24 January 2016


The ancient usage of the Western Church suggests you should be reading the book of Genesis in your Divine Office. And that you should have started reading Genesis today, Septuagesima.

During Lent, of which Septuagesima is the preamble, we repent of the Fall and the mark which it has left on each successive age of human history and on each one of us. Lent leads up to Easter Night, with the great, the outrageous impudence of the Deacon's shout: O felix Culpa: O blessed iniquity (that's Knox's Patrimonial translation ... now, gloriously, restored for use in the Ordinariates!!!); the marvel of Adam's Trangression which deserved such and so great a Redeemer. And then Eastertide invites us to live the Risen Life with and in our New Adam.

The S Pius V/Book of Common Prayer/Ordinariate Eucharistic psalmody for Septuagesima and its season express this spirituality. The Introit is about "The sorrows of Death", recalling the Genesis theme that the pains, labours, and mortality of Man (and not least of Woman) result from the Fall. Yes, I know that the Gesimas were probably introduced by S Gregory the Great at a time of great distress, strife, and chaos in Italy - which does lie behind the sense of agony and helplessness in this and other texts. My point is that it was the Pontiff who discerned a connection between a world ravaged and disordered by the Fall ... and the realities of late sixth century Italy. How can anyone who reads the newspapers doubt that this connection is just as possible now?

I incline to believe that S Gregory has left us his own explanation of his liturgical creation, Septuagesima, in the passage from his writings of which the old Breviary gives us a portion in the Third Nocturn (Hom 19 in Evang.; the full text of which is handily available in PL 76 coll 1153sqq.). Speaking, according to the manuscripts, in the basilica of S Lawrence one Septuagesima morning, he explains the different times of the day referred to in the Sunday's EF Gospel (the parable of the Husbandman hiring labourers for his vineyard): "The morning of the world was from Adam to Noah; the third hour, Noah to Abraham; Sixth, Abraham to Moses; Ninth, Moses to the Lord's Advent; eleventh, from the Lord's Advent to the end of the world". The EF Epistle reading ends with the disobedience of many in Jewry in the time of Moses ("in many of them God was not well-pleased"); the Gospel concludes "Many were called but few were chosen".

While there is no doubt that the Tradition has seen this applying to those Jews who rejected the Messiah's call, Bible and Fathers leave no room whatsoever for complacency on the part of Gentile Christians. The whole point of I Corinthians 10, from which the Septuagesima EF Epistle is taken, is that the fall from grace which happened to some who were "baptized into Moses" is just as much a fall awaiting some of those who have been baptised into Christ. And the passage from S Gregory selected for Mattins ends sharply "At the Eleventh hour the Gentiles are called; to whom it is said 'Why are you standing here lazy all day?' " S Gregory goes on to ask "Look what a lot of people we are gathered here, we're packing the walls of the church, but, y'know (tamen), who can know how few there are who're numbered in the flock of God's chosen?" ... a decade ago, the Principal of an Evangelical PPH in this University got into terrible trouble for asking a question rather like that.

Divine election; Human disobedience; its just punishment in the tribulations of the present age; followed by a call to Christians to recollect their own sinfulness before Lent begins: it looks like a very coherent Proper to my eye. Perhaps it is a trifle politically incorrect: the Journalist In The Street tends indignantly to demand of fashionable bishops whether Disasters are a Divine Punishment and why it is that a good God .... Well, y'know ... but Stay: my assumption is that this blog has a superior class of theologically literate readers who can do the theodicy stuff for themselves.

I urge those who can, to read S Gregory's entire homily; it ends with a lurid and lengthy account of an unrepentent sinner at the point of death; it is a real mission-sermon rant such as Fr Faber might have preached to his recalcitrant Irishmen before he moved on to (what Newman called) the 'second rate gentry' of Brompton. S Gregory wasn't half the Latin stylist that S Leo was; but, to be regretfully honest, I sometimes doubt whether the plebs sancta Dei understood much of S Leo's lapidary periods ... but I bet you could have heard a pin drop when S Gregory launched into one of his purple passages and the pontifical spittle was really flying.


William said...

For those of your readers whose private libraries unaccountably lack a complete set of Migne, the homily can be found at this link.

Ben Trovato said...

As one of the more trivial-minded of your readers, Father, may I just say how delightful I find the asides, whilst (of course!) enjoying the substance (when I can understand it).

This comment is prompted by the felicitous translation of tamen that you provide in this post.

mark wauck said...

"an unrepentent sinner" should = unrepentant. Sorry, but I have a thing about misspelling.

Banshee said...

The beauty of today's world is that everybody can own a set of Migne, at least in digitized form..

Joshua said...


Prime = Adam and the Protoevangelium
Terce = Noah and the Noahide Covenant
Sext = Abraham and the Abrahamic Covenant
None = Moses and the Mosaic Covenant
Vespers = the Lord's Advent and the Call of the Gentiles
Compline = Judgement Day

I assume then that

Matins = the eternity before Creation
Lauds = Creation

Joshua said...

PS Should Noahide be Noachide, Noahic, Noachic or Noachian? My interests in astronomy would incline me toward the last-named...

David said...

Just how long is Septuagesima, anyway? I always assumed it ended on Ash Wednesday, or at least on the First Sunday of Lent. But I am intrigued by this notion from the Legenda Aurea:

Inchoatur autem septuagesima a dominica, in qua cantatur: circumdederunt me, et terminatur