Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The Mass of Spy Wednesday

As I noted in articles published yesterday and the day before, the Gospel of Holy Monday was originally John 12, 1-36, and that of Holy Tuesday was originally John 13, 1-32. This meant that the Passion of St Luke, which has always been the Gospel of Spy Wednesday, would originally have been the first retelling of the Passion during the Roman Holy Week, after the Mass of Palm Sunday. (As I have also noted on various occasions, this anticipation of the events of the Passion before the liturgical days on which they actually happened is a custom almost unique to the Roman Rite.)

This connection between the Masses of Palm Sunday and Spy Wednesday is highlighted by the introit of the latter, which is taken from the epistle of former, Philippians 2, 5-11.

Introitus In nómine Jesu omne genu flectátur, caelestium, terrestrium et infernórum: quia Dóminus factus est oboediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis: ideo Dóminus Jesus Christus in gloria est Dei Patris. Psalmus Dómine, exaudi oratiónem meam: et clamor meus ad te veniat. In nómine Jesu…
Introit (Phil. 2, 10; 8 and 11) In the name of Jesus let every knee bend, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth: because the Lord hath become obedient unto death, but the death of the Cross. Therefore, the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father. Psalm 101, 2 O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come to thee. In the name of Jesus…
The Psalm with which it is sung, the hundred-and-first, dominates this Mass as Psalm 34 does that of Holy Monday, providing the text of the tract, offertory, and communio. It is also the fifth of the penitential psalms; in his Exposition of the Penitential Psalms, St Gregory the Great makes the connection between it and the epistle of Palm Sunday that surely inspired the creation of this introit. (PL 79, 601 B-C) He begins with psalm’s biblical title.
“ ‘The prayer of the poor man, when he shall be anxious, and pour out his supplication before the Lord.’ Who is this poor man whose prayer is noted in this psalm, if not he of whom the apostle said, ‘who when he was rich became poor for our sakes’? (1 Cor. 8, 9) For He, that He might make us participants in His riches, took on the necessities of our poverty; for ‘He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.’ (Phil, 2, 7-8) And just as He became poor for us, so also was He made anxious for us, and at last was handed over to death for us, and for us hung upon the Cross. For He died, as the Apostle, says for our sins (1 Cor. 15, 3) and rose for our justification. (Rom. 4, 25) Now He was able to be anxious from His human nature, from which also He was able to die. Therefore, our (mystical) Head prays in this psalm that through grace we may be led back thither, whence we fell through the fault of our first parent.”
The Risen Christ and the Mystical Winepress, by Marco dal Pino, often called Marco da Siena, 1525-1588 ca. Both of the figures of Christ in this painting show very markedly the influence of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.
The Roman station church for this day is St Mary Major, as also on the Ember Wednesdays. As on those days, and on the Wednesday of the fourth week of Lent, there are two readings before the Gospel. The first is Isaiah 63, 1-7, preceded by a part of verse 62, 11.
Thus sayeth the Lord God: Tell the daughter of Sion: Behold thy Savior cometh: behold his reward is with him. 63, 1 Who is this that comes from Edom, with dyed garments from Bosra, this beautiful one in his robe, walking in the greatness of his strength? I, that speak justice, and am a defender to save. Why then is your apparel red, and your garments like theirs that tread in the winepress? I have trodden the winepress alone, and of the gentiles there is not a man with me: I have trampled on them in my indignation, and have trodden them down in my wrath, and their blood is sprinkled upon my garments, and I have stained all my apparel. etc.
The Church Fathers understood this passage as a prophecy of the Passion of Christ, starting in the West with Tertullian. (Adv. Marcionem 4, 40 ad fin.)
The prophetic Spirit contemplates the Lord as if He were already on His way to His passion, clad in His fleshly nature; and as He was to suffer therein, He represents the bleeding condition of His flesh under the metaphor of garments dyed in red, as if reddened in the treading and crushing process of the wine-press, from which the laborers descend reddened with the wine-juice, like men stained in blood.
This idea is repeated in very similar terms by St Cyprian (Ep. ad Caecilium 62), who always referred to Tertullian as “the Master”, despite his lapse into the Montanist heresy; and likewise, by Saints Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechesis 13, 27) and Gregory of Nazianzus (Oration 45, 25.)
The necessary premise of the Passion is, of course, the Incarnation, for Christ could not suffer without a human body. Indeed, ancient heretics who denied the Incarnation often did so in rejection of the idea that God can suffer, which they held to be incompatible with the perfect and incorruptible nature of the divine. St Ambrose became bishop of Milan in 374, after the see had been held for by one such heretic, the Arian Auxentius, for twenty years. We therefore find him referring this same prophecy to the whole economy of salvation, culminating in the Ascension of Christ’s body into heaven, in his treatise On the Mysteries (7, 36):
The angels, too, were in doubt when Christ arose; the powers of heaven were in doubt when they saw that flesh was ascending into heaven. Then they said: “Who is this King of glory?” And while some said “Lift up your gates, O princes, and be lifted up, you everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in.” In Isaiah, too, we find that the powers of heaven doubted and said: “Who is this that comes up from Edom, the redness of His garments is from Bosor, He who is glorious in white apparel?”
In the next generation, St Eucherius of Lyon (ca. 380-450) is even more explicit: “The garment of the Son of God is sometimes understood to be His flesh, which is assumed by the divinity; of which garment of the flesh Isaiah prophesying says, “Who is this etc.” (Formulas of Spiritual Understanding, chapter 1) Therefore, like the Mass of Ember Wednesday in Lent, this Mass begins with a prophecy of the Incarnation, as the church of Rome visits its principal sanctuary of the Mother of God, in whose sacred womb began the salvation of man.
The icon of the Virgin Mary, known as the “Salus Populi Romani”, in the reredos of the Borghese chapel of the basilica of St Mary Major. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Fallaner, CC BY-SA 4.0)
This is particularly appropriate for the day on which the Church reads the Passion of St Luke, who has a special association with the Virgin Mary. Most of what the New Testament tell us about Her is recorded in his writings, including almost all of the words actually spoken by the Her; this fact lies behind the tradition that he painted a picture of the Virgin, which is figuratively true if not literally. It is his account of the Passion that tells of the meeting between Christ and a group of women on the way to Mount Calvary, (chapter 23, 27-30); although he does not say that Mary was among them, art and piety have long accepted that it was so.
The gradual is taken from Psalm 68, which, as I noted yesterday, figures very prominently in the liturgy of Holy Week, and not just in the Roman Rite.

