Friday, June 02, 2023

The Ancient Character of Pentecost in the Roman Rite (Part 1)

In this article, I propose to examine the ancient character of the feast of Pentecost in the Roman Rite: first, its role as a baptismal feast; second, the development of its octave; and third, its relationship to the Ember days. (This last section will be published separately as a second part.) In addition to the ancient liturgical sources, my guide in this consideration will be St Leo the Great, who was Pope from 440-61, and whose writings are one of the first and most important witnesses to the Roman liturgical tradition. Foremost among these are his three surviving sermons on Pentecost, and four on the following Ember days, but we begin with one of his letters.
A statue of St Leo on the façade of the cathedral of Florence. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)
Pentecost as a Baptismal Feast
At the end of the fourth century, Pope St Siricius (384-399) wrote in a letter to Himerius, bishop of Tarragon, that the sacrament of baptism was to be celebrated on Pentecost as on Easter. (Epist. ad Himerium, cap. 2: PL XIII, 1131B-1148A) Pope Leo reasserted that this was the Church’s practice in a letter to the bishops of Sicily, exhorting them to follow the example of the Apostle Peter, who baptized three-thousand persons on Pentecost day. (Epist. XVI ad universos episcopos per Siciliam constitutos: PL LIV, 695B-704A)
As we would expect, therefore, all pertinent liturgical books of the Roman Rite, as far back as we have them, reflect this tradition. The very oldest collection of Roman liturgical texts, the so-called Leonine Sacramentary, ca. 550 A.D., contains a Mass “on Pentecost, for those coming up from the font.” The first part of its preface is almost identical to that of the Holy Spirit in the Missal of St Pius V, which is used from the vigil to the following Ember Saturday. (The variants of the Roman Missal are in parentheses.)
VD: Qui ascendit (-ens) super omnes cælos sedensque ad déxteram tuam, promissum Spíritum Sanctum (hodierna die) in filios adoptiónis effúdit.
It is truly meet and just… Who ascended (-ing) above all in the heavens, and sitting at Thy right hand, (this day) poured out the promised Holy Spirit upon the children of adoption.
Likewise, the variable Hanc igitur, which is also traditionally said on Easter, is very similar to the Pius V version. (In keeping with the erratic character of the Leonine Sacramentary, this is placed before a variable Communicantes, which differs from the traditional one.)
Hanc ígitur oblatiónem, quam tibi offérimus pro his quos ex aqua et Spíritu Sancto regeneráre dignátus es, tríbuens eis remissiónem omnium peccatórum, quæsumus, placátus accipias, eorumque nómina ascríbi júbeas in libro viventium. Per.
We therefore ask, o Lord, may Thou graciously accept this oblation, which we make unto Thee for these whom Thou hast vouchsafed to bring to a new birth from water and the Holy Spirit, granting them remission of all their sins: and may Thou command that their names be entered into the book of life.
The oldest actual sacramentaries contain prayers for the vigil of Pentecost to go with the readings of prophecies repeated from the Easter vigil, and even more explicitly baptismal prayers and prefaces for the Masses. This tradition continues uninterrupted into the Missal of St Pius V; it was, inexplicably, mostly abolished by the Holy Week reform of 1955. (This is one of the many aspects of this reform which thoroughly belies its claim to be any kind of “restoration.”) I say “mostly” because although the parts of the ritual borrowed from the Easter vigil are suppressed, the Hanc igitur continues to be said, nonsensically; the post-Conciliar rite removed even this.
The interior of the Lateran Baptistery
The Octave
In his first sermon “on the fast of Pentecost”, Pope Leo says that it was observed “after the days of holy rejoicing, which we have passed unto the honor of the Lord who rose from the dead, and then ascended into heaven, and after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (chapter 3) And likewise, in the third sermon, “the current season invites us to recur to the remedies of fasting, after passing fifty days from the Lord’s resurrection to the coming of the Holy Spirit…” (chapter 3) Nothing in any of the sermons indicates that this fast was regarded as part of the feast. Scholars therefore agree that there was no octave of Pentecost in his time, an example of a fairly solid argument from silence, even though it was clearly not Leo’s purpose to give any kind of systematic explanation of the liturgical year.
It is also true that roughly a century later, there is no mention of the octave in the “sacramentary” named after him, but here, the argument from silence is perhaps rather less solid. This manuscript, of which there survives only one copy (very possibly the only one ever made), was not actually a sacramentary at all, which is to say, a book which contains the priest’s parts of the Mass, the Canon, and the variable prayers and prefaces of individual Masses.
Before the creation of such books, the variable prayers and prefaces of the Mass were written down in booklets called “libelli Missarum”, which might well vary from one church to another even within the same city. The manuscript in question is a privately made and highly irregular collection of these libelli, generally dated on internal evidence to the mid-6th century. The collection was certainly made in Rome itself, since it contains numerous specific references to the city. Its traditional name “Leonine”, in reference to Pope St Leo I, is no more than a fancy of its discoverer, Fr Giuseppe Bianchini (1704-64), a canon of Verona who found it in the library of the cathedral chapter.
The capitular library of Verona Cathedral. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Marco Almbauer, CC BY-SA 4.0
This is what accounts for its rather haphazard arrangement, the irregularity of its contents (five Masses of St John the Baptist, but twenty-eight for Ss Peter and Paul), its many mistakes, several incomplete Masses, and the inclusion of the worst preface ever written. (One of its strangest mistakes is the placement of nine Masses of St Stephen the First Martyr on August 2nd, the feast of Pope St Stephen I, even though the former was certainly celebrated on December 26th long before the collection was made.)
It is therefore too much to say that because the octave is not mentioned in it, it cannot have existed in any form when the collection was made. Pope Leo says very clearly that the Ember fasts were kept on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after Pentecost, but the “Leonine” manuscript has only two Masses for them, one placed before Pentecost, and the other after, so it is certainly not a definitive or wholly reliable witness.
The Mass of the octave of Pentecost in the Gellone Sacramentary, ca. 780 AD. It begins with the second rubric on the left hand side; the preface of the Holy Trinity is introduced by the large VD glyph towards the bottom. 
The oldest actual sacramentary, the Old Gelasian, dated ca. 700, does not have special Masses for the days within the octave of Pentecost. However, it does have, right after the Mass of Pentecost Sunday, six prayers for Vespers “within the octave of Pentecost”, followed by the Ember Day Masses, and then the Mass “on Sunday of the octave of Pentecost.” The preface of this last is that which we say on the feast of the Holy Trinity, the following Sundays until Christmas, and between Epiphany and Lent. This also reflects the work of St Leo, who expounds the doctrine of the Trinity at length in his Pentecost sermons; all of the preface’s keywords (Trinitas, substantia, essentia etc.) appear in these sermons quite frequently.
Likewise, readings for the days within the octave appear in the earliest lectionaries, and the chants in the oldest antiphonaries. The Thursday within the octave of Pentecost was originally an “aliturgical” day like the Thursdays in Lent, on which no Mass was said. By the time this custom was changed in the early 8th century, the corpus of Mass chants was regarded as a closed canon, which is why the Thursdays of Lent borrow almost all their chants from other Masses, and that of Pentecost simply repeats the Mass of Sunday.
The post-Conciliar rite purported to restore the earliest custom of the Church by abolishing the octave, and making one undifferentiated fifty-day long feast of the whole period between Easter and Pentecost. (This in itself is, unsurprisingly, a misrepresentation of the custom of the early Church.) This claim is belied by the fact that it also abolished the Ember days, which are consistently attested in the same ancient sources that attest to the “fifty days of Easter.”

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