Thursday, March 23, 2023

Raising the Dead in Lent

Before the early eighth century, the church of Rome kept the Thursdays of Lent (with the obvious exception of Holy Thursday) and the Saturdays after Ash Wednesday and Passion Sunday as “aliturgical” days. (The term aliturgical refers, of course, only to the Eucharistic liturgy, not to the Divine Office.) This is attested in the oldest liturgical books of the Roman Rite, and in the collection of papal biographies called the Liber Pontificalis, which tells us that Pope St Gregory II (715-31) instituted the Masses of these days. This is why even in the Missal of St Pius V, the Thursdays of Lent borrow their chant parts (the introits, graduals, offertories and communions) from other Masses; the respect for the tradition codified by St Gregory the Great was such that it was deemed better not to add new pieces to the established repertoire. (The two formerly aliturgical Saturdays simply repeat the Gregorian propers from the previous day, indicating perhaps that their Masses were added by a different Pope.)

This change was made in the midst of significant controversies between the Popes and the Byzantine Emperors, first over the Quinisext Synod, and later over the iconoclast heresy. The former, also known as the “Synod in Trullo”, was held in Constantinople in 692 to supplement the work of the fifth and sixth ecumenical councils, which had both adjourned without issuing any disciplinary decrees; hence its peculiar name, which means “Fifth-Sixth.” The Emperor Justinian II called it to legislate for the whole Church, without reference to Rome, and attempted to impose its decrees by force. The response of Pope St Sergius I (687-701) was not only a defiant refusal to recognize or approve the synod; he also added the Agnus Dei to the Mass, “a protest against canon 82 of the Synod in Trullo, which forbade the symbolic representation of the Savior in the form of a Lamb.” (Msgr. Louis Duchesne, in his critical edition of the Liber Pontificalis, quoted in the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on the Agnus Dei.)

Pope Sergius also added this mosaic to the triumphal arch of the church of Ss Cosmas and Damian, where Pope Gregory II instituted another one of the new Thursday stations, that of the third week of Lent. (Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew O.P.)
Before his election to the Papacy, Gregory II served the church of Rome under four Popes. Ordained a subdeacon by Sergius, in 710 he accompanied Pope Constantine on a year-long visit to the imperial capital, and negotiated a compromise with Justinian II on Rome’s acceptance of the Trullan decrees. Two months after their departure, the emperor was deposed and executed, and succeeded first by an active supporter of the heresy condemned by the sixth ecumenical council, then, after two very brief reigns, by Leo III, the inventor of Iconoclasm. As the latter initiated a brutal persecution which gave many martyrs to the Church, relations between him and the Pope deteriorated; in a famous letter, Gregory writes “It grieves us that the savages and barbarians are becoming tame, while you, the civilized, are becoming barbarous.” (The “savages” are the peoples of northern Europe, then being converted to Christianity by St Boniface, whom Gregory himself had sent to Germany.)

In such a climate of tension between the Pope and Emperor, the institution of the Lenten Masses of Thursday should be seen as another rejection of Byzantine practice as codified at the Quinisext Synod, the 52nd canon of which decrees, “On all days of the holy fast of Lent, except on the Sabbath, the Lord’s day and the holy day of the Annunciation, the Liturgy of the Presanctified is to be said.” Since the Byzantine council had established that the Eucharist not be celebrated on the ferial, fasting days of Lent, Gregory II all but abolished the practice in Rome.

The liturgy thus instituted for today, the Thursday of the fourth week of Lent, copies several features from that of the following day. In the Epistle of the older Mass on Friday, the prophet Elijah raises a dead child to life (3 Kings 17, 17-24); in that of Thursday, his disciple Elisha does the same (4 Kings 4, 25-38). The Gospel on Friday is the raising of Lazarus (John 11, 1-45), on Thursday, that of the son of the widow of Naim (Luke 7, 11-16). The older Lenten station on Friday is kept at the church of St Eusebius; the newer station on Thursday is kept less than a third of a mile away, at the church of Ss Sylvester and Martin on the Esquiline Hill. (In Italian it is now usually called “San Martino ai Monti.”)

The stational Mass at San Martino ai Monti in 2016. (Photo by our favorite Roman pilgrim, Agnese Bazzucchi.)
The church of St Eusebius was chosen for the reading of the Gospel of Lazarus because it stands right next to a large necropolis, a “city of the dead”, which dated back even before the founding of Rome itself. In this way, the Church, led by the bishop of Rome, proclaimed to the ancient pagan world Her belief in the resurrection of the body, made possible by the death and resurrection of the Savior. San Martino stands on the opposite side of the necropolis, in an area where even more tombs have been discovered than in the part closer to St Eusebius.

