Sunday, January 28, 2024

Septuagesima in the Ambrosian Rite

The pre-Lenten season known as Septuagesima originated not just as a feature of the Roman Rite, but in Rome itself. It is traditionally said to have been instituted by Pope St Gregory the Great in response to the various crises with which the City and central Italy were wracked in the mid-to-late 6th century. I have described elsewhere how these crises help to form both the liturgical texts of the three Masses, and the station churches assigned to them.
The season was later borrowed by the Ambrosian Rite from the Roman, but with a number of interesting differences. The Masses of the season are said in violet vestments, as in the Roman Rite, but nevertheless, Gloria in excelsis is said on all three Sundays. Most notably, Alleluia continues to be said throughout the season in both the Mass and the Divine Office. Before the reform of St. Charles Borromeo, it was even sung on the first Sunday of Lent, and only “dismissed” for the following Monday.

A leaf of an Ambrosian Missal printed in 1499. The left column has the Epistle (2 Corinthians 6, 1-10, as in the Roman Rite), followed by the “versicle in the Alleluia.” In the Borromean reform, the word ‘Alleluia’ was removed, and the versicle retained as a Cantus, the Ambrosian equivalent of a Tract.
The penitential character of the season may seem thereby to be lessened in comparison with the Roman Rite, but in fact, it is just as evident, or even more so, in some of the variable texts of the Mass; many of these are also among the most beautiful parts of the Ambrosian repertoire.

On Septuagesima, the Ingressa (Introit) is the same text as the Roman Introit sung at the end of the liturgical year: “The Lord sayeth: I think thoughts of peace, and not of affliction. You shall call upon me, and I will hear you, and bring back your captivity from all places.” (Jeremiah 29) These words can almost be taken as a reply to those of the Roman Introit, “The groans of death have surrounded me, the pains of death have surrounded me, and in my tribulation I called upon the Lord, and he heard my voice from His holy temple.”

The most interesting piece of this Mass is the Transitorium, the Ambrosian equivalent of the Communion antiphon; this is also the only chant of Septuagesima which is proper to it.
Convertímini omnes simul ad Deum mundo corde et ánimo, in oratióne, jejuniis et vigiliis multis: fúndite preces vestras cum lácrymis, ut deleátis chirógrapha peccatórum vestrórum, priusquam vobis repentínus superveniat intéritus, ántequam vos profundum mortis absórbeat; et cum Creátor noster advénerit, parátos nos inveniat.
Be ye all together converted to God, with pure heart and mind, in prayer, fasting and many vigils; our forth your prayers with tears, that you may cancel the decree of your sins, before there come upon ye sudden destruction, before the depths of death swallow ye up; and so, when our Creator cometh, may He find us ready.
In the following video, it is used as an Offertory at a Mass in the Ordinary Form; the word “jejuniis – fasts” is changed to “precibus – prayers.” Note that it followed by the Creed, which in the Ambrosian Rite is said at the end of the Offertory rite, a position analogous to that which it has in the Byzantine Rite.
The Mass of Sexagesima contains more proper chants, and begins to intensify the period’s penitential theme. The Prophetic reading, Joel, 2, 12-21, is a slightly longer version of the Roman Epistle of Ash Wednesday, and begins by repeating the thought of the Transitorium cited above: “Be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting, in weeping and in mourning.” The Psalmellus, the Ambrosian version of the Gradual, follows this exhortation with a confession from Psalm 105, “We have sinned along with our fathers, we have acted unjustly, we have done iniquity; have mercy upon us, o Lord.” The Preface of Sexagesima also speaks clearly of the upcoming Lenten fast:
Truly it is fitting and just… eternal God; who not only remit the sins of those that fast, but also by fasting sanctify the sinners; and not only forgive punishment to the guilty, but even grant eternal rewards to them that abstain. (VD: Qui non solum peccáta ieiunantium dimittis, sed ipsos etiam peccatóres ieiunando iustíficas: et reis non tantum poenam relaxas, sed donas abstinéntibus etiam praemia sempiterna.)
The oldest surviving Ambrosian Lectionary, the 7th-century Codex Reginensis 9 (now in the Vatican Library), lists only one pre-Lenten Sunday, which it calls “Sexagesima.” However, the epistle which it assigns to that Sunday, 2 Corinthians 6, 14 – 7, 3, is found in later manuscripts and missals on Quinquagesima; it seems clear that the scribe of Reginensis 9 made a mistake in the title of the Sunday. This indicates the Ambrosian Rite at first added only Quinquagesima, and the other two Sundays at a later stage, it is probably for this reason that the Mass of Quinquagesima has all its own proper chants, prayers and readings, excepting only the Alleluia.

In the Roman Rite, the first four days of Lent are traditionally distinct from the rest of it, and bear a different name. Although the fast began on Ash Wednesday, the next three days are not called “Quadragesima”, but “post Cineres – after the Ashes.” Likewise, in the Divine Office, the Lenten hymns and responsories are not said on those days, but only start on Sunday. The Mass prayers of the first four days make several references to fasting, but the word “quadragesimale – Lenten” first occurs in the Collect of the first Sunday.

