Thursday, December 08, 2022

Liturgical Notes on the Immaculate Conception

In the liturgical books of the Tridentine reform, the feast of the Immaculate Conception has no proper Office or Mass; the texts were those of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, with the word “Nativity” changed to “Conception” wherever it occurs. Apart from that, the only difference is the proper readings of the first and second nocturns of Matins, from the book of Ecclesiasticus (24, 5-31) and St. Ambrose’s treatise “On the Virgins.” The proper Office and Mass of the feast currently used in the Roman Rite were promulgated by Bl. Pius IX in 1863, nine years after he made the official dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception on the feast day in 1854.  

The Immaculate Conception, by José Antolínez, 1650
However, the Franciscans kept a proper Office for the feast well before the decree of 1863, even though in most respects they had from the very beginning followed the liturgical use of the Roman Curia, and hence also the Missal and Breviary of St. Pius V. The Order, and famously among them, the Blessed Duns Scotus, had been the great champions of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and kept the feast as that of the “Principal Patron and Protectress of the Order.”

The Office in question was originally composed by Leonardo Nogarolo, a notary in the court of Pope Sixtus IV, who formally approved it in the year 1480. Sixtus IV had been the Minister General of the Franciscans until two years before his election in 1471; and as Pope, he issued two important decrees on the subject of the Immaculate Conception. The first of these, Cum praeexcelsa of 1477, gave formal permission and encouragement to celebrate the feast, which was still not kept in many places. The second, Grave nimis, was issued in 1483, condemning the “preachers of certain orders” who had dared to assert that belief in the Immaculate Conception, and the celebration of the feast, was heresy, while likewise imposing silence on those who asserted the contrary, that denial of the dogma was heresy. “Preachers” refers quite obviously to the Dominicans, who were at the time largely opposed to the idea of the Immaculate Conception as taught by the Franciscans, and particularly Duns Scotus’ explanation of it. In their liturgical books of the later 15th century, the feast on December 8 is usually called the “Sanctification of the Virgin Mary”, reflecting a theory that the Virgin was sanctified in the womb like John the Baptist.

The calendar page for December of a Dominican Missal printed in 1484 (the last year of Sixtus IV’s reign), showing the feast as the “Sanctification of the Virgin Mary”.
Pope Sixtus is of course known especially as the man who commissioned the most famous chapel in the world, the Sistine Chapel, which is nicknamed for him. He also constructed a second chapel within the old basilica of St Peter next door, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and the Office mentioned above was written by Nogarolo specifically for use therein as the proper Office of the titular feast. (Following the normal custom, I will refer to this Office as “Sicut lilium”, the first words of its first antiphon.) For this reason, the first two antiphons at Lauds are borrowed from Lauds of the Dedication of a Church, and do not refer to the Virgin Mary.

The text of most of the other antiphons and responsories is taken from the Bible, and predominantly from the Books of Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus and the Song of Songs. At Second Vespers, however, a rather unique set of antiphons was composed for the Psalms, consisting of quotations from the Church Fathers; some of the texts cited are also read at in the lessons of Matins in Nogarolo’s original version of the Office. In the pre-Tridentine liturgical books, the name of each Father is printed before the antiphon.
Jerome Nihil est candoris, nihil est splendoris, nihil est numinis quod non resplendeat in Virgine gloriosa. – There is no part of brightness, no part of glory, no part of the godhead, such that it does not shine forth in the glorious Virgin. (In the post-Tridentine use, “godhead” was evidently felt to be a bit of an exaggeration, and changed to “virtutis – virtue.”)
Origen Quæ neque serpentis persuasione decepta, nec ejus venenosis afflatibus infecta est.  Who was not deceived by the coaxing of the serpent, nor infected by his poisonous breath.
Augustine (speaking in the person of Christ.) Hanc, quam tu despicis, Manichaee, mater mea est, et de manu mea fabricata.  This woman whom you despise, Manichean, is my mother, made by my own hand. (The text from which this is taken is not an authentic work of Augustine.)
Anselm Decuit Virginem ea puritate nitere, qua major sub Deo nequit intelligi.  It was becoming that the Virgin shine with that purity, than which no greater can be understood beneath God.
Ambrose Hæc est virga, in qua nec nodus originalis nec cortex actualis culpæ fuit.  This is the rod, on which there was no knot of original guilt, nor the bark of any actual guilt. (referring to the rod of Jesse in Isaiah 11, 1)
A similar custom is still observed by the Premonstratensians, who sing the following antiphon for the Nunc dimittis on the Immaculate Conception, with the annotation at the end, “the words of our father Saint Norbert.” (St Norbert and the Premonstratensian Order were, of course, champions of the dogma even before the Franciscans, and in the Middle Ages had an entirely different proper Office of their own for the feast.)
Ant. Ave Virgo, quæ Spiritu sancto præservante, de tanto primi parentis peccato triumphasti innoxia. – Hail, o Virgin, who by the preservation of the Holy Spirit, didst triumph unhurt over the sin so great of our first father.
If I remember correctly, I once read somewhere that “Sicut lilium” was also musically very beautiful, and back in the days when attendance at solemn Vespers was the norm on major feasts, people would flock to Franciscan churches to hear it. If any of our readers can confirm or deny this, I would be interested to hear from you in the combox.