Graduale Ne avertas faciem tuam a púero tuo, quoniam tríbulor: velóciter exaudi me. V. Salvum me fac, Deus, quoniam intravérunt aquae usque ad ánimam meam: infixus sum in limo profundi, et non est substantia.
Gradual, Ps 68, 18; 2-3 Turn not thy face away from thy servant: for I am in trouble, swiftly hear me. V. Save me, o God, for the waters have come in even unto my soul. I am stuck fast in the mire of the deep, and there is no sure standing.
The Breviarium in Psalmos, (an exegetical treatise traditionally but erroneous ascribed to St Jerome) beautifully explains the application of the first part to the Passion. “(This is) the voice of Christ, who took on the form of a servant, speaking to the Father… ‘swiftly hear me’ that I make take up my spirit again, which I commended into Thy hands.” The Passion of St Luke which is read at this Mass is the only one that records Jesus saying these words of Psalm 30, 6, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit”, right before His death.
The prayer which follows it is the first to explicitly mention the Resurrection on the ferial days of Holy Week, another reminder of the unity of the Paschal mystery. For this reason, the Church also uses it for the suffrage of the Cross in Eastertide.
“O God, who willed that for us, thy Son should suffer the gibbet of the Cross, that Thou might drive far from us the power of the enemy; grant us thy servants, that we may obtain the grace of the resurrection.”
(Attributed to the Spanish painter Alonso Cano, 1601-67. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 
The second reading, Isaiah 53, 1-12, is the fourth and last of the passages of his book known as the Songs of the Suffering Servant. It is cited as a prophecy of Our Lord several times in the New Testament, and figures very prominently in the Holy Week liturgy of most ancient rites, so fully does it describe and conform to the events of the Passion.
If space permitted, St Jerome’s commentary on this chapter would be worth quoting in full, but here I must limit myself to this part, which is particularly relevant to this Mass, explaining the common theme of the two prophecies.
“He was despised and ignoble (verse 3) when He hung upon the Cross, and having become a curse for us (Gal. 3, 13), bore our sins. … But He was glorious and comely of appearance when at His Passion the earth trembled, and the rocks were broken, and as the sun fled, the elements feared that eternal night had come. Of him the bride says in the Song of Songs (5, 10), ‘My beloved is bright and ruddy’: bright in the fullness and purity of the virtues, ruddy in the passion, of which we shall afterwards read, ‘Who is this that cometh up from Edom, from Bosra with garments ruddy?” (Isa. 63, 1), chosen from among the thousands for the resurrection, that He who was the first-born of all creation might become the first-born of the dead.”

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