Saturday, March 18, 2023

The Woman Caught in Adultery in the Liturgy of Lent

In the Roman Rite, the Gospel of the woman caught in adultery, John 8, 1-11, is joined at today’s Mass with the story of Susanna, who is rescued from an accusation of adultery by the prophet Daniel. Whether by coincidence or design, these two stories are united not just by a textual theme, but also by a text-critical one; both stories were known in antiquity to be later additions to their respective books, but nevertheless accepted as authentic and canonical by the Church.

Christ and the Adulteress, 1620s, by the French painter Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632), an unabashed plagiarist of Caravaggio. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
Susanna is one of two Greek additions to the book of the prophet Daniel, the other being the episode known as Bel and the Dragon. In the Septuagint, it is placed at the beginning of the book, since it describes Daniel as a youth, and Bel and the Dragon at the end. St Jerome placed them both at the end of his Latin translation of Daniel, and they therefore appear in the Vulgate as chapters 13 and 14 respectively. Since the time of the Protestant reformation, they have been included in many non-Catholic English Bibles with the group of books improperly known as the Apocrypha.
But as with the other so-called Apocrypha, the early Church had no serious doubts about the canonicity of either episode. The earliest Patristic commentary on Daniel, written by Hippolytus of Rome in the first half of the 3rd century, accepts Susanna as a part of the book without distinction, and the hugely influential Biblical scholar Origen, his contemporary, explicitly defended its canonicity. It was frequently depicted in art in the Roman catacombs, and both episodes form part of the Roman Mass lectionary.
Susanna as a lamb between two wolves, from the Arcosolium of Celerina in the Catacomb of Praetextatus, mid-4th century.
The pericope of the adulteress, on the other hand, was a bit slower to find acceptance. It is missing completely from a considerable number of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, including several of the earliest and most important ones, such as the Codexes Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus. Other early manuscripts have it marked in such a way that indicates doubt as to its authenticity, and a few place it at the end of Luke 21, which is why it is sometimes known as “the wandering pericope.” It is not mentioned in some important early commentaries on the Gospel of John, such as those by Ss John Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria. To this day, the Byzantine Rite’s Gospel for the Divine Liturgy of Pentecost goes from the last verse of John 7 directly to verse 8, 12, and the passage is not included in the semi-continuous reading of St John that runs from Easter to Pentecost. (It is included in the lectionary for the feasts of female penitents.)
In the West, the question of its authority was settled by its acceptance on the part of three of the first four Doctors of the Church. St Jerome included it in the correction of the Latin text of the Gospels which he made at the behest of Pope St Damasus I. St Ambrose refers to it as part of the liturgy in his Second Apology for David, and it is still used to this day in the Ambrosian Rite in the same place in which he attests it. St Augustine includes it in his commentary on the Gospel of John, which is by far the most important and widely read such commentary in the West. In his book “On Adulterous Marriages”, he also gives the following explanation of the passage’s absence from some manuscripts, words which have become, alas, all too relevant to our own age.
“But now, after Christ said to the adulteress, ‘Neither shall I condemn thee; go, sin no more henceforth,’ who could not understand that the husband must forgive since he sees that the Lord of them both has forgiven (her)? Nor should she any longer call herself an adulteress, whose crime was wiped away by God’s mercy when she repented.
But clearly the sense of the faithless abhors this, such that some of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, I believe, fearing that free license to sin was being given to their wives, took out of their copies (of the Gospel) that which the Lord did regarding the forgiveness of the adulteress, as if He granted permission to sin when He said, ‘Now sin no longer …’ (De conjugiis adulterinis II, 7.)
The Four Doctors of the Church, by Pier Francesco Sacchi, ca. 1516.