The Ambrosian Rite still to this day has no Ash Wednesday; it is therefore Quinquagesima that forms the prelude to Lent, properly so-called, which the Roman Rite has in Ash Wednesday and the ferias “post Cineres”. It is also, of the three pre-Lenten Sunday, the one which lays the clearest emphasis on penance. The Ingressa looks forward to the Gospel of the Mass, and expresses the whole purpose of Lent, and of penance generally.
Jucunda est praesens vita, et transit; terríbile est, Christe, judicium tuum, et pérmanet. Quapropter incertum amórem relinquámus, et de infiníto timóre cogitémus, clamantes, Christe, miserére nobis.
Delightful is the present life, and it passeth away; terrible is Thy judgment, o Christ, and it endureth. Wherefore, let us foresake uncertain love, and think upon fear without end, crying out, “O Christ, have mercy on us.”
The prophetic reading, Zachariah 7, 5 – 8, 3, speaks of the true sense of fasting in terms similar to those of Isaiah 58, which the Roman Rite reads on the Friday and Saturday of this week, and the Ambrosian Rite on the first Sunday of Lent.
“When you fasted, and mourned … did you keep a fast unto me? … And when you did eat and drink, did you not eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves? ... And the word of the Lord came to Zacharias, saying: Thus saith the Lord of hosts, saying: Judge ye true judgment, and shew ye mercy and compassion every man to his brother. And oppress not the widow, and the fatherless, and the stranger, and the poor: and let not a man devise evil in his heart against his brother.”
The Prophet Zachariah, by Michelangelo, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12).
The Gospel, Matthew 13, 24-43, contains the parables of the Tares and the Wheat, of the Mustard Seed, and of the Leaven. At the end of these, St. Matthew tells us that the Lord spoke in parables, “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden from the foundation of the world.” (Psalm 77, 2) The Gospel continues with Christ’s explanation to the disciples of the Tares and the Wheat, bringing us “from the foundation of the world” to its end, spoken of at the Ingressa.
He that soweth the good seed, is the Son of man. And the field, is the world. And the good seed are the children of the kingdom. And the cockle, are the children of the wicked one. And the enemy that sowed them, is the devil. But the harvest is the end of the world. And the reapers are the angels. Even as cockle therefore is gathered up, and burnt with fire: so shall it be at the end of the world. The Son of man shall send his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all scandals, and them that work iniquity. And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the just shine as the sun, in the kingdom of their Father. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
The preface also looks back to “the foundation of the world”, which the readings from the book of Genesis at Matins in this season also recount.
Truly it is fitting and just…eternal God, illuminator and redeemer of our souls. Who, when we were cast out of Paradise through the first Adam, by the breaking of the law of abstinence, by the remedy of a stronger fast, through grace hast called us back to the blessedness of our ancient fatherland; and by Thy holy instruction, hast taught by what observances we may be delivered. (VD: Aeterne Deus, illuminátor et redemptor animárum nostrárum. Qui nos, per primum Adam abstinentiae lege violáta, Paradíso ejectos, fortióris ieiunii remedio ad antíquae patriae beatitúdinem per gratiam revocasti: nosque pia institutióne docuisti, quibus observatiónibus liberémur.)
Finally, the Transitorium of this Mass concludes the pre-Lenten season with another call to conversion. Here, the Ambrosian liturgy reflects the theme of the Roman Sexagesima, referring the sins of the people to the natural disasters of the time.
Veníte, convertímini ad me, dicit Dóminus. Veníte flentes, fundámus lácrymas ad Deum: quia nos negléximus, et propter nos terra pátitur: nos iniquitátem fécimus, et propter nos fundamenta commóta sunt. Festinémus anteíre ante iram Dei, flentes et dicentes: Qui tollis peccáta mundi, miserére nobis.
Come, be converted to me, sayeth the Lord. Come, ye that weep, let us pour forth tears to God, for we have been negligent, and for our sake, the earth suffers. We have wrought iniquity, and for our sake, its foundations are shaken. Let us hasten to come before the wrath of God, weeping and saying: Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
A striking parallel is found on this day between the Ambrosian and the Byzantine Rites, one of many cases where the historical rites of Christendom have independently instituted similar practices. On the last Sunday before the beginning of Great Lent, popularly known as Cheesefare Sunday or Forgiveness Sunday, the Byzantine Rite also commemorates the casting out of Adam from Paradise. Among the Prosomia sung at Vespers of the Saturday preceding, we may particularly note the following, which shares the same ideas as the Ambrosian preface of the Quinquagesima.
The Lord my Creator took me as dust from the earth, and with the breath of life he gave me a soul and made me a living creature. He honoured me as ruler on earth over all things visible and as a companion of the Angels. But Satan the deceiver, using the serpent as his instrument, enticed me by food, separated me from the glory of God and gave me over to the earth and to the lowest depths of death. But as Master and compassionate call me back again.
The Creation of the World, and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, by Giovanni di Paolo, ca. 1445
Also worth noticing is this piece, which recalls the words said in the Roman Rite as the priest places ashes on the heads of the people, “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shall return.”
Adam sat opposite Paradise and, lamenting his nakedness, he wept, ‘Woe is me ! By evil deceit was I persuaded and robbed, and exiled far from glory. Woe is me ! Once naked in my simplicity, now I am in want. But, Paradise, no longer shall I enjoy your delight; no more shall I look upon the Lord my God and Maker, for I shall return to the earth whence I was taken. Merciful and compassionate Lord, I cry to you, ‘Have mercy on me who am fallen’. (In the video below in Church Slavonic.)

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