Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A medievalist defense of the nocturnal Vigil of Easter

The Easter fire at (I think) the Abbey of Fontgombault

The Vigil of Easter has always been my favorite liturgical service of the entire year. There's so much I could say about any one of the many individual ceremonies, but a friend suggested that I write about the timing of this feast, so, here we go. 

Most liturgical traditionalists who are familiar with the Holy Week liturgies as they were both before and after the 1950-1955 revisions of Pope Pius XII seem to agree that the changes to the rites were near universally a bad thing. About half of everyone in that camp will stop short by saying that at least the revised horarium was a good: that is, the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday in the evening, the Good Friday Mass of the Presanctified at 3pm, and the Vigil of Easter on Black Saturday night. Before 1955, the Tridentine Missal required that all Masses had to take place in the morning before noon. (As long as the first Mass of Christmas, the missa in nocte, began at midnight, it avoided the ban.) The other half will say that even this change was a disaster, and that all the liturgies should occur in the morning.

At the risk of naysaying some very well-learned liturgists out there, I've always thrown in with the restored horarium crowd, especially in the case of the Easter Vigil. For me, Holy Saturday, or Black Saturday, has always been the day in which Christ rested in the tomb. It is the one day no Mass of any kind, including of the Presanctified, is celebrated; a glimpse of an alternate history in which He (if such a thing were even imaginable) proved a false messiah and never harrowed hell or escaped from Joseph of Arimathea's sepulchre. The gloom of Good Friday continues until the eve of the Resurrection. Though there's currently no rule for it, I usually try to keep the fast from Good Friday til after the Easter Vigil. The very thought of having the Vigil on Holy Saturday morning barely gives Christ any time to rest, and punctuating the air with alleluias anticipates the glory of the Resurrection too far in advance. As the 1955 Restoration of the Holy Week Order states:
"The solemn liturgy of the Easter Vigil in particular lost its original clarity and the meaning of its words and symbols when it was torn from its proper nocturnal setting. Moreover, Holy Saturday, with too early a recollection of the Easter gladness intruding into it, lost its original character as a day of mourning for the burial of the Lord."

I'm afraid that my little essay won't be able to convince the die-hard pre-1955'ers, but I hope it will at least demonstrate that one can comfortably claim to be a medievalist and a Vigil nocturnalist without any contradiction.

The Lumen Christi procession at the London Oratory


Introduction


All camps agree that in the ancient Church, the early Christians observed quite a few vigils: all-night observances ending with Mass before or at dawn. The otherworldly zeal which the first Christians had paid no mind to staying awake and fasting all night long, listening to one reading from Scripture after another, and singing hymns. The Easter Vigil was the most sacred of all, with a whole host of its own rites: the great fire, the Paschal candle, the singing of the Exsultet, endless readings from Scripture, and particularly, the baptisms of dozens of even hundreds of converts. As the centuries of Christianization went on and the medieval parish's boundaries approached just about a 100% rate of baptized adults in the area, there was no longer any need for the Vigil to extend from midnight to dawn. The Church's ancient rules on fasting for holy Communion, however, remained. As long as the Vigil began on Saturday night, any priest who was tasked with celebrating the Easter Vigil Mass had to fast from all food and water through the entire day until after the Vigil had ended. By then, it would be Sunday morning; therefore, the priest would have gone without eating anything for over a 24-hour period.

The medieval Church, like the Church in every other era, was faced with a "pastoral" dilemma: change the fasting rules, or change the starting time of the Vigil? The Church held the traditional Communion fast from midnight so sacrosanct that it wasn't revised until 1953 (when Pope Pius XII issued the apostolic constitution Christus Dominus, reducing the fast to only three hours). Instead, from the 7th or 8th century onward, we see evidence of the Easter Vigil being pushed, gradually, earlier and earlier until the whole rite was performed in daylight. 

Where the liturgical purists part ways is on exactly when this development took place, and whether it was a gain or a loss. I've assembled some of the most common pro-morning arguments and my answers to them below.


Antiquity vs. innovation


Pro-morning argument: Regardless of the Easter Vigil's origins as a night service, the pre-1955 starting time on Holy Saturday morning has been hallowed by time to the point that it should now be considered traditional. Bugnini's reversal is an example of the kind of "exaggerated and senseless antiquarianism" which Pius XII condemned in Mediator Dei.

Response: First, it was Pius XII himself who approved the restoration of the Easter Vigil to the night, so the move couldn't have fallen under the Pope's own definition of an antiquarianism.