For Hippolytus, Susanna is a figure of the Church beset by her persecutors, but vindicated and saved by the just judgment of God in the person of the prophet Daniel, whose name means “God is my judge.” For St Ambrose, the adulteress is also a figure of the Church, in the broader sense of God’s people, in both the Old and New Testaments, that seeks the Word of God in many places until she finds it in Christ, and is absolved and purified by Him. “And therefore she was waiting about, and everywhere sought the Word of God, because she was wounded, because she was naked, because she was an adulteress in all things, although without blemish in Christ, as she sought a redeemer in her wretched body. Christ joined her to Himself, in order to make her immaculate; He united Himself to her, in order to take away her adultery.” Where Susanna is the symbol of the Church in her fidelity to Christ, and the adulteress is the Church redeemed by Christ when she has been unfaithful to him.
Roughly nine centuries later, William Durandus neatly sums up this union of the two readings as follows: “On Saturday (of the third week of Lent) it is shown that the Lord saves by justice and mercy, whence the Epistle speaks of Susanna, who was saved by justice. The Gospel is that of the woman caught in adultery, whom the Lord delivered through mercy. Therefore, because (she) is saved through mercy, the Church, seeing the weakness of her children, asks to be delivered through mercy in the Introit, saying, ‘Give ear, O Lord, to my words, understand my cry. Hearken to the voice of my prayer, (my king and my God.)’ ” (Rat. Div. Off. 7, 52, 1)
Three further things we may note about this Introit. Psalm 5, from which it is taken, is titled in Greek and Latin “for her that obtaineth the inheritance”, which the Church Fathers naturally took as a reference to the Church. A 4th-century commentary on the Psalms called “Breviarium in Psalmos”, which was long mistakenly attributed to St Jerome, says, “This Psalm is written about the Church, which at the end of the world will obtain the inheritance in all the nations that believe in Christ.” (PL XXVI, 828D-829A)
Secondly, the same commentary explains the words “my king and my God” as follows. “He truly dared to say ‘my king and my God’, even he over whom sin does not reign in his mortal body. ‘My king and my God’, because Thou reignest in me, and sin reigneth not, wherefore Thou art my God. Thou art my God, because my belly is not my God (Phil. 3, 19), because money is not my God, because lust is not my God.” This represents the condition of the Church as symbolized by the adulteress, whose adultery is taken away, and thus lust is no longer her god.
Third, the verse of the Introit continues in the fourth verse of the Psalm, “For to thee will I pray, o Lord; in the morning thou shalt hear my voice.” The story of the adulteress begins when “early in the morning (Jesus) came again into the temple.” This is also a symbol of the adulteress’ conversion, as the Breviarium says: “As long as I am in the darkness of error, He does not hear me, but when the sun of justice (i.e. Christ) shall come into my heart, then He heareth me.”
The Gradual of this Mass is taken from Psalm 22: “If I shall walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils; since Thou art with me, o Lord.” This refers to the fact that both Susanna and the adulteress faced the possibility of being killed, but were saved by the Lord. In many medieval Uses of the Roman Rite, this same gradual was used at the Requiem Mass.
The Offertory is from Psalm 118, verse 133: “Direct my steps according to thy word, that no injustice may have dominion over me, o Lord.” Of this, the Breviarium says simply “and not according to bodily desires, because I am given over to Thy service.” St Hilary of Poitiers comments in a similar vein, “…not according to the ways of the world, not according to the glory of men, not according to the pleasures of the body.” (Tractatus super Psalmos; PL IX, 617D-618A) Thus the Church, freed from the dominion of sin like the adulteress, is able to proceed to the offering of the Holy Sacrifice. And since this Psalm was sung daily for centuries at the hours from Prime to None, those who heard and sang this Offertory would certainly have thought of the first part of the following verse, “Redeem me from the calumnies of men” as a reference to the calumnies made against Susanna, and the second part, “that I may keep thy commandments,” as a reference to the Lord’s command to the adulteress, “Go and sin no more.”
On the ferias of Lent, the Communion antiphons are taken each one from a different Psalm in sequential order, starting on Ash Wednesday with Psalm 1. The days which were formerly aliturgical do not form part of this series, namely, the six Thursdays, and also the first and last Saturday; the ferias of Holy Week are also not included. (See the table below; click for larger view.)

The series is also interrupted on six days when particularly important passages of the Gospels are read, and the Communion is taken from them instead. Here is a magnificent polyphonic setting of the one for today, by the Portuguese composer Frei Manuel Cardoso (1566-1650), a Carmelite friar who worked principally at his order’s house in Lisbon.

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