Palm Sunday: History, Mystery, Practice

[This was originally posted a year ago, but when I found myself reviewing it for my own sake, I realized that I should re-post it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.]

With the ceremonies of Palm Sunday, Holy Week begins. The Liturgy of the Hours uses a new antiphon for the Invitatory, and the chants or hymns for the various hours are different. The readings take on new themes.  In various ways, the Church encourages us to see the coming week is a distinct time with its own character. Continue reading “Palm Sunday: History, Mystery, Practice”

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The Ash Wednesday Riddle

Yesterday I had to take my daughter out of CCD class to bring her to Mass for Ash Wednesday. Tina, at six years old, is no fan of the sacred liturgy: she dozed through most of it, and I had to wake her up for the reception of ashes. But she had made it clear that leaving her in CCD where she wouldn’t get the ashes would be a ba-a-a-ad idea, and as she walked back to the pew with a smudge on her forehead she just lit up.

My theory: She never gets to receive communion, so getting something along with everyone else makes her feel big. Continue reading “The Ash Wednesday Riddle”

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St. Martin of Tours and advent of Advent

If you pray the breviary regularly, you get a glimpse into liturgical history. Even today, if almost all the readings and prayers for a saints’ day are particular to the day rather than drawn from the “commons” in the back then it’s a safe bet this saint was a big deal in the Middle Ages.

Pretty much everything in the breviary is special for St. Martin. He was much loved across Christian Europe, and in the decades leading up to the year 600 dioceses all over the west adopted the practice of fasting from St. Martin’s day until Christmas on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, in imitation of the forty days before Easter. It was known as “St. Martin’s Lent,” and was later abbreviated to four weeks to become what we know as the Advent Season.

In keeping with the day before a fast, Martinmas was a day of feasting. Farmers slaughtered their meat animals and, incidentally, paid their taxes and tithes; children wandered from door to door begging for alms like trick-or-treaters today; bon fires blazed, goose was consumed, and a good time was had by all.

Even though Martinmas is no longer the liturgical beginning of Advent, it still works for me like a signpost: “Start thinking about Advent and Christmas!” Time to make those Christmas lists, think about Advent resolutions, and make sure you fixed that Advent decoration that broke last year. Here in the Holmes house, it is a doubly special day because our fourth child, Regina, was born on this day ten years ago. Wednesdays are too full for partying, but come Saturday we’ll have a delayed Martinmas celebration with a bon fire, hot dogs, music, entertainment, birthday cake and ice cream, and presents for the queen of the feast.

So read about St. Martin and find out why the people of the Middle Ages loved him so much. If nothing else, walk around today with a festive spring in your step! And remember that he was considered the patron saint of taverns.

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5 Steps from All Souls’ to All Saints’

November seems like the perfect place for All Souls’ Day. Although a time a harvest, it is also a time of dwindling life and light, a time that signifies the approach of death. Coming immediately after All Saints’ Day, when the Church Militant venerates the Church Triumphant and those in glory pray for us, All Souls’ Day has us attend to the remaining part of the Mystical Body.

The placement of All Souls’ Day right after All Saints’ Day also makes sense from a historical perspective. According to Dom Gregory Dix, our liturgical veneration of the saints is ultimately rooted in an early belief in purgatory. He traces the history this way:

  1. The earliest Christians believed that the deceased faced the possibility of purgative fires. So when a Christian died, it was customary to offer prayers for that person on the anniversary of his or her death.
  2. When a Christian was martyred, the community felt strange about praying for his soul, because it was confident the deceased had bypassed purgatory entirely. On the other hand, it was customary to do something on the anniversary of a Christian’s death. So instead of praying for the martyr’s soul, they would offer prayers in celebration of what the martyr had done. (This is captured in the Martyrdom of Polycarp.)
  3. In a kind of Christianized civic spirit, Christian communities celebrated their local martyrs in a regular cycle.
  4. In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem began celebrating all the great biblical saints, because for someone living in Jerusalem all the biblical saints were local.
  5. When the many pilgrims to Jerusalem brought this practice back to their various homes, suddenly a lot of communities were celebrating saints that were not local to them. Thus was born the universal calendar of saints.

