Thursday, April 06, 2023

The Station Churches of Holy Week (Part 2)

The icon of the Virgin Mary, known as the “Salus Populi Romani”, in the reredos of the Borghese chapel of the basilica of St Mary Major. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Fallaner, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The station of Spy Wednesday is held at St. Mary Major, also the station church of the four Ember Wednesdays; as in the Embertides, and the Wednesday of the fourth week of Lent, there are two readings before the Gospel. The first of these is Isaiah 63, 1-7, preceded by a part of verse 62, 11. [1]

Thus sayeth the Lord God: Tell the daughter of Sion: Behold thy Savior cometh: behold his reward is with him. Who is this that comes from Edom, with dyed garments from Bosra, this beautiful one in his robe, walking in the greatness of his strength? I, that speak justice, and am a defender to save. Why then is your apparel red, and your garments like theirs that tread in the winepress? I have trodden the winepress alone, and of the gentiles there is not a man with me: I have trampled on them in my indignation, and have trodden them down in my wrath, and their blood is sprinkled upon my garments, and I have stained all my apparel. etc.
The Fathers of the Church understood this passage as a prophecy of the Passion of Christ, starting in the West with Tertullian.
The prophetic Spirit contemplates the Lord as if He were already on His way to His passion, clad in His fleshly nature; and as He was to suffer therein, He represents the bleeding condition of His flesh under the metaphor of garments dyed in red, as if reddened in the treading and crushing process of the wine-press, from which the laborers descend reddened with the wine-juice, like men stained in blood. (adv. Marcionem 4, 40 ad fin.)
This connection of these words with the Lord’s Passion is repeated in very similar terms by St. Cyprian (Ep. ad Caecilium 62), who always referred to Tertullian as “the Master”, despite his lapse into the Montanist heresy; and likewise, by Saints Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechesis 13, 27) and Gregory of Nazianzus (Oration 45, 25.)

The necessary premise of the Passion is, of course, the Incarnation, for Christ could not suffer without a human body. Indeed, ancient heretics who denied the Incarnation often did so in rejection of the idea that God Himself can suffer, which they held to be incompatible with the perfect and incorruptible nature of the divine. St. Ambrose was elected bishop of Milan in the year 374, after the see had been held by one such heretic, the Arian Auxentius, for twenty years. We therefore find him referring this same prophecy to the whole economy of salvation, culminating in the Ascension of Christ’s body into heaven, thus, in the treatise on the Mysteries (7, 36):
The angels, too, were in doubt when Christ arose; the powers of heaven were in doubt when they saw that flesh was ascending into heaven. Then they said: “Who is this King of glory?” And while some said “Lift up your gates, O princes, and be lifted up, you everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in.” In Isaiah, too, we find that the powers of heaven doubted and said: “Who is this that comes up from Edom, the redness of His garments is from Bosor, He who is glorious in white apparel?”
In the next generation, St. Eucherius of Lyon (ca. 380-450) is even more explicit: “The garment of the Son of God is sometimes understood to be His flesh, which is assumed by the divinity; of which garment of the flesh Isaiah prophesying says, “Who is this etc.” (Formulas of Spiritual Understanding, chapter 1) Therefore, like the Mass of Ember Wednesday, this Mass begins with a prophecy of the Incarnation as the church of Rome visits its principal sanctuary of the Mother of God, in whose sacred womb began the salvation of man.

The Risen Christ and the Mystical Winepress, by Marco dal Pino, often called Marco da Siena, 1525-1588 ca. Both of the figures of Christ in this painting show very markedly the influence of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.
This is also the day on which the church reads the Passion according to St Luke, who has a special association with the Virgin Mary. Most of what the New Testament tell us about Her was recorded in his writings, including almost all of the words actually spoken by the Her; this fact lies behind the tradition that St. Luke painted a picture of the Virgin, which is figuratively true even if it were not literally so. It is his account of the Passion that tells of the meeting between Christ and a group of women on the way to Mount Calvary, (chapter 23, 27-30); although he does not say that Mary was among them, art and piety have long accepted that it was so. The special devotion of the Servite Order to the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin has both a proper rosary (as the Franciscans have a rosary of the Seven Joys) and a special form of the Via Crucis, called by them the Via Matris; in both, the fourth sorrow is the encounter between Christ and His Mother as He bears the Cross.

The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary, by Albrecht Durer, ca. 1496. The lower middle panel show the Virgin fainting as Her Son passes by Her on the street on the way to Mount Calvary.
For the ceremonies of Holy Thursday, the station was of course kept at the cathedral of Rome. On this day, in addition to celebrating the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Pope would preside over the reconciliation of the public penitents, and bless the holy oils, both rituals proper to the office of a bishop. Likewise, the washing of the feet (known as the Mandatum from the first antiphon sung during the rite) is done on this day, a ritual not exclusive to bishops, but traditionally performed by religious superiors upon their subjects, as Christ Himself did. The gospel sung at both the Mass and the Mandatum is taken from St. John (chapter 13, 1-15), since the three Synoptic accounts of the Lord’s Supper have been read earlier in the week. In a later period, the church came to be dedicated also to him along with St. John the Baptist, and it is he whose account of the Passion will also be read on the following day, on which the Church refrains from the celebration of Mass in mourning for the death of the Savior.

Finally, the station of Good Friday is kept at the basilica of the Holy Cross ‘in Jerusalem.’ This denomination comes from the tradition that when St. Helena, Constantine’s mother, built the church to house the relics of the True Cross discovered by herself in the Holy Land, the ground first was covered with earth brought from the city of the Lord’s Passion. As the Bl. Ildefonse Schuster writes in his book on the liturgical traditions of Rome, The Sacramentary, the choice of station fulfills the words of Christ Himself, “it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.”

A reliquary with pieces of the True Cross from the relic chapel of Holy Cross in Jerusalem.
Holy Saturday will be included in an article to be published next week on the stations of the Easter Octave.

[1] As noted by my colleague, the indefatigable Matthew Hazell, the Consilium removed this reading completely from the post-Conciliar lectionary, since, as they said, “it smacks of anger and revenge.” (Apparently, they were too tired to read it all the way to the end, “I will remember the tender mercies of the Lord, the praise of the Lord for all the things that the Lord our God hath bestowed upon us.”) Because we can only restore the liturgy to the vigor which it had in the days of the Holy Fathers by abolishing their teachings...

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: