Saturday, September 30, 2023

Torah and Haftarah in the Roman Liturgy (Part 3.2): The Ember Saturday of Pentecost, and Good Friday

This is the fourth article in an ongoing series (part 1, part 2, part 3.1), the first part of which explains the meaning of the terms “Torah” and “haftarah” in the context of the Jewish liturgy, and its influence on some very ancient parts of the Roman lectionary.

On the Ember Saturdays of Lent and September, the third reading is the haftarah of the first, and the fourth of the second. On the last day of Pentecost, however, the order is reversed, as also on the Ember Wednesday of September: the first reading is from a prophet, and the third from the Law. It seems likely that the lesson from the prophet Joel (chapter 2, 28-32), is given pride of place because the Apostle St Peter quotes him in his sermon on the very first Christian Pentecost. “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy: your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. … upon my servants and handmaids … I will pour forth my spirit, and I will show wonders in heaven…” (Acts 2, 17-21)

The Prophet Joel, depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1508-12. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The corresponding reading from Deuteronomy 26 (1-3b and 7b-11a) instructs the Israelites on the offering of their first fruits to the Lord, who “brought (them) out of Egypt with a strong hand, and with arm outstretched, with great terror, with signs and wonders.” From the most ancient times, the Church has understood the crossing of the Red Sea, at which God worked these signs and wonders, as a symbol of baptism. The Roman Church therefore reads the story from Exodus (14, 24 – 15, 1, with its canticle) at the vigil of both of its great baptismal feasts, Easter and Pentecost. One week after the latter, She reminds us that in the Old Testament, both the Law and the Prophets bear witness to the signs and wonders which God has done, and above all, in the conversion of the nations, which began at Pentecost.

On the other hand, the second and fourth readings are both taken from the book of Leviticus, breaking the Torah/haftarah pattern. The former, a selection of verses from chapter 23, prescribes the manner of offering first fruits at Pentecost, and the latter, chapter 26, 3-12, is a promise that God will grant the fruitfulness of the earth and the defense of the land, if the people “walk in (His) precepts and keep (His) commandments.” In the annual Jewish liturgical cycle of Torah readings, the “parashoth” (sections) to which these passages belong will generally around the same time as Pentecost, from mid-May to mid-June, so it seems likely that this choice was also made in imitation of the custom of the synagogue.
The Ember Wednesday and Saturday of Advent, and the Wednesdays of the fourth week of Lent, of Holy Week, and of Pentecost, all have more than one reading before the Gospel, but these do not fit the Torah / haftarah pattern either. Thus, there remains only one last Mass to consider among those that do fit the pattern, the Mass of the Presanctified on Good Friday.
Here again, the order is reversed from that of the Jewish tradition, with the Prophet before the Law: the first reading is Hosea 6, 1-6, and the second, Exodus 12, 1-11.
St Jerome begins his commentary on Hosea by saying, “If we need the Holy Spirit to come to us when explaining any of the prophets, … how much more must we pray the Lord (to help us) in explaining Hosea… especially since he himself attests to the obscurity of his book at the end, where he writes, ‘Who is wise and shall understand these things, intelligent and shall know them?’ ” Such a mysterious book is eminently appropriate for a day of such ineffable mysteries, when the Church stands present at the death of the Creator Himself.
The Prophet Habakkuk, by Girolamo Romanino, from the Sacrament Chapel of the church of St John the Evangelist in Brescia, Italy (1521-4). The quotation on the banderole, the opening words of the canticle, follows the Old Latin text, which was translated from the Septuagint, rather than the Vulgate version of St. Jerome.
“... He will revive us after two days: on the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight. We shall know, and we shall follow on, that we may know the Lord. … For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice: and the knowledge of God more than holocausts.” This is explained by the words of the tract which follows, taken from Habakkuk 3 according to the Old Latin translation of the Septuagint: “O Lord, I heard Thy report, and was afraid: I considered thy works, and was amazed. Between two living creatures Thou shalt be known”. The “two living creatures” were first understood by St Augustine to be the two thieves crucified alongside the Lord; the tract therefore shows us that we attain to “the knowledge of God” in beholding the Crucified Lord. And likewise, as Hosea says “For I desired mercy…”, the tract says “in wrath Thou shalt remember mercy,” an expression of the idea, “a scandal to the Jews, and foolishness to the gentiles,” that God’s supreme act of mercy was to undergo His Passion, in the very midst of which He prayed for the forgiveness of those who inflicted it upon Him.
The second reading from Exodus 12 describes the slaying of the Paschal Lamb under the Old Law, which was of course taking place in Jerusalem even as Christ was in the midst of the Passion. This choice is grounded in the Christian understanding of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, of whom St Paul writes, “Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed”; but also, in the very nature of the ancient Good Friday ceremony, the vivid representation of the death of Lord, for which we are truly present.
Two readings, one from the Law and one from the Prophets, are therefore united as witnesses to the Passion, just as Moses and Elijah appeared at the beginning of Lent as witnesses to the Transfiguration.
Lastly, then, we may cite some of the many passages in which the Lord Himself and the authors of the New Testament refer to this custom of the two readings, the Torah and the haftarah.
  • Do not think that I am come to destroy the Law, or the Prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. (Matthew 5, 17)
  • All things therefore whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you also to them. For this is the Law and the Prophets. (7, 12)
  • On these two commandments dependeth the whole Law and the Prophets. (22, 40)
  • If they hear not Moses and the Prophets, neither will they believe, if one rise again from the dead. (Luke 16, 31)
  • And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures, the things that were concerning Him. … all things must needs be fulfilled, which are written in the Law of Moses, and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me. (24, 27 and 44)
Christ and the Two Disciples on the Road to Emmaus (the occasion on which the first part of the citation above is spoken by the Lord), 1560-65, by the Italian painter Lelio Orsi (1508/11-87). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
  • We have found him of whom Moses in the Law, and the Prophets did write, Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth. (John 1, 45)
  • And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them. … the voices of the Prophets, which are read every sabbath… (Acts 13, 15 and 27)
  • so do I serve the Father and my God, believing all things which are written in the Law and the Prophets… (24, 14)
  • But now without the law the justice of God is made manifest, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets. (Romans 3, 21)

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