So in a kind of order of discovery, All Souls’ Day is prior to All Saints’ Day: we discovered Masses in honor of the triumphant by realizing we weren’t comfortable counting them as suffering. But in another order, All Saints’ Day is first: we look to the goal first and then pray that our suffering brothers and sisters will reach it; all of us who can pray, which includes us on earth and our forerunners in heaven, first unite together and then, together, pray for the suffering deceased.

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Good Friday: History, Mystery, Practice

Who could explain the mystery of Good Friday? How many books would it take to finish explaining it? It would be impossible. But to talk about the mystery is not today’s duty: the entire goal of Good Friday is to relive the events of that day in all their concreteness. This morning, Jesus was brought to trial before Pilate, and by the afternoon we will witness his final hours on the cross.

The liturgy today has three parts: the liturgy of the word, the veneration of the cross, and Holy Communion. Each part has something unique about it to make this day different from all others. Continue reading “Good Friday: History, Mystery, Practice”

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Holy Thursday: History

Among the Holy Week liturgies, I have a special soft spot for the Holy Thursday evening Mass.  A tender atmosphere of love surrounds the ceremony itself, giving way to a sense of desolation when the altar is stripped at the end.  As it turns out, these two moods, tender love and brooding sorrow, match the two main streams of Holy Thursday’s history.

The first stream gives us a sense of sorrow.  Not surprisingly, it was the astonishing Cyril of Jerusalem in the 4th Century who introduced special customs for the Thursday before Easter:

  • In the morning the Jerusalem church celebrated Mass in the chapel of the Cross, something they never did any other day of the year.  It was customary for all to receive communion.
  • A second Mass was celebrated at about 4:00 in the afternoon to begin an evening of reliving what happened that night in Jerusalem long ago.
  • Afterwards, the whole congregation kept vigil at a church on the Mount of Olives, with readings on the last supper.
  • They visited Gethsemane after midnight for a reading on the agony in the garden.
  • Finally, they returned to the city in the morning for a reading of the gospel of the trial of Jesus.  When this passage was read, the pilgrim Egeria recounts, there was a loud “moaning and groaning with weeping from all the people.”

Many things have changed, but Cyril set the pattern.  To this day we have an evening Mass with a special emphasis on the mystery of the Eucharist; the faithful are not supposed to receive Communion at any other Mass that day, to emphasize their Communion together in the evening.  After the Mass, the host is carried in a special procession to a separate tabernacle, representing Jesus going out into the night with his disciples.  People stay afterwards for a period of adoration, remembering that Jesus asked his disciples to stay and keep watch with him.  The altar is stripped bare, emphasizing the sense that Jesus has left the sanctuary, has gone out into the night to meet his betrayer.

A second stream contributes to the atmosphere of tender love.  Some time after Cyril’s practices had begun to spread throughout the Christian world, the washing of feet became part of the Holy Thursday tradition.  There is no documentary evidence of this until the 7th century, but the texts from that time seem to imply a somewhat earlier origin.  Some surprising facts:

  • Until Pius XII’s reforms in 1955 it was not celebrated as part of the Mass, and in some places it is still separate from the Mass.
  • There was often a separate hall or building where it was done, and the focus of the ceremony was on an act of love, especially for the poor.  In one 11th century monastic version of the ritual, the abbot and his monks genuflected and bowed down to adore Christ in the poor men whose feet they were about to wash.
  • In the Middle Ages in many places it was customary for the king to wash the feet of poor men and then wait on them at table, although if a queen was on the throne then she would wash the feet of poor women.  Modesty forbade men from washing women’s feet, or women men’s.
  • The first word of the first antiphon sung during the foot-washing ritual was mandatum, from which we seem to get our English name for the day, “Maundy Thursday” as well as our name for the foot-washing ceremony itself, the “Mandatum”.

In the current rubrics, the entire rite is optional, celebrated “where a pastoral reason suggests it.”  The tradition that men only wash the feet of men has carried over into the rubrics, which require that the priest wash the feet of viri, of men.  Although it has become customary to wash the feet of twelve men, no particular number is mandated by tradition and the rubrics do not specify a number.

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5 things you probably didn’t know about Baptism

Since I was not born Catholic, I actually remember my baptism.  But when all of Europe had become Christian, there weren’t really converts for a while.  Do you know what this did to Baptism?  Check out these 5 quick facts about how Baptism has changed with the ages:

  • The role of the “sponsor” was invented in the early Church as a counter-espionage tactic.  Because it was illegal to be Christian, there was always a danger that someone would pretend to want Baptism just to get inside the Church and rat everyone out.  The sponsor’s job was to vouch for the catechumen’s sincere intention and upright life.
  • Back in the day, babies were only baptized on Easter.  That’s how they did it when baptism was for adult converts, so that’s how they did it when only babies were entering the Church.  Already in the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great argued that babies shouldn’t wait so long.  At least they didn’t make them wait three years, like catechumens!  But this led to another change….
  • Baptism and confirmation were not clearly distinct sacraments in the early Church.  They separated when priests needed to baptize babies on Easter but the bishop could only get to all the parishes once in a long while.  Then his anointing and laying on of hands couldn’t happen at the same time as the water dunking.  Speaking of which….
  • Baptism by full immersion came into vogue when only babies were being baptized.  In the earliest Church, people would stand in the water while someone poured water over their heads.  Babies can’t stand, so it was easier to dunk’em.  Eventually, somebody discovered that it was even easier just to pour water on them.
  • By the late middle ages, adults needed special liturgical exceptions to be baptized.  Everything had adapted to babies!  The rare convert from Islam or Judaism had to be exempted from the rubric saying he should be held in his sponsor’s arms.

I found my facts in this book and this one.  Do you know any weird Baptism facts?  Please share them in the comments.

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The Key to Passiontide and Holy Week

When my family walked into Church today, the crucifix and the statues were covered with purple cloths.  Fr. Dave told us that we had entered a time of looking forward to Holy Week, and he called up the candidates for baptism for a brief exorcism and a series of prayers.  Where does this special season come from?  What does it mean?

DixI am not a historian, but recently I have been reading about the history of the liturgical year.  Dom Gregory Dix has an amazing chapter on this history in his book The Shape of the Liturgy, and Dom Gueranger’s The Liturgical Year has an interesting historical introduction to the season.  It turns out that the key to understanding Passiontide and Holy Week is baptism.  But to see that, we have to look at where the season first came from.

In the very earliest Church, when the apostles or their immediate disciples shepherded Christ’s flock, there was no “liturgical year” as such.  The seasons we know took final shape much later in the fourth century.  In the apostolic age, there were only two elements in the Christian year:

  • Sundays.  Christians gathered once every week, on the Lord’s Day, to listen to Scripture and celebrate the Eucharist.  This was not yet understood as a Christian day of rest, as per the fourth commandment, but simply as a day to worship and celebrate new life in Christ.  After Mass, Christians went to work.
  • Easter and Pentecost.  Christians celebrated a feast of the Lord’s resurrection on a Sunday near the time of the Passover, and they celebrated a feast of Pentecost forty days later, around the time of the Jewish feast of the same name.

Easter in the apostolic age was subtly different from the way we think about Easter now.  Liturgies in the Church, including every sacrament, have always had three meanings:

  1. A look backwards in time to what Christ did for us.  For example, the Eucharist recalls the Last Supper celebrated years ago in the upper room.
  2. A highlighting of the grace received in the present moment.  For example, the Eucharist signifies (and causes!) our present union with Christ and with each other.
  3. A look forward in time to when Christ will come again.  For example, the Eucharist gives us a glimpse of the “wedding supper of the Lamb” described in the book of Revelation (Rev 19:7).

