Monday, April 10, 2023

The Station Churches of the Easter Octave (Part 1)

For the newly baptized Christians of the church of Rome, the octave of Easter was the culmination of both their baptismal preparation, and of the seven-week long series of stational visits that brought them and the Pope to most of the important churches of the city.

The station of the Easter vigil is of course at the cathedral of Rome, the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior, where the Popes also resided from the time of the Emperor Constantine until the beginning of the 14th century. The city’s main baptistery, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, still stands behind the church where Constantine first built it, one of the few surviving parts of the once very large complex of structures that surrounded the Lateran Basilica. (Like the cathedral itself, it has been rebuilt and renovated several times.) After hearing their final set lessons from the Old Testament, the twelve prophecies sung after the Exsultet, the catechumens would process with the Pope and clergy to the baptistery; there the waters of the font were blessed, and the catechumens finally received the sacrament by which they were “buried together with (Christ) into death; that as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life”. (Romans 6, 4) As a symbol of the new life into which they had just entered, they were then clothed in white garments; they would wear these at Mass each day of the Easter octave, and at Vespers, which they attended daily at the Lateran.

A view of the Lateran Baptistery from within the colonnade that surrounds the font in the center, showing the various phases of its building and restoration. The colonnade itself was made in the fifth century of ancient materials despoiled from various structures; the window shows the crest of Pope Urban VIII Barberini, (1623-44), who also restored the lantern; next to it on the left is a portrait of Carlo Card. Rezzonico, Archpriest of the Lateran Basilica from 1780-81, and nephew of Pope Clement XIII; the paintings above are modern copies of originals by Andrea Sacchi (1599-1661). Photograph courtesy of Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.
Having begun the celebration of Easter at a church dedicated to the Savior, the six stations that follow form a hierarchical itinerary of visits to the Roman churches of the most important Saints. In other seasons, the stations are often determined by the liturgical texts, particularly the scriptural lessons, which in many cases were part of the lectionary well before the legalization of Christianity and the building of public churches. In the case of Easter and its octave, the hierarchical nature of this itinerary established the order of the stations, and many of the liturgical texts were then chosen in reference to them.

On Easter Sunday, the Mass is held at St. Mary Major, the Virgin’s most ancient Roman church, a short distance from the Lateran; the Mass is wholly occupied with the Resurrection, and contains no reference to the Queen of all the Saints. This silence is fitting, for the Gospels themselves do not tell us when the risen Christ first appeared to Her. Over the next three days, the newly-baptized were brought to the tombs of Rome’s three principal patron Saints, the Apostles Peter and Paul, and the martyr St. Lawrence; the three churches that keep their sacred relics are also grouped together in the stational observances of Septuagesima, the very beginning of that part of the temporal cycle which is formed around Easter.

The Mass of Easter Monday contains several references to St. Peter, the first being the Introit, from Exodus 13: “The Lord has brought you into a land that floweth with milk and honey, alleluia, that also the law of the Lord may be always in your mouth, alleluia, alleluia.”
In their original context, these words are spoken by Moses to the children of Israel, who have been delivered from the land of slavery and bondage. The Exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea have been understood by the Church from the earliest times as symbols of the soul’s delivery from sin and death in the sacrament of Baptism. In the New Testament, St. Peter is the first to preach and exhort the people to receive Baptism, at the very first Pentecost (Acts 2, 37-41); in early Christian art, therefore, he is often depicted as the new Moses, and shown making water run from a rock as Moses did in the desert. The “law of the Lord… always in your mouth” refers to the new Law given to the Church by Christ to replace the Mosaic Law; this is the basis of another common scene in early Christian art in which St. Peter also figures prominently, the “traditio Legis – handing down of the Law.”

The “traditio Legis” scene depicted on a sarcophagus in the Vatican Museums’ Pio-Christian collection; note the streams of water flowing from the rock between Peter and Paul.
This oblique reference to the “traditio Legis”, in which the Church receives its new Law from Christ through St. Peter, also determines the choice of the Epistle, Acts 10, 37-43. Here Peter testifies to the Resurrection before the Roman Cornelius, no ordinary gentile, but a centurion, and as such, a representative of the might of the empire which then ruled over the Holy Land. Peter speaks in the house of a Jew, Simon the tanner, but to a mixed crowd of Jews and Roman pagans, right after the vision of the clean and unclean animals in the linen sheet; by this vision, it is revealed to him not only that the Mosaic dietary laws are now laid aside, but also that no man shall be called common or unclean. Those among the newly-baptized who still felt themselves close to their Jewish roots were thus reminded by this reading that they were no longer obliged to observe the Law of Moses, while those of pagan origin were reminded that they were not second-class citizens within the Church. “There is neither Jew nor Greek … for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you be Christ’s, then are you the seed of Abraham, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3, 28-29) The Communion antiphon of the Mass then also refers to Peter, in the words of the day’s Gospel, St. Luke 24, 13-35, “The Lord has risen, and hath appeared to Simon, alleluia.”

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