Second, the question of "tradition" is tricky for many arguments extending well beyond that of the Easter Vigil. The pro-morning camp correctly point out that the Latin word traditio signifies something that's passed down from one generation to the next, without interruption. Once it's dead, it's dead; and so, a revival of a dead custom can't be said to be "traditional", strictly speaking.

In the mid-19th century, though, the monks of the abbey of Solesmes weren't satisfied with the decrepit state of liturgical music in their day. In the cathedrals and chapels of the elite, "traditional music" meant the orchestral Mass settings of Mozart and Haydn. For everyone else, they were the saccharine vernacular hymns sung over the priest at low Mass, or at best, harmonized psalm tones of the proper chants. It was only through monumental efforts by Solesmes, the first Liturgical Movement, and the backing of Rome itself that Gregorian chant enjoyed its short-lived revival until the post-Vatican II era banished it back to the album collections of classical and choral music enthusiasts. Nonetheless, all Roman Catholics who self-identify as "traditionalists" recognize that Gregorian chant is the traditional music of the Latin Rite in a greater sense than the literal. It doesn't matter whether the vast majority of chant directors at Latin Mass communities today learned chant from books and CD's, rather than a retreat at a monastery in France. In this case, the power of tradition has transcended the ignorance of succeeding generations. And, I dare say, this understanding of tradition must prevail once the last generation of people who were born before 1965 pass away. Elsewise, traditionalists must condemn themselves to calling the "traditional" Latin Mass itself as an antiquarianism, and the reformed rite the true standard of tradition.

Third, to the question of the morning Easter Vigil's own antiquity, there is surviving evidence that this wasn't a settled question until the Counter-Reformation of the later 16th century. The historian James Monti, author of my favorite biography of Saint Thomas More, has also published a number of excellent works on the historical development of the liturgy, and on the Holy Week rites in particular. Monti dedicated a few pages to the timing of the Easter Vigil in his book A Sense of the Sacred: Roman Catholic Worship in the Middle Ages. According to him, the first stage of medieval development was to bring the timing forward by beginning the Vigil's rites in the afternoon, but ensuring that they wouldn't end before nightfall. This is because Christ rested in the tomb until the some time, known only to Him, during the night of Holy Saturday.
"In fact, several texts from this period, including the late ninth-century pontifical of northern France formerly known as the Pontifical of Poitiers, speak of ensuring that the vigil Mass, beginning with the Kyrie and the Gloria, would not commence until eventide: 'Care should be taken, however, with all solicitude, that the Gloria in excelsis Deo on this night not be begun earlier than a star should appear in the sky.'"

Nonetheless, there's still a fascinating medieval precedent to the desire to restore the Easter Vigil to the ancient nighttime observance:
"An effort to restore the entire Easter Vigil to its ancient nocturnal setting was undertaken by Saint John Gualbert (+1073), founder of the Vallombrosan Order, a Benedictine congregation of Italy, as related by his biographer Blessed Andrew of Strumi (+1097): 'Who in Tuscany other than he moved from the day to the night the annual and renowned office to be done on the night of the holy Resurrection? For with stealthy negligence and gathering gluttony this office was performed at None on Saturday, that is now rightly and worthily done in the holy night, this our father John beginning and establishing in our times.' Thus the Easter Vigil rubrics of the twelfth-century customary of Vallombrosa direct that the blessing of the Easter fire with which the vigil begins is to commence only when 'the dusk of night shall have begun to appear.'"

And, Monti provides one final sign that the nighttime Vigil persisted in some places until the eve of the Reformation:
"The Holy Saturday rubrics of the 1498 missal for the Portuguese see of Braga state: 'On this day, however, None should be sung more slowly [than] usual. And this is to be observed such that the office should be drawn out, that the Mass may be said in the night.'"

The final nail in the coffin of the night Vigil was Pope Pius V's bull of 1566, Sanctissimus, which finally banned priests from celebrating Mass after noon. (As I said earlier, the first Mass of Christmas, so long as it began at or after midnight, eluded the ban.) These regulations later carried over into the Missal of 1570, which became adopted as the standard for nearly the entire western Catholic world. This was based on the reckoning of the age that the liturgical day began at midnight. However, the breviary reforms of Pope Pius X at the turn of the 20th century, whatever their other flaws, at least restored the ancient concept that a greater feast, such as a Sunday (and certainly the Vigil of Easter) began with First Vespers on the evening prior. I'm not sure why the celebration of Mass during the eves of these feasts required further permission, which didn't arrive until the 1950's.

