Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Torah and Haftarah in the Roman Liturgy (Part 3.1): The Ember Saturday of Lent

In the previous articles of this series, I described the Jewish liturgical custom of pairing readings from the Law of Moses (the Torah, as it is called in Hebrew) with readings from the Prophets called “haftaroth”, which are selected to match them thematically. I also described how this very ancient custom seems to have had an influence on some very ancient parts of the Roman lectionary, as evidenced by the Old Testament lessons for the Ember Days of September. These lessons coincide in part with some of the haftaroth of the major Jewish feasts known as the High Holy Days, which often fall in mid-September.

Moses, 1325, by Ugolino di Nerio. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 
However, even where it was inspired by this custom, the Roman lectionary often did not follow the Jewish arrangement exactly. For example, the haftaroth are read after the lessons from the Torah, but on the Ember Wednesday of September, the prophetic reading (Amos 9, 13-15) comes first, and the second reading, Nehemiah 8, 1-10, is not from the Torah, but about it. Similar changes are found on some of the other days on which the choice of readings is inspired by this custom.

As previously noted, on the Ember Wednesday of Lent, the first reading, Exodus 24, 12-18, ends with Moses fasting for forty days and nights, and the second, 3 Kings 19, 3-8, ends with the prophet Elijah fasting for forty days and nights. These readings look back to the Gospel of the previous Sunday, in which the Lord fasts for forty days and nights before His temptation by Satan, and to that of the following Saturday and Sunday, Matthew 17, 1-9, in which Moses and Elijah appear beside Him at His transfiguration.

Also as previously noted, on the Ember Saturday of September, the first two readings are taken from the Torah, and their corresponding “haftaroth” are the third and fourth. The Ember Saturday of Lent follows a similar arrangement, but the haftaroth are taken not from the Prophets, but from two different deuterocanonical books. The two Torah readings also do not correspond to the order of the Jewish lectionary, which begins reading Deuteronomy in late July or early August.

Here we must also note that the Missal of St Pius V has the same readings for this day found in all previous printed editions, and in the manuscript lectionaries before them, going back to the very oldest. However, in the second edition (issued by Pope Clement VIII in 1604), the first reading was lengthened, and the third substantially changed, a very unusual case in the history of a very conservative liturgical tradition.

Missal of St Pius V (1570) Missal of Clement VIII (1604)
Deuteronomy 26, 15-19
Deuteronomy 26, 12-19
(omitting the 2nd half of vs.
12 and the 1st of vs. 14
Deuteronomy 11, 22-25 Deuteronomy 11, 22-25
II Maccabees 1, 23 & 2-5 II Maccabees 1, 23-26 & 27d
Sirach 36, 1-10 Sirach 36, 1-10

The first reading from Deuteronomy contains three references to Israel as the people of God, which are underlined here: the words in bold type are liturgical additions to the Biblical text.

“Look, o Lord, from Thy sanctuary, and Thy high habitation of heaven, and bless Thy people Israel, and the land which Thou hast given us… Hear, o Israel: this day the Lord thy God hath commanded thee to do these commandments and judgments, and to keep and fulfill them with all thy heart, and with all thy soul. … the Lord hath chosen thee this day, to be His own people … to keep all his commandments, and to make thee higher than all nations which He hath created, to His own praise, and name, and glory, that thou mayst be a holy people of the Lord thy God, as He hath spoken to thee.”

This is the original haftarah of this reading, from Second Maccabees, again, with liturgical additions in bold:

“All the priests were praying, while they offered the sacrifice for the people of Israel, with Jonathan beginning, and the rest answering and saying, ‘May God be gracious to you, and remember His covenant which He spoke to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, (the covenant of) His faithful servants: and give you all a heart to worship Him, and to do His will with a great heart and a willing mind. May He open your heart in His law, and in His commandments, and send you peace. May He hear your prayers, and be reconciled unto you, and never forsake you in the evil time, even the Lord your God.’ ”

The reading from II Maccabees, the third of the Ember Saturday in Lent, in the so-called Lectionary of Alcuin, an epistolary of the 9th century whose contents represent the state of the Roman lectionary in the early 7th century. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 9452; folio 27r, image cropped.)
Before Ash Wednesday and the three days following were added to Lent, these lessons were read on the first Sabbath, the Jewish holy day, of the Church’s preparation for Easter. On this day, the Church does not just make her own a prayer which Moses, the author of the Torah, “who is read on every sabbath in the synagogues”, offers for the people of Israel. She addresses it directly to that people, adding the words “Hear, o Israel”, and saying that God “hath spoken to thee.” She then comments on it with the prayer from 2 Maccabees, adding her own words that it is made “for the people of Israel.” Moses says that Israel is commanded “to keep and fulfill (the Lord’s commandments) with all (its) heart”, and the corresponding haftarah asks that God may grant it to do just that: “May He open your heart in His law…”

At the same time, both of the “haftaroth” readings are taken from deuterocanonical books. Perhaps this is a subtle way of saying that just as Israel has not received its Messiah, it has not received the fullness of God’s commandments in the Old Testament either. The prayer should therefore be read as a plea from the Church to the synagogue, forthright, but peaceable, to become truly part of God’s holy people by accepting them both, and thus, being truly reconciled to God, to receive His peace.
An Allegory of the Old and New Testaments, 1530, by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 ca. - 1547). Counter-clockwise from the upper left: Moses receives the Law on Mt Sinai; Original Sin, and the Mystery of Justification (represented by the episode of the bronze serpent in Number 21), with the plagues of Egypt in the background: death; the Prophet Isaiah telling Man of the Virgin who shall conceive a child; St John the Baptist pointing to the Lamb of God, with the Annunciation to the Shepherds next to his head, and the Crucifixion above his outstretched arm, with the words “our justification written over the Cross”; Christ as the victor over death; the Lamb of God among His disciples; and an allegorical figure of Grace. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
In the second reading, Moses says to Israel, “if you keep the commandments … and walk in all (the Lord’s) ways, … (He) will destroy all these nations before your face, and you shall possess them, which are greater and stronger than you. … None shall stand against you…. the Lord your God shall lay the dread and fear of you upon all the land that you shall tread upon.” The reading from Sirach is on a very similar theme: “Have mercy upon us, … and shew us the light of thy mercies: and send thy fear upon the nations, that have not sought after thee… Lift up thy hand over the strange nations, that they may see thy power… that they may know thee, as we also have known thee…”

Here it should be remembered that this lectionary was compiled in Rome, the capital of the empire that conquered and ruled the lands of the Jewish people. Two rebellions against Roman rule in the Holy Land, one in 66-70 AD and another 132-35, were utterly crushed; the Jerusalem temple was destroyed after the first, and the city itself after the second. These readings seem to have been chosen to say that since God had not destroyed the nations from before Israel’s face, and since Israel had not possessed them, which are greater and stronger than it, this must have happened because it had not kept the commandments and walked in all the Lord’s ways. The prayer of Sirach is thus fulfilled not in the synagogue, but in the Church, in which the nations “know God as Israel as known Him.”
A relief panel on the inside of the Arch of Titus in Roman Forum, 81 AD, showing Roman soldiers carrying the spoils of the Jewish war into Rome in a triumphal procession, mostly notably among them, the seven-branched menorah which was kept in the Jerusalem Temple, and symbolized God’s presence therein. (Image from Wikimedia Commons, released to the public domain by the author.) 

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