Eusebius himself was a Roman priest traditionally said to have died in the mid-4th century after several months of forced confinement in his house, inflicted on him because of his stance against the Arian heresy. As such, he was venerated as a “Confessor”, a title which originally meant one who had suffered for the Faith, without being violently killed. (The distinction between Martyrs and Confessors is sometimes a bit blurry.) Pope Sylvester I and Martin of Tours, to whom the station church of Thursday is jointly dedicated, were the first two Saints venerated as “Confessors” in the modern sense of the term, a male Saint who was not an Apostle or Martyr. Among the titular Saints of the Lenten station churches, these are the only Confessors. (The station of the following Saturday is now held at the church of St Nicholas ‘in the Prison’, but was originally at St Lawrence Outside-the-Walls.)

The question then arises as to why it was felt necessary or useful to have two stational Masses so similar to each other on two successive days. The answer lies in the theological controversies of the era, and the resulting clashes between the Old and the New Rome.

For most of the 7th century, the Church was plagued with the Monothelite heresy, the teaching that in Christ, the human faculty of the will is absent, replaced by the divine will. The history and purpose of this heresy are very complicated matters; suffice it to say here that its chief promotor, the Emperor Heraclius (610-41), enshrined it in law by a decree known as the Ecthesis, supported by the contemporary Patriarchs of Constantinople. In 648, his grandson Constans II (630-68) attempted to impose silence on the resulting controversy by an imperial edict; Pope St Martin I, elected in July of the following year, held a synod at the Lateran basilica very shortly thereafter, which condemned the edict of Constans, the Ecthesis, three Patriarchs of Constantinople, and one of Alexandria.

In response to this, the Pope was arrested by Constans’ exarch and brought to Constantinople, where he was kept in a jail for months and subjected to appalling mistreatment; eventually tried for treason, he was sent to the city of Kherson on the Crimean peninsula (the very end of the earth for a Roman), where he died of the hardships of his exile. He is the last Pope venerated as a martyr, although he would perhaps have been called a Confessor by his contemporaries, since he did not die a violent death. (The title “Confessor” has become the standard epithet of the greatest opponent of Monothelitism, St Maximus, whom Constans tortured and maimed by cutting out his tongue and cutting off his right hand.)

A 17th-century Russian icon of St Maximus the Confessor, with events of his life in the surrounding panels. He is shown being tried and imprisoned more than once; the removal  of his tongue and right hand is the second panel from the bottom on the right side. (Public domain image from Wikipedia.)
It was the son of Constans, Constantine IV (668-85), who called the Sixth Ecumenical Council of the Church, which definitively condemned the Monothelite heresy and its supporters, while vindicating the memory of Pope Martin and St Maximus. This was the third held at Constantinople, from 680-81, and took place in the same domed hall, or “trullo”, where the Quinisext Synod would be held 11 years later.

During the 15th session (April 681), there occurred one of the strangest events (among many) in the long and checkered history of the Ecumenical Councils. A leading Monothelite, a priest named Polychronius, offered to prove the truth of the doctrine by raising a man from the dead, and was allowed to put this claim to the test before the assembled council fathers. In a public square, he laid a copy of the heretical profession of faith on the chest of a corpse, and prayed whispering in the dead man’s ear for several hours, to no effect. Despite his promise to the contrary, he refused to recant after his failure, and was condemned as both a heretic and a blasphemer. (Mansi XI, p. 609)

All of this was very recent history when Pope Gregory II instituted the Mass for this day, and the station at the church dedicated to the first two Confessors. One of these, St Sylvester, was Pope at the time of the First Ecumenical Council, Nicea I, which condemned Arianism, and was also called by an Emperor named Constantine; the other, St Martin of Tours, was likewise an opponent of the Arians, the namesake of Pope Martin (see note below), and known to have raised three persons from the dead. (As he himself was wont to note, two before his episcopal consecration, but only one after.) The Epistle of the day recalls how Elisha raised the dead child by laying on top of him, “and his flesh grew warm”; surely this would have reminded those who were present for the first celebrations of this Mass of the failed attempt at the recent council to raise a dead man by laying something on his chest.

Within St Gregory II’s lifetime, imperial Byzantium had twice professed and repudiated the Monothelite heresy, and was then moving on to Iconoclasm, and once again persecuting the orthodox. The stational Mass of this day may thus be read as a declaration that it is the Church of Rome which professes the true doctrine of the Incarnation, and the fruit thereof, when She says at the end of the Creed, “I await the resurrection of the dead.”

The Raising of the Widow of Naim’s Son, by Mario Minniti, 1620
Note: It is also stated in various sources, but with some uncertainty, that the relics of Pope St Martin I were later brought to the church; I cannot find any clear reference as to when this is supposed to have taken place.

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