The London Oratory again

The integrity of the Hours


Pro-morning argument: Moving the Masses of the sacred Triduum to later hours completely disrupted the traditional cycle of Tenebrae and the other hours of the Divine Office that had been long established.

Response: Conceded..... partially. Since the question of Tenebrae doesn't touch the Easter Vigil, I'll save that discussion for another day. The Holy Week revisions decree that Compline (Night Prayer) for Holy Saturday is now omitted since the Vigil takes its place. While someone could certainly pray Compline privately for devotional reasons in any case, there's no way to beat around the fact that as long as the Easter Vigil takes place at night, it's simply too taxing for us moderns to demand a public observance of Compline afterward; notwithstanding the other small fact that Compline is unlikely to be prayed publicly in any case.

The decrees state that Vespers (Evening Prayer) is "said after noon at the accustomed hour". But then, there's the problem of Matins and Lauds (Morning Prayer). As it stands now, the 1962 Missal attaches Lauds to the end of the Easter Vigil as a means of conclusion. This actually has the effect of exposing the ordinary lay faithful to Lauds in the first place; for most traddies, the mandatory inclusion of Lauds to the end of the Easter Vigil will be the only Lauds they ever attend in their lifetimes.

The purists rightfully point out that by jamming the Vigil in between Vespers and Lauds, this means Matins of Easter Sunday has been abolished. To be specific, the 1962 Breviary and its modern successor, the Liturgy of the Hours, still provide Matins of Easter Sunday, but only for those who didn't attend the Easter Vigil. Since most churches will celebrate the Easter Vigil, this means public observances of Easter Sunday Matins would be quite rare. Dom Prosper Gueranger describes how Easter Sunday Matins and Lauds were kept with the greatest of solemnity in medieval times, at least where the Vigil had slinked into Holy Saturday morning:
"Matins of Easter Sunday morning used to be celebrated in a most dramatic manner. In most of the churches of the West during the Middle Ages, as soon as the third Lesson was read, and before the Te Deum, the clergy went in procession, singing a Responsory, to the chapel where the Blessed Sacrament had been kept since Holy Thursday, which was called the Chapel of the Sepulcher. Three clerics were vested in albs, and represented St. Mary Magdalene and her two companions. When the procession reached the chapel, two deacons, in white dalmatics, representing the two Angels who were standing at either end of the tomb, thus addressed the three clerics: Whom seek you in the sepulcher, friends of Christ? The clerics answered: Jesus of Nazareth, O ye citizens of Heaven! Then the deacons: He is not here; He hath risen as He foretold: go, say that He is risen.
The three clerics here went to the altar, and raising up the cloths which covered it, they reverently kissed the stone. Then turning towards the Bishop and the clergy, they sang these words: Alleluia! This day the Lord hath risen: the strong Lion, Christ the Son of God, hath risen.
Two cantors stepped forward towards the altar steps, on which the clerics were standing, and addressed them in these words of the Sequence: Tell us, O Mary, what thou sawest on thy way?
The first cleric, who represented St. Mary Magdalene, answered: I saw the sepulcher of the living Christ: I saw the glory of the Risen One. The second cleric, who represented Mary the mother of James, added: I saw the Angelic witnesses: I saw the shroud and cloths. The third cleric, who represented Mary Salome, completed the reply thus: Christ, my Hope, hath risen! He shall go before you into Galilee. The two cantors answered with this profession of faith: It behooves us to believe the single testimony of the truthful Mary, rather than the whole host of wicked Jews. Then the whole clergy joined in this acclamation: We know that Christ hath truly risen from the dead. Do Thou, O Conqueror and King, have mercy on us!
The two deacons then opened the tabernacle. Taking the pyx, in which was the Blessed Sacrament, they laid It upon a portable throne and carried It in procession to the high altar. Clouds of incense perfumed the way while a beautiful Responsory was sung. The procession having reached the sanctuary, the deacons placed the Blessed Sacrament upon the altar. The Bishop, after offering the homage of incense, intoned the Te Deum, in thanksgiving for the Resurrection of Our Redeemer.
This touching ceremony, from which probably originated what were called The Mysteries, was not officially part of the Roman Liturgy; still, it was an expression of the lively and simple faith of the Middle Ages. It gradually fell into disuse during the 16th and 17th centuries, when men became absorbed in material things, and lost that appreciation of the supernatural which their forefathers loved to encourage by every possible means. The ceremony we have just described varied in the manner of its being carried out; but we have given its chief traits, such as we find them mentioned in the ancient Ordinaries of great cathedrals." (The Liturgical Year)

