Friday, March 22, 2024

The Mass of Passion Friday

As I noted earlier this week, the fifth Sunday of Lent marks an important shift in emphasis in the Roman liturgy. The first part of the season is largely concerned with penance, and lessons for the catechumens as they prepare to be baptized at the Easter vigil. The liturgy of the fifth week focuses much more on the Lord’s Passion, which is why by the end of the ninth century, the term “Fifth Sunday of Lent” was abandoned in favor of “Passion Sunday.” This shift is particularly evident in the Mass chants, many of which speak in the person of the Lord in the midst of His sufferings, as for example the Introit of Monday, “Have mercy on me, O God, for man hath trodden me under foot; all the day long he hath afflicted me fighting against me. My enemies have trodden on me all the day long; for they are many that make war against me.” (Psalm 55, 2-3)
Folio 48r of the Echternach Sacramentary, 895AD, with the Mass “of the Sunday of the Lord’s Passion”; Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 9433
Today’s Mass marks another shift, and one which originally stood in especially high relief, since the days before and after were “aliturgical” days, on which no Mass was said; this was therefore the last Mass celebrated before Holy Week. Each of the Gospels of this week from Sunday to Wednesday (all from St John) refers in one way or another to the Passion, but they are read out of order, and in that sense, do not form a narrative. Today’s Gospel, on the other hand, John 11, 47-54, serves as a bridge between that of the previous Friday, on which raising of Lazarus is read (verses 1-45), and Holy Week, beginning the account of the Passion with the conspiracy of the priests and Pharisees against Christ. And indeed, this same reading also provides the text for one of the two chants which may sung between the Epistle and the Gospel at the blessing of the Palms.
The Epistle, Jeremiah 17, 13-18, also has a different tenor from those read earlier in the week. The Epistle of Passion Sunday, Hebrews 9, 11-15, speaks of the redemption wrought by the shedding of Christ’s blood. On Monday, the third chapter of Jonah is read as a final exhortation to penance; on Tuesday, Daniel appears in the lion’s den as a figure of Christ in His Passion and Resurrection; on Wednesday, a final catechumenal lesson is taken from Leviticus. Today’s Epistle, on the other hand, is the first of Passiontide in which words of a prophet are read which are spoken in the first person, as a representation of Christ in His sufferings.
“Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed: save me, and I shall be saved, for thou art my praise. … Let them be confounded that persecute me, and let not me be confounded: let them be afraid, and let not me be afraid: bring upon them the day of affliction, and with a double destruction, destroy them.”
The prophetic readings of the following day (Jer. 18, 18-23), those of Holy Monday (Isa. 50, 5-10) and Holy Tuesday (Jer. 11, 18-20), and the first of the two readings on Spy Wednesday (Isa. 62, 11; 63, 1-7), are similarly spoken in the first person.
The Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, depicted on the outsides of the two wings of a closable altarpiece of the Entombment of Christ, by the Dutch painter Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574), ca. 1560. Isaiah is holding a saw, in reference to the tradition that he was sawn in half by the wicked King Manasseh; Jeremiah has at his feet the rocks with which he was traditionally said to have been stoned to death.
In the Gospel, the high priest Caiphas proposes that Jesus should die lest all believe in Him, and the Romans “come and take away our place and nation.” This did of course eventually come to pass anyway, as Christ Himself predicted both before (Luke 19, 44) and during (Luke 23, 28-31) His Passion; Jerusalem was destroyed because it knew not the time of its visitation, fulfilling the prophecy of Jeremiah that those who persecuted Him would be confounded, and a day of affliction brought upon them. The emphasis on prophecy is also highlighted by the words of St John that Caiphas “spoke not of himself, but being the high priest of that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation; and not only for the nation, but to gather together in one the children of God that were dispersed.” (verses 51-52)
This same stress on the Passion is also found in the chants of this Mass, no less than in those sung earlier in the week: the Introit, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am afflicted: free me, and deliver me out of the hands of my enemies; and from them that persecute me. O Lord, let me not be confounded, for I have called upon thee.” (Psalm 30); the Gradual, “Peaceably did my enemies speak to me” (i.e. feigning peaceful intentions; Psalm 34); and the Offertory, “and do not hand me over to the proud that calumniate me.” (Psalm 118)
The Communion is the final chant in a series taken from the Psalms in order, starting with Psalm 1 on Ash Wednesday, but interrupted several times. “Deliver me not, o Lord, over to the will of them that persecute me; for unjust witnesses have risen up against me, and iniquity hath lied to itself.” A shorter version of this text is sung one week later as the third antiphon of Matins of Good Friday, together with Psalm 26, from which it is taken.
The Roman station on the first Friday of Lent is kept at the church of Ss John and Paul, who were among the most popular of the early Roman martyrs. Today, the same church serves as the collect, where the people would gather over the course of the day, and from which they would process to the station, which is kept about a third of a mile away at the first Roman church to be dedicated to the first martyr, St Stephen. This is not just a matter of coincidence or convenience. John and Paul were the first martyrs to be buried within the walls of the city itself, rather than in a cemetery outside the city. This fact is noted as something unusual and significant in the very first surviving collection of Roman liturgical texts, the so-called Leonine Sacramentary. The church of St Stephen also has a burial which was, by the standards of ancient Roman custom, unusual and significant. In the reign of Pope St Theodore I (642-49), the relics of two martyrs named Primus and Felician, who were brothers like John and Paul, were translated from their original burial place at the 14th milestone of the Via Nomentana to this church; this is said to be the very first such translation of the relics of the Saints.
The apsidal mosaic of the chapel within the basilica of St Stephen where the relics of Ss Primus and Felician are kept. Although it has been frequently restored, a large part is the original material from the 7th century.
Thus, as the Church turns the focus of the liturgy even more intently to the events of Our Lord’s Passion, one week before His death on Good Friday, she celebrates the memorial of His death and resurrection at the church of the martyr who, as she sings in his Office, “first rendered back to the Savior that death which He deigned to suffer for our sake.” (8th responsory of Matins of St Stephen.)

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: