Tuesday, March 29, 2016

As the hart panteth after the water brooks: reflections on the Easter Vigil

In the pre-conciliar rite of the Easter Vigil, there is a chant appointed for the procession to the baptismal font where the holy water is blessed and, if there are any converts awaiting baptism, are thenceforth christened. The chant, Sicut cervus, likens the catechumen yearning for the waters of regeneration to a deer thirsting for water from a stream after the chase.
"As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.

My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? 

My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?" (Psalm 42 [41]:1-3)

The Vigil of Easter is, without a doubt, my favorite liturgy of the year. Last year, I wrote two blog posts on the Exsultet alone (here and here). I go so far as to say that my Easter doesn't feel complete without attending one, most usually according to the "Anglican Use" form at my old parish church, Our Lady of the Atonement. Perhaps my imagination is so limited that I can't acknowledge the holy water and Paschal candle, etc. being blessed until I see it with my own eyes. This year, following the tenth anniversary of my own baptism, I recall ever more vividly my thirst for its waters like the hart of the psalm. 

A real throwback: my baptism back in Christmas Eve, 2005.

My daughter's baptism, at the same church (the new baptistery had since been completed); and now, it's getting time for me to plan the next one's...

But now I live in a different state, and since it so happened that I was spending a weekend with in-laws in the countryside, Madame and I ventured out to a nearby FSSP community where we attended our first Easter Vigil in the pre-conciliar Latin form. I actually go to this church whenever we're out visiting relatives for the weekend, so this time, I joined the men's schola as well. 

Here are some my observations from this night, following the order of the service as much as possible:

1.) If you're a veteran of the pre-conciliar Vigil, you may not even notice it anymore; but for a newcomer, it's striking to see how the liturgy begins with the clergy in violet, not white, vestments. It signifies that the Lenten fast has not yet ended (even if, according to other definitions, the liturgical season of Lent ended on Maundy Thursday) and that the Vigil begins in a spirit of penance. They change from violet to white vestments later in the liturgy, just as in the pre-conciliar rite of baptism. It's apparently a Bugnini-ism to never change vestments in the middle of a rite (even the Asperges is done while wearing the chasuble in the Ordinary Form), but one that is slowly being peeled away. I know that at least some Ordinariate communities begin the Easter Vigil in violet (example), and the use of a violet stole and cope is now a licit option for Ordinariate baptismal rites. (Added 3/30: the pastor of my current parish, an Ordinariate community, read this entry and let me know that he began the Vigil with violet cope as well. Very nice!)

2.) The Exsultet, that grand ode to the Paschal candle and the bees whence came its wax, makes or breaks the opening of the Vigil, depending on the quality of the one who sings it. If I were a deacon, I could easily imagine singing the Exsultet to be my single favorite liturgical duty of the year. Alas, whatever his other gifts might be, the priest who assumed the role of the deacon for the Vigil I attended was quite challenged by the Exsultet, so it ended up feeling like it took five times longer than it actually did. 

One of the better recordings of the Exsultet I've heard

3.) The first lesson (Genesis 1:1) was sung in an unusual but beautiful tone, which I quite like. I don't know if this is the "Genesis tone" I've heard mentioned in some places, or if it's a custom unique to the FSSP. You can view the notation here and listen to a recording here.

I noticed that Gregory DiPippo recently posted a rare book of melismatic Prophecy tones for the pre-1955 Easter Vigil here.

4.) Which brings me to the next little tangent: 

The other lessons were sung to the usual Prophecy tone. This was when I started to consciously think about the distinctions between the pre/post-1955 (or is it 1951?) forms. For the liturgically hyper-aware, the dead giveaway is right in the opening picture I posted above, where you see the Paschal candle being inscribed and lit outside the church rather than the arundo (a triple-candlestick which is lit outside and carried by the deacon into the church to light the Paschal candle within. This was necessary for some grand cathedrals and basilicas which still used the pillar-sized Paschal candles of medieval times. While I can't say I really care about the arundo, it does seem unfortunate that the Paschal candle is no longer inscribed and the incense grains embedded into it by the deacon during the Exsultet. If I understand it correctly, the traditional understanding was that the deacon blessed the Paschal candle through the act of singing the Exsultet; the most solemn blessing of the deacon's entire order. But, with the Pian reforms, the priest has actually usurped this role from the deacon. He prays a newly composed blessing of the candle outside the church and takes from the deacon the act of inserting the incense grains and the lighting of the candle itself. The deacon is then reduced to singing the Exsultet more for tradition's sake than as an integral liturgical action.

For the rest of us, though, the big difference would be the number of readings. The reforms of Pius XII reduced the lessons from a whopping twelve to a mere four. Even the Ordinary Form's Vigil often has more lessons than that! Here, I think the reduction, if it had to have been done at all, should have been made optional rather than mandatory. At the same time, I came to realize that even four readings, if done all in Latin, combined with all of the other proclamatory Latin texts of the Vigil, start to become overwhelming. I was a bit mystified at how this particular church didn't distribute any service sheets with translations, either, despite the files being readily available on the Internet for print. Madame reported that a lady sitting next to her spent the entire Vigil uttering moans and groans of impatience.

The strength of Latin is much more evident to me in the fixed parts of the Mass; Ordinary, Canon, and other silent prayers of the clergy; as well as the chants reserved to the choir, namely, the (minor) propers. When it comes to the Scripture readings, though, I honestly just wish for an indult to sing them in the common tongue (using a hieratic translation like the Douai-Reims), especially when lessons are added. This was actually assumed for a little while following Summorum Pontificum until Universae Ecclesiae clarified that the permission to use the vernacular as a replacement for the Latin only applied to low Mass.

5.) On the other hand, when it came time for the Renewal of Baptismal Vows, it felt strange when the priest led that part of the liturgy entirely in English. I can't quite put my finger on why, since I don't have any issue with the idea of a renewal of vows in itself, even if it's a Bugnini-ism. I was slightly amused when I noticed that this is one of the only times when an exclamation point appears in the Liber Usualis. In my 1962 edition (with all-Latin rubrics), the final response is "AMEN!"

6.) Mass itself proceeds mostly as usual, but there are no Offertory or Communion antiphons, and no Agnus Dei. I wonder why. I also wonder what most communities who have an EF Easter Vigil decide to sing during these points. The schola I assisted sang the hymn Concordi Laetitia during the Offertory and the O Filii et Filiae for the distribution of Communion.

The Confiteor before Communion
7.) With the exception of the Exsultet, I've decided that I like the Gregorian chants of Easter Sunday more. The text of Sicut cervus is sublime, of course, but nearly all of the canticles are really variations of the same tune. It does make rehearsing a lot less stressful, but the Vigil has no counterparts to the legendary Easter propers like the Introit Resurrexi, or the Sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes, or the Offertory Terra tremuit.

8.) At the very end, there was an abbreviated form of Lauds. (I know that pre-1955/51, it's a similarly abbreviated Vespers instead.) That was nice, and probably the only form of Lauds most Catholics ever attend.

That's all I can think of for now, but perhaps I'll add more thoughts in a revision or a comment. Until then, the Modern Medievalist family wishes you an egg-cellent Eastertide.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Simnel cakes

At my local Ordinariate parish for Laetare Sunday, the priest blessed the "simnel cake", which apparently has some traditional associations with mid-Lent in England. The whole thing drew a blank on me until I looked it up on the Internet afterward, but the custom seems to have grown out of Victoriana. The eleven balls stand for the Apostles (minus Judas). Unfortunately, I forgot to grab a piece on the way out, so I can't tell you if it was any good....