar or text of the 1474 edition, prints a Mass for the feast from a Roman missal of 1505. This includes a long sequence so barbarously worded that one can readily believe that St Pius V thought it better to suppress the feast altogether – as he did – rather than tolerate the continued recitation of such doggerel.”

The fact that this could find its way into print in a serious publication demonstrates what an atrocious state liturgical scholarship was when Thurston wrote these notes in the 1930s, and still was when Attwater put his hand to revising them in the 1950s. And indeed, the entire entry on the feast is grossly lacking. It states that it is “not very ancient”, while simultaneously asserting that it probably originated with the dedication of a church to the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem in 543, making it older than a great many other feasts on the calendar in both East and West. [1] But it fails to mention that it is counted among the Twelve Great Feasts of the Byzantine Rite, which celebrates it with a fore-feast and an after-feast, the equivalent of the Roman Rite’s vigil and octave.
An icon of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple, as the feast is called in the Byzantine Rite. Note that the Virgin is represented as a small adult, rather than as a child; the reason for this is give below. (Cretan, 15th century; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
It is certainly true that the feast did not become common in the West until the later part of the 15th century, and that Pope St Pius V removed it from the first editions of the Breviary and Missal issued after the Council of Trent. But the idea that he did so because of its sequence is absurd on two grounds. The first is that the sequence, and the proper Mass of the Presentation to which it belongs, only appear in two of the early printed editions of the Roman Missal. [2] Most editions simply have a rubric which says that on November 21st, the Mass of September 8th is repeated, changing the word “Nativity” to “Presentation.” (The Ambrosian Rite still follows this custom to this day, excepting only the first reading and the Alleluja.) There was therefore already an established custom of celebrating the feast in a manner fully in keeping with the Roman liturgical tradition, and which would not give offense to anybody’s literary sensibilities.

A page of a Roman Missal printed at Venice in 1521, in which the Mass of the Presentation consists solely of the aforementioned rubric in the upper part of the right column.
The second is simply that the sequence in question, while hardly a great masterpiece of its genre, is not bad, and it is difficult to see why Thurston and Attwater refer to it as “barbarously worded” and “doggerel.” It is in fact very typical of its genre and period. The true reason for the suppression of the feast in 1568, and along with it, those of the Virgin Mary’s parents, obviously lies in the fact that the episode comes from an apocryphal Gospel known as the Protoevangelium of James. We may take this as an object lesson, that even the Church’s formal recognition of a Pope’s sanctity is no guarantee that his interventions in the liturgy are all done for the best. And likewise, we may thank St Pius’ successor, Gregory XIII, for restoring the feast of St Anne in 1584, Sixtus V for restoring the Presentation the following year, and Gregory XV for restoring St Joachim in 1622: worthy men all, but none of them a Saint.

