Thursday, August 10, 2023

The Feast of St Lawrence in Other Western Rites

It was the custom of the earliest Christians to obtain transcripts of the trials of their martyrs whenever they could. These were kept in the archives of local churches not merely for the sake of record keeping, but so that they could be read during the liturgy, a tradition which is attested in the writings of several of the Fathers. The Roman custom of reading the lives of the Saints in the Divine Office derives from this, and in the Ambrosian Mass, it is still to this day permitted to substitute the life of a Saint for the Old Testament reading on his feast day.

The following video was taken in 2014 in the basilica of St Ambrose in Milan, on the feast of the Martyrs Ss Protasius and Gervasius; after the Gloria and Collect, the passion of the two martyrs is read.
Because of this custom, there survive indisputably authentic records of the trials of a number of early martyrs (e.g. Ss Perpetua and Felicity, Ss Fructuosus and Companions, and St Cyprian); however, we have none from the city of Rome. A professor of mine had a theory as to why this is so: he believed that the archives of the church of Rome had been destroyed during the persecution of Diocletian (303-6), and this would explain why we are dependent on documents from later writers (sometimes much later) for information about the martyrdoms of so many prominent Roman Saints, such as Agnes or Pope Clement I.

And thus, the earliest major source for the life of St Lawrence, whose feast we keep today, is St Ambrose, who was born in Trier, where his father was serving as pretorian prefect of Gaul, some eighty years after the great martyr’s death in 257. Ambrose’s family, however, was originally Roman, and when his father died while he was still quite young, his mother took him back to Rome, where he studied law and rhetoric. Many of his writings evince familiarity with the customs and traditions of the Eternal City (for example, he is the first witness to an early recension of the Roman Canon), and so we may take him as a reliable witness to those which concern St Lawrence.
A partial view of the frescoed ceiling of the chapel of St Sixtus within the basilica of St Lawrence in Milan, by the German painter Johann Christoph Storer (1611-71). Behind St Lawrence, holding a knife. is the martyr St Aquilinus, who is buried in a chapel on the opposite side of the same basilica, and next to him, St Sixtus, in whose honor the chapel was built in the late 5th or early 6th century. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0.)
One of the fourteen hymns considered indisputably his work was written in honor of St Lawrence; it is sung in the Ambrosian Office at Lauds and both Vespers. Unfortunately, it seems that none of the great English translators such as Fr Caswall or John Mason Neale put their hands to it, and so we must be content with my poor prose version.

Apostolorum supparem,
Laurentium archidiaconum,
Pari corona martyrum
Romana sacravit fides.
The faith of Rome sanctified
the archdeacon Lawrence,
nearly equal to the Apostles,
with an equal martyrs’ crown.
Xystum sequens hic martyrem,
Responsa vatis retulit:
Mœrere, fili, desine:
Sequere me post triduum.
He, following the martyr Sixtus,
received these words as those
of a prophet: “Cease mourning,
my son, after three days thou wilt
follow me.”
Nec territus pœnæ metu,
Hæres futurus sanguinis,
Spectavit obtutu pio
Quod ipse mox persolveret.
And not frightened by the fear
of suffering, soon to be heir of
(Sixtus’) blood, he dutifully be-
held that which he himself would
soon undergo.
Jam tunc in illo martyre
Egit triumphum martyris;
Successor æquus syngrapham
Vocis tenens et sanguinis.
Already then in that martyr he
led a martyr’s triumph, holding
as his successor the promise
of his words and blood.
Post triduum iussus tamen
Census sacratos prodere,
Spondet pie, nec abnuit
Addens dolum victoriæ.
At last, after three days, ordered
to hand over the sacred treasures,
he dutifully promised and did not
refuse, adding guile to victory.
Spectaculum pulcherrimum!
Egena cogit agmina,
Inopesque monstrans prædicat:
Hi sunt opes Ecclesiæ.
A most beautiful sight! He gathers
the needy crowds, and showing
the poor, he proclaims, “These
are the riches of the Church.”
Lucro piorum perpetes
Inopes profecto sunt opes;
Avarus illusus dolet,
Flammas et ultrices parat.
The poor are the everlasting riches
gained by the pious; the greedy man
deceived, grieves, and prepares
the avenging flames.
Fugit perustus carnifex,
Suisque cedit ignibus:
Versate me, martyr vocat,
Vorate coctum, si lubet.
The executioner is burned and
flees, and yields to his own flames;
“Turn me over”, the martyr cries out,
 “and eat what is cooked, if you like.”
Gloria tibi, Domine,
gloria Unigenito,
una cum sancto Spiritu
in sempiterna sæcula. Amen.
Glory to Thee, o Lord,
glory to the Only-begotten Son,
together with the Holy Spirit
unto everlasting ages. Amen.
The Ambrosian preface for St Lawrence beautifully compares his faith to gold refined in the fire.

