The Breviary begins today with this invitatory: “Come let us worship the newborn Christ, who has given the glorious crown to St. Stephen.” In the book of Acts, where we read about Stephen’s martyrdom, nothing suggests a connection to the newborn Christ in particular, but the fact that his feast day has been right after Christmas since the liturgical year first took shape led to the tradition that the three days after Christmas bring three “companions of Christ” around the crib to adore the infant God.
The three companions, according to a medieval commentary, represent the three kinds of martyrs. First we have Stephen, who was willing to die for Christ and was in fact killed; tomorrow we have St. John, who was willing to die for Christ but was not in fact killed; and then we have the Holy Innocents, who were in fact killed for Christ but were too young to be willing. Today’s invitatory connects the newborn Christ to the first kind of martyr. Tomorrow’s invitatory turns to the default invitatory used for every Apostle, but the invitatory for the Holy Innocents sounds like today’s: “Come, let us worship the newborn Christ, who crowns with joy these children who died for him.”
The tomb of St. Nicholas of Myra had long been a popular pilgrimage destination, but when sailors from Bari, Italy stole his relics from the Turkish-occupied town, devotion to St. Nicholas took off in the west. Given the stories of his generosity and his love for children, it was natural that St. Nicholas should surround himself with the aura and the legends of Father Christmas, a lingering memory of Norse legend. Within a couple of hundred years, the Feast of St. Nicholas was a landmark in the Advent season, hailing the election of the Boy Bishop (more on this character later) and the exchange of Christmas gifts.
Since my childhood was not spent in the Church, the first time I encountered any celebration of St. Nicholas’ Day was when I visited my soon-to-be wife’s family. Later, when we lived in Gaming, Austria, we experienced the intensity of medieval devotion to St. Nicholas. A friend who was a boy in Gaming around that time has posted his vivid memory of Nicholas and the Krampus here–you can see what I mean by “intense”! Our first daughter was a baby at the time, and we realized that we just had to stay inside. Krampus was too much.
Once back in the states, we brought new fervor to our celebration of St. Nicholas’ Day, although we haven’t opted to have a demon chase our children with whips. Instead, we bought a giant cookie mold of the bishop Nicholas from houseonthehill.net; since the cookies need time to age, we make them a couple of weeks ahead of time. The night of December 5, the kids make gingerbread cookies for their stockings.
In the morning, the stockings are hung by the fire place–the beautiful, hand-crafted stockings my mother has lovingly made for each child–and in the stockings are cookies, some chocolate coins to remember the story of St. Nicholas’ gifts, and a small gift. Typically, the stockings buy time for my wife and me to get up slowly and make breakfast at a more leisurely pace.
In the afternoon, we’ll make hot cocoa and eat the giant Nicholas cookies. I like to give at least one giant cookie away, if I can. Because I’m into medieval customs these days, our background music will be an album of medieval folks songs for the feast of St. Nicholas.
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. I have written about my own devotional approach to the day here.
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:
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.
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.)
In a kind of Christianized civic spirit, Christian communities celebrated their local martyrs in a regular cycle.
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.
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.
Before the amazing 4th century, Christians were parochial and even patriotic in their veneration of saints. Rome celebrated the martyrs who had died at Rome, Constantinople celebrated the martyrs who had died at Constantinople, Antioch celebrated the martyrs who had died at Antioch, and so on. It never occurred to the folks in Rome to celebrate the saints of Antioch, or vice versa: celebrating a saint involved walking out to see his tomb. But in the 4th century a unique group of saints broke this pattern and set us on the path to the celebration of all saints. Who were they?
The saints of the Bible.
