Wednesday, October 04, 2023

Torah and Haftarah in the Roman Liturgy (Part 4): An Inheritance Repudiated

This is the fifth article in an ongoing series (part 1, part 2, part 3.1, part 3.2), 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.

Long before the post-Conciliar Rite was invented, it was widely, perhaps universally, believed that the Roman Rite had originally had three readings at every Mass. [1] It is a testament (one of many) to the absolutely dire state of liturgical scholarship in the 19th and 20th centuries that this idea was accepted, despite the absence of even a single Roman lectionary which has three readings on a regular basis, or a single reference to such a custom in the writings of any of the Roman Church Fathers. But it was, unfortunately, an idea very much in harmony with the mentality of the times, also evidenced in many other fields of study. The notion which underlies it is that the Church’s “authentic” and “original” (such words to conjure with!) liturgy is not to be found in its actual sources, no matter how ancient those sources might be, and no matter how widely and consistently said customs are attested in them. Rather, the “authentic” and “original” liturgy is to be found in reconstructions of what scholars believed, or wanted to believe, things must have been like before the period from which we have our earliest sources.

The first two readings from the Prophet Isaiah on the Ember Saturday in Advent, 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.)
Well might one wonder how this idea could have been accepted in the absence of a lectionary that attests to it. Many reconstructions of the early liturgy are purely theoretical, but many others derive from real facts and sources, badly understood and interpreted, and the three-readings theory is one of the latter. I outlined these facts and sources, and explained how they were understood and interpreted to arrive at it, in an article published here in November of 2013.

One of the lynchpins of the argument is the presence of such a set of readings on only seven days: Good Friday, and the Wednesdays of the Embertides, of the fourth week of Lent, and of Holy Week. These were understood to be holdovers of a more ancient practice formerly part of every Mass, which is why Fr Adrian Fortescue writes, in the original Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Lessons in the Liturgy, “The Roman Rite also certainly once had these three lessons at every Mass.”

The post-Conciliar rite is nothing if not ironic, a term which derives from the Greek word “eironeia – feigning or dissembling.” Feigning to restore the Roman Rite’s supposed ancient and original custom of having three readings at every Mass [2], it appoints three readings at … some Masses, namely, those of Sundays, solemnities, Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday, but only those. (The Easter vigil and the longer form of the Pentecost vigil, which have several Old Testament readings before the Epistle, are exceptions to the general order.)

The ferial lectionary was then rearranged in such a way that not one of the seven days listed above kept its original Old Testament readings, the very ones used to justify the theory that a three-reading system was the Roman Church’s original custom. This happened, of course, partly as a function of the suppression of the Ember days, which are indisputably among the Roman Rite’s most ancient features. Of the 14 readings in question, three were completely deleted from the lectionary, and the other eleven were moved; some of the latter were also altered by lengthening, shortening, or censoring.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever claimed that the Ember Saturdays, which have five Old Testament readings before the Epistle, were anything other than a special exception. Since they all share the same fifth reading, there are a total of 17 such readings between them. Eight of these were suppressed in the post-Conciliar lectionary, eight moved to a different day (all but one of them also altered in various ways, although one only very slightly), and only one left in its place, but slightly shortened.

To these we must add, for the purposes of this series, the reading of the Ember Friday in September, Hosea 14, 2-10, which has been retained, and indeed, on two different Fridays [3], but neither anywhere near its original position.

These changes, which were, of course, in no way, shape or form countenanced by Sacrosanctum Concilium, disperse all of the pairs of lessons which derive from the Jewish liturgical custom of reading the Law and the Prophets together, the subject of this series. I hasten to add that this does not seem to have been done with any deliberate animus against Jewish influence on the Roman liturgy per se, but solely as a result of the callous zeal for efficiency and uniformity which taints so much of the reform. [4] Nevertheless, where the Psalmist says, “I am become a stranger to my brethren, and an alien to the sons of my mother,” the post-Conciliar liturgy, which routinely does no less outrage to his work, can rightly say, “I have made myself a stranger to my brethren, and an alien to the sons of my mother.”
The bishops and prelates of the world at Vatican II, busily not even remotely thinking about suppressing the Ember days.
[1] In his memoire, Archbishop Bugnini describes the three-reading system as “a return to the authentic, primitive tradition attested at Rome until the 5th century, and preserved at Milan etc.” (p. 416 of the Italian edition.) On August 20, 1965, in notes taken in French by the secretary of Coetus XI, the subcommittee responsible for the revision of the lectionary, we find the statement that “The Gallican tradition and the Ambrosian Rite have remained more faithful to the ancient Roman tradition.”
[2] While purportedly “restoring” the Roman lectionary, Coetus XI also effectively abolished it in October of 1966, when its members resolved unanimously not to consider themselves bound to retain what they tendentiously described as the “current” lectionary cycle, then in use for well over a millennium, “the grave deficiencies of which are admitted by all.”

[3] The Fridays of the third week of Lent, and of the 14th week of Ordinary time in year 2.

[4] My thanks to Matthew Hazell for checking what was said about this topic in the vota (requests) of the world’s bishops on proposals for liturgical reform, submitted to the Roma Curia Vatican in preparation for Vatican II.

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