The decree that promulgated the new Office and Mass in 1863 required all religious orders to accept them, and those who preserved their own proper Uses to adapt it to their own particular customs, subject to the approval of the Sacred Congregation for Rites. Since the Franciscans (unlike the Dominicans or Premonstratensians) had always used the Roman Breviary, “Sicut lilium” then ceased to be used; a few parts of it were taken into the new Office, most notably the prayer, which reflects Duns Scotus’ insight on how the Immaculate Conception is possible.
O God, Who by the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, prepared a worthy dwelling place for thy Son; we beseech thee, that, as by the foreseen death of Thy same Son, Thou preserved Her from every stain, so Thou may grant us also, through Her intercession, to come to thee with pure hearts.
One of the most notable features of the 1863 Office is the readings at Matins for the feast and its octave. In the third nocturn, the readings (with one exception, a passage from St Bernard on Dec. 10) are taken from Eastern Saints whose writings had never, to the best of my knowledge, appeared in any form of the Breviary hitherto. These are two patriarchs of Constantinople, Ss Germanus (715-30) and Tarasius (784-806); St Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-38) and great enemy of the Monothelite heresy, and St Epiphanius of Salamis (died 403), a great enemy of heresies generally. (This last is incorrectly attributed.) These passages are unusually long, and rhetorically effusive in the manner of their age, but were clearly chosen to witness the belief of the Universal Church in the Immaculate Conception. The reading of St. Germanus on the feast itself begins thus: “Hail Mary, full of grace, holier than the Saints, more exalted than the heavens, more glorious than the Cherubim, more honorable than the Seraphim, and venerable above every creature.” This is a clear reference to the hymn Axion esti, which is sung in the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.
It is truly right to bless thee, O Theotokos, ever most blessed, and wholly pure, and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, and incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim, without corruption thou gavest birth to God the Word, the true Theotokos, we magnify thee.
Likewise, the litanies of the Divine Liturgy refer repeatedly to the Virgin Mary as “immaculate” at the conclusion, “Having made memory of our all-holy, immaculate, (“ ἄχραντος ”) blessed above all and glorious Lady, the Mother of God and ever Virgin Mary, with all the Saints, let us commend ourselves and one another and all our life to Christ our God.”

The original version of “Sicut lilium” makes only one brief mention of the Virgin Mary’s mother St Anne, in whose womb the Immaculate Conception took place. In the Byzantine Rite, on the other hand, the feast is called “the Conception (in the active sense, ‘σύλληψις’) of Saint Anne, Mother of the Mother of God”. In the icon below, the upper left shows St Joachim in the desert, where he has gone to mourn his and Anne’s barrenness, for the sake of which his offering in the temple had been refused. An angel has come to tell him to return to Anne, and that God will grant them a child who will become the Mother of the Redeemer. In the upper right, the same message is delivered to Anne herself.

The legend on which this image is based goes on to say that Joachim and Anne then went to find each other, meeting at the gate of Jerusalem called “the Golden Gate.” The depiction of their embrace and kiss is often used not only to decently represent the act of Anne’s conceiving, but to distinguish the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin from that of the Virginal Conception of Christ. This legend is referred to in a prayer found in some pre-Tridentine missals and breviaries, such as that of Herford in England; it also commonly depicted in Western art, as seen below in Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
O God, who by an angelic prophecy foretold the Conception of the Virgin Mary to her parents; grant to this Thy family gathered here, to be protected by Her assistance, whose Conception we happily venerate in this great solemnity.
The Meeting at the Golden Gate by Giotto, 1304. The mysterious female figure in black standing in the middle of the gate may represent the devil, whom Christ begins to defeat in the Conception of His Holy Mother. This figure seems also to have been the inspiration for one of the most sinister representations of the devil in modern art, in the movie The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson.

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