VD: Qui hodierna die Levitæ tui Laurentii fidem áuream igne ardentissimo comprobasti; ut esset tibi hostia viva, hostia sancta, in odorem suavitatis accensa. O gloriosi certaminis virtus! O inconcussa mentis constantia! Stridunt membra viventis super craticulam imposita, et prunis sævientibus anhelantis; ut et tibi hostia fieret, et ad martyrii triumphum intrepidus perveniret. Per Christum…

Truly it is worthy… who on this day didst make proof of the golden faith of Thy Levite Lawrence with a most ardent fire, that he might be a living and holy victim, burnt unto the odor of sweetness. Oh, the might of his glorious contest! Oh, the unshaken constancy of his mind! His members, laid on the grill, groan, as he still lives and breathes while the fires rage; that he might both become a sacrifice unto Thee, and fearlessly arrive at the triumph of martyrdom. Through Christ…
The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, by Titian, 1567, in the Spanish Royal Monastery of the Escorial.
The Spanish poet Prudentius (348 – 405/13 ca.) was a contemporary of Ambrose, and had a similar secular career: training in rhetoric and law, and service as a provincial governor. In later life, he withdrew from public service and became an ascetic, but was never a cleric. One of his most famous works is a collection of fourteen poems “On the crowns (of the martyrs)”, including several Romans, Lawrence among them.

A number of passages from this work are included in the Mozarabic Divine Office, which is often astonishingly prolix. For example, on the feast of the great martyr St Vincent of Saragossa, the hymn at Lauds has 292 lines (73 stanzas) excerpted from the 576 which Prudentius dedicates to him. For St Lawrence, however, a judicious selection of verses was made (and largely rewritten) to create a hymn of classically Roman restraint, with only five stanzas, including the doxology. (I have taken this English version from the website of Mr Matthew Carver, who kindly licenses all his translations as Creative Commons. CC BY-NC 3.0 US)

En Martyris Laurentii
Armata pugnavit fides,
Nam morte mortem diruit,
Ac semet impendit sibi.
BEHOLD, of Lawrence, martyr famed,
What faith, well-armed, hath led the host!
By death o’er death the crown he claimed
And gave himself to th’ uttermost.
Fore hoc sacerdos dixerat
Jam Sixtus affixus cruci,
Laurentium flentem videns
Crucis sub ipso stipite.
Twas as his bishop Sixtus said
As fastened to the cross he hung,
When seeing Lawrence weep with dread
Beneath his cross whereat he clung:
Desiste discessu meo
Fletum dolenter fundere,
Praecedo frater, tu quoque
Post hoc sequeris triduum.
“Forbear at my departure now
To shed thy tears so grievously;
Though, brother, I go first, yet thou
Shalt three days hence my foll’wer be.”
Extrema vox Episcopi
Praenuntiatrix gloriae,
Nihil fefellit: nam dies
Praedicta palmam praestitit
What lastly did the bishop say
Prophetic voice of glorious heav’n
In naught deceived, for on the day
That he foretold, the palm was giv’n.
Gloria Patri ingenito,
Gloria unigenito
Una cum sancto Spiritu
In sempiterna saecula. Amen..
To th’ unbegotten Father praise,
And to the sole begotten Son
And Holy Ghost for endless days,
One God, for evermore be done.
The outlandish prolixity of the Mozarabic liturgy is frequently displayed in the Mass as well. Its ancient preface for the feast of St Lawrence is over 400 words long, and retells the story not only of Lawrence himself, but also of St Sixtus II, the Pope whom he served as deacon, and of St Hippolytus, the soldier and guard whom he converted, and who was also martyred for the Faith. Here is an excerpt, which is based on the same passage of St Ambrose’s De Officiis (39) that provides the text for several parts of the Roman Office of St Lawrence. (This preface is written in a highly elaborate rhetorical style which does not lend itself easily to literal translation.)

The preface (“illatio” in Mozarabic terminology) of the Mass of St Lawrence in a Mozarabic Missal printed in 1804, starting in the upper part of the 2nd column.
Quique Apostolorum choro donatus, filium generosae mentis Laurentium exspectabat: quia sine eo proprii sanguinis victimam offerre nolebat, cui cuncta mysteriorum ministeria transigenda commiserat. Qui cum de sua remansione patri querulus exstitisset, ab eodem flere prohibitus, quod post tres dies sequeretur audivit: nec debere de sua desertione causari praemonuit, quoniam ei gloriosior diabolo seuiente inrisoque tyranno triumphus maneret. Martyrum tuorum, Christe, infatigabilis fortitudo!

And (Sixtus), having been given as a gift to the choir of the Apostles (i.e. in heaven), awaited his generous-minded son Lawrence, because he did not want to offer the sacrifice of his own blood without him to whom he had entrusted the celebration of all services in the (holy) mysteries. And when the latter complained to his father about remaining behind, he was forbidden by him to weep, since he heard that after three days he would follow; and (Sixtus) foretold that he ought not to complain of his being left, since a more glorious triumph awaited him over the raging devil and the tyrant whom he would mock. Oh, the tireless fortitude of Thy martyrs, o Christ!

The words “to whom he entrusted the celebration of all services in the holy mysteries” refers to the custom by which the administration of the chalice was especially entrusted to deacons. In his account of their martyrdom in the De Officiis, St Ambrose has Lawrence say to Sixtus, “ ‘Whither, holy priest, dost thou hasten without thy deacon? … Dost thou deny a share in thy blood to one to whom thou didst entrust the consecration of the Lord’s blood, and a share in the celebration of the sacraments?’ To this Sixtus replied, ‘I do not leave or abandon thee, son, but greater contests await thee. We, as elder men, receive the way of an easier combat; a more glorious triumph against the tyrant awaiteth thee as a younger man. Soon shalt thou come after, cease weeping; after three days shalt thou follow me, as levite followeth priest.”
St Sixtus Bids St Lawrence Farewell, 1465 ca., by the German (Südtiroler) painter Michael Pacher (1435-98). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

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