The saints of the Bible were familiar names throughout the Church. Texts like Hebrews 11 and Sirach 44-50, read everywhere, held up the great men and women of Salvation History as examples to follow and heroes to venerate. For the church in Jerusalem, however, the saints of Scripture were also the local martyrs: just as Rome had a list of days for celebrating the martyrs of Rome, Jerusalem had a cycle of liturgical commemorations of the biblical saints. When 4th-century pilgrims brought Jerusalem’s liturgies back to their home dioceses, they brought with them the practice of liturgically commemorating the biblical saints—and implicitly, they created the practice of commemorating saints that were not local. Unwittingly, they had planted the seed of the universal sanctoral cycle. Continue reading “Saints of the Bible: A Complete List of Their Feasts in the Old and New Calendars”
In Jerusalem, the commemoration of Saints Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who received the body of Jesus from the cross, wrapped it in fine linen, and placed it in the tomb. Joseph, a respected member of the council, was looking for the kingdom of God; Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a prince of the Jews, came to Jesus by night to ask about his mission, and defended his cause before the priests and Pharisees who wanted to arrest Jesus.
May Holy Mary and all the saints intercede to the Lord for us, that we may merit to be helped and saved by him who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
V. Precious in the sight of the Lord
R. Is the death of his holy ones.
V. May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life. And may the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.
[To learn about praying this and other Martyrology entries, see this page.]
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.
Yesterday was the day English tradition has called “Spy Wednesday,” because on that day Judas made a deal with the authorities to betray Jesus and began looking out for an opportunity to do so (Mark 14:10-11). Immediately after this scene, Mark tells us what happened on Thursday (14:12-16):
And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” And he sent two of his disciples, and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the householder, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” And the disciples set out and went to the city, and found it as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover.
The sequence is clear: Judas the spy is on the prowl, so Jesus does not give out any information ahead of time about where the Last Supper will take place. He doesn’t even whisper to another disciple, who might be persuaded to spill the beans. Instead, he sends two disciples to follow someone they will meet randomly in the city. And the miracle is, with Jerusalem swollen to triple its normal population and Passover celebrations fighting for room literally on the rooftops, this random person leads them to a spacious room all furnished and still available! It’s like getting Superbowl tickets the day before the game!
But my thoughts today keep going back to the owner of the room. Today, on Holy Thursday, Jesus’ ministers will say to me, “Where is the guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?” That householder was ready without warning; I have had all of Lent to prepare. I still wonder if my inner, upper room is furnished and ready for tonight.
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20)
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.
On Holy Thursday, my family prepares for the evening Mass with a Passover reenactment and reflection. The super-rich evening liturgy assumes the Last Supper setting at every point, but we like to underscore that fact with a little drama in the home.
These days a lot of people say that they do a Seder meal or that they do a “Christianized Passover” for Holy Thursday. I’m sorry, but those are both absurd things to say.
On the one hand, the Seder is not a Passover meal, because the Passover was a sacrificial banquet, and for sacrifices you have to have the Temple. No, the Seder is a Jewish ritual that was invented after the destruction of the Temple and after Christ had ascended and Christianity was already being preached to the world as something different from Judaism. There is no reason a Christian would celebrate a Seder.
On the other hand, the “Christianized Passover” is the Mass. Christ himself “Christianized” the Passover, so it’s kind of silly for Christians to pretend to do that for him. If you want a Christianized Passover, go to the Holy Thursday evening liturgy.
What we do at home on Holy Thursday is best called a Passover re-enactment. We try to re-enact what Jesus and his disciples would have done at dinner that night as a way to prepare our minds for what the Church offers us in her liturgy. It’s a devotional prep for the evening. We look forward to it every year!
Here’s how we do it. Everyone who participates in the Passover re-enactment gets this slim handout, which explains both the actions and the foods; you can print it on one double-sided sheet. The cook will need this food list, which has some practical notes on how to prepare things. The leader can look at this really detailed overview of the Passover ceremony for background; at the end, I’ve tucked in a bibliography of sources I used in reconstructing the ritual. When I lead people through the devotion for the first time, I often base my comments on this article, which I published some time ago in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
Do you have any special family traditions for the Triduum? Let me know in the combox. I’d love new ideas for Holy Thursday and Good Friday in particular.