Our Easter celebration today emphasizes all three, very strongly.  But in the earliest days, the emphasis fell on numbers 2 and 3; number 1, the past historical fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection, did not receive the same attention as a past historical fact.  For example, there was no Good Friday celebration in which the death of Christ is commemorated apart from his resurrection.  Instead, recognizing that our salvation comes from what Christ did, the emphasis fell on how Christians in the present moment were transformed by grace and on how they would enter into God’s kingdom in the future.

Fitting right into this emphasis, Easter was the day when people were baptized.  The vigil the night before was a time of waiting for the baptismal grace with prayers and readings, and at dawn on Easter Sunday the bishop would baptize the candidates and give them an exhortation, and then the newly baptized would celebrate their first Eucharist with the entire congregation.  Scholars often refer to The Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus for a description of what happened.

To get into the spirit of the thing, try this experiment.  Imagine you are a gentile convert to Christianity in the waning days of the first century.  After a long period of waiting and scrutiny, you have stayed up all night listening to Scripture and praying for transformation in Christ.  At dawn you were baptized by the bishop, and now he is giving you an exhortation.  OK, now read the First Letter of Peter and imagine that as the bishop’s voice speaking to you.  Some people have supposed that 1Peter is a post-baptismal exhortation, but at any rate the themes in that letter are reflected in a lot of post-baptismal Easter homilies from the earliest centuries of the Church.

So what about Passiontide?  Well, that was a period of preparation for baptism.  Catechumens went through two or three years of waiting and scrutiny, during which they were taught little or nothing about the doctrines of the faith or the liturgies of the Church.  In the weeks leading up to Easter, the time for their baptism, they finally received doctrinal instruction.  In the last two weeks or so before Easter, they fasted and received more frequent instruction along with daily exorcisms, and in the final week leading up to Easter they would at last be given the Apostles’ Creed.  They fasted for the two days leading up to Easter, and capped off their preparation with the all-night vigil the night before.

That period of more intense preparation for baptism was the seed of our Passiontide, and in fact the seed of the entire season of Lent.  Eventually the entire congregation not only celebrated their baptismal transformation on Easter with the newly baptized but also prepared for that day along with the candidates for baptism.  The fast was extended back, and everyone was invited to attend the catecheses.

Now that the liturgical year has more historical emphasis, we have readings that look to what happened, historically, in the final weeks before Christ died.  But the key to understanding much about the season remains that it originated as a season of preparation for baptism–for re-birth in Christ.

What connections have you seen between Holy Week and baptism?  Let me know in the comments!

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Pondering the 4th Century Church

The more I read about the fourth century–that’s the 300’s, for all of you who are like me and don’t absorb history quickly–the more I see it as a kind of birth period for the Church.  Of course, Christ founded the Church from the cross and revealed her at Pentecost, but as soon as the Roman Empire figured out that Christians were not Jews then it was illegal to be Christian.  Even though the Church was by her nature a public and missionary thing, it’s hard to be all that public or all that missionary when anyone around you might rat you out to the government.

Imagine you have a foam model of a cathedral.  Then you squish it down and mash it and squash it until you can fit it into a tiny cube-shaped box.  The foam cathedral in the box is like the Church in the ages of persecution:  it’s all in there, but it’s compressed, in some ways beyond recognition.  When you take the foam cathedral out of the box, you see the Church over the course of the fourth century:  slowly, she spreads out her parts, unfolds herself, assumes her natural size and shape.  It was all in there, but in a way it is “being a cathedral” for the first time.

Of course, it’s wonderful to find out just how much was in that little box during the ages of persecution:  the doctrines already in place, like purgatory and the authority of bishops and the efficacy of sacraments; the practices already in place, like the Mass with its main parts already in force as they stand today.  But I have come to put a special value also on what seems to appear during the 300’s.  What did the Church do the very moment she was taken from the box?  That also tells us something very important.

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