My solution for those who regret the removal of Easter Sunday's Matins is simple: keep the pre-1955 order of the Vigil, and merely delay it until just past sunset. You'll have energy enough to restore the Vigil's nocturnal character, and then (hopefully) arise early enough to celebrate Sunday Matins and Lauds with all the solemnity of former times. This might be especially worthwhile for those who chose not to attend the Vigil at all. As to the legality of using the pre-1955 ceremonies, I'm not well-read enough on that question to make an argument in favor of it, but it seems many churches of the Institute of Christ the King get away with it without stormtroopers from the Curia bearing down on their doorsteps.


The First Saturday devotion


Pro-morning argument: Moving the Vigil of Easter to the evening prevents those who have a devotion to receiving Communion on the first Saturday of every month from doing so on the month where Easter falls.

Response: This would be unworthy of even mentioning in this post if I hadn't personally run into this objection more than once. My answer is simply that this is an overly legalistic reading of the First Saturday devotion. Common sense suggests that Communion can simply be commuted to the Vigil, if not any of the Masses of Easter. For those who need complete reassurance, though, this article on the World Apostolate of Fatima, USA explains how the devotion can still be fulfilled by attending the nocturnal Easter Vigil.


The Easter fire at Clear Creek Abbey

6 comments:

  1. Admirable in its intention and well-argued, certainly; but unfortunately, no matter what you or anyone else might write on this subject, purists will not be convinced. Perhaps we should call them idealists. It may be pondered, however, whether the zeal of idealists in pursuing matters such as these allows those not sympathetic to the concept of liturgical Tradition to dismiss ALL those who prefer the Extraordinary Form as rigorists or even pharisaical. Is it necessary to rend garments because the Easter Vigil is celebrated at night, thus disturbing the flow of the Divine Office? Is the Faith placed at risk because of the timing of the Easter Vigil? Perhaps a sense of due proportion is needed.

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    1. I, too, believe that the great need not be the enemy of the good. For example, I'm always looking to figure out ways to promote the public observance of the Office. We're at the awkward juncture where most people who would even give it a thought might be willing to attend if it were done mostly in the vernacular.... but they would also hate the modern Liturgy of the Hours. Since the only two official options for most Roman Rite Catholics are either the 1960/62 Breviary in Latin or the Liturgy of the Hours, though, that puts us in quite a pickle. I'd rather just promote the Anglican Breviary or the Little Office as a quasi-liturgical devotion, if it's between that or nothing at all.

      By the way, I finally got around to adding links to both of your blogs on the right-hand column. I apologize for having forgotten to do so earlier.

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  2. The 1955 and 1970 rites have the effect on the faithful that the liturgy is re-presenting the actual passion events "in real time." The Mass in cena Domini in the evening as if "we're really there"; the Mass of the presanctified at three o'clock as if "we're really there," etc. This is noble, perhaps, but it lessens the fuller anagogical sense of the sacred Liturgy. The Triduum liturgies don't thrust us into the past, but carry us along with those past events into the glorified future. The Paschal Vigil liturgy on Saturday morning focuses on Christ's harrowing of Hades as He rests in the tomb, thus fulfilling the Sabbath rest. The Paschal Vigil is not a complete celebration of the Resurrection -- that's where Mattins, Lauds, and the Easter Sunday morning Mass come in. Much could be said of these two approaches to the liturgy. Finally, consider that the Christian East celebrates the Harrowing of Hades on Holy Saturday morning with the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great. But again on Saturday, shortly before midnight, there is the Rush service and a midnight Divine Liturgy. Were the West to celebrate the Paschal Vigil in the morning and Mattins/Lauds around midnight, there would be a true complementarity between East and West.

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    1. A more solid argument for a morning Vigil could be made if a church had a public celebration of those hours.... but such is unlikely to be the case. Even less likely would be the old practice of clerical ordinations during the (morning) Vigil.

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  3. Does anyone know ehere to find an english translation of the bull ehich made Holy Errk no longer HDO?

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    1. This would be Pope Urban VIII's Universa per orbem of 1642. Sadly, I do not know where to find an English translation of it.

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