Here then is the text of the sequence; the first letters of each stanza form an acrostic: “Ave Maria; benedico te. Amen.” As told in the Protoevangelium, when she entered the temple at the age of three, the Virgin already walked as if she were fully mature; this is the reason why in icons of the Presentation, she is represented not as a toddler, but as a small adult. The sequence also refers to the tradition that when it came time for the maidens who served in the temple to marry, St Joseph was chosen as her spouse because a flower bloomed on his walking staff, as did the rod of Aaron in Numbers 17. The translation is taken from the English edition of the apposite volume of Dom Gueranger’s Liturgical Year, with several modifications. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, there is no recording available on YouTube.
The Marriage of the Virgin, ca. 1475-95, by an anonymous Netherlandish painter known as the Master of the Tiburtine Sybil. In the background are various other episodes from the Protoevangelium of James: in the upper middle, Joachim walks away from the temple, as his offering is rejected, since he is believed to be disfavored by God because of his failure to beget a child; he then goes out into the desert, and in the far background, an angel comes and tells him to return to his wife, and that they will conceive a child; Joachim and Anne are reunited at the gate of Jerusalem. At the left, the birth of the Virgin, and opposite, Her entry into the temple, with Joachim and Anne looking on behind her. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)  
Altissima providente,
Cuncta recte disponente,
Dei sapientia:
As the Wisdom of God,
foreseeing the greatest mysteries,
disposeth all things rightly:
Uno nexu coniugatis
Ioachim et Anna gratis
Iuga sunt sterilia.
Joachim and Anne
are united in wedlock,
but their union is sterile.
Ex cordis affectu toto
Domino fideli voto
Se strinxerunt pariter:
With all the heart’s affection
they together bind themselves
by faithful vow to the Lord:
Mox si prolem illis dare
Dignetur, hanc dedicare
In templo perenniter.
that if He deign to give them a child,
they soon will consecrate it
for ever in the temple.
Angelus apparuit
Lucidus, qui docuit
Exaudita vota,
A bright Angel appears,
and tells them their prayers
are heard
Regis summi gratia
Ut detur his filia
Gratiosa tota.
By the most high King’s grace,
a daughter shall be given them,
full of grace.
In utero consecrata,
Miro modo generata,
Gignet mirabilius
Consecrated in the womb
born in a wondrous manner,
more wondrously will she give birth
Altissimi Patris natum,
Virgo manens, qui reatum
Mundi tollet gratius.
to the Son of the Father most high,
remaining a virgin; and He shall
freely take away the world’s guilt.
Benedicta virgo nata,
Templo trina præsentata,
Ter quinis gradibus
Blessed is the Virgin born, at three
years presented in the temple;
by the fifteen steps
Erecta velox ascendit,
Et uterque parens tendit,
Ornando se vestibus.
Swift and erect, she ascends
adorned with her beautiful robe,
as her parents’ watch.
Nova fulsit gloria
Templo, dum eximia
Virgo præsentatur.
The temple shines with
a new glory, when the august
Virgin is presented;
Edocta divinitus,
Visitata cælitus
Angelis lætatur.
Taught by God,
Visited from heaven,
she rejoices with the Angels.
Dum ut nubant iubet multis
Princeps puellis adultis,
Primo virgo renuit.
When the chief (priest) bids
the maidens of adult age to marry,
the Virgin at first refuses;
Ipsam namque devovere
Parentes, ipsaque manere
Virgo voto statuit.
for her parents have devoted her
to God, and she herself has
vowed to remain a virgin.
Consultus Deus responsum
Dat ut virgo sumat sponsum,
Quem pandet flos editus.
God, being consulted, answers
that the Virgin shall take that spouse
whom the blooming flower shows;
Ostensus Ioseph puellam
Ad parentum duxit cellam,
Nuptiis sollicitus.
Joseph thus chosen weds the maiden,
and leads her to his parents’ home,
careful of the marriage.
Tunc Gabriel ad virginem
Ferens conceptus ordinem,
Then Gabriel is sent to the Virgin,
bearing (God’s) command
of her conception;
Erudita stat tacita,
Verba quam sint insolita
the prudent Virgin stands silent,
pondering over the strangeness
of the message.
At cum ille tradidit
Modum, virgo credidit,
Sicque sacro Flamine
But when he explains how this
shall be, she believes him;
and thus by the Holy Spirit
Mox Verbum concipitur,
Et quod nusquam clauditur,
Conditur in virgine.
Soon the Word is conceived,
and He whom no space can contain
is concealed within the Virgin.
Ecce virgo singularis,
Quanta laude sublimaris,
Quanta fulges gloria.
Behold, peerless maiden, with what
great praise thou are exalted,
with what great glory thou shinest.
Nos ergo sic tuearis,
Ut fructu quo gloriaris
Fruamur in patria. Amen.
Therefore, do so protect us,
that in our fatherland we may
enjoy the fruit, whereby
thou art so honored. Amen.

[1] This church, known as the “nea ekklesia – the new church”, or simply the Nea, was a project of the emperor Justinian, and was located very close to the site of the temple of Solomon into which the Virgin entered, the event celebrated by today’s feast. Its dedication was celebrated on November 20, 543; it seems likely, therefore, that the Presentation came into existence as a concomitant feast for the anniversary of this dedication, as the Exaltation of the Cross did for the dedication of the Holy Sepulcher. Thurston and Attwater inexplicably given no indication of any of this. (The Nea no longer exists; another church of the same name was built in Constantinople in the later 9th century, and has also disappeared.)
Jerusalem in a mosaic map in the floor of the church of St George in Madaba, Jordan, ca. 570 A.D., discovered in 1884. The main street is clearly visible running through the middle of it; the Nea Ekklesia is the building which fronts on it at the end of the street on the right. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
[2] The Bradshaw Society’s critical edition cited above notes that they were both printed in Venice. This means that the printers, not as yet constrained by any law of the Church as to what they might or might not add to the Missal, added the proper Mass of the Presentation to their edition from other sources. Thurston and Attwater should not have even surmised that Pius V suppressed the Mass because of its sequence without demonstrating first that the sequence was known and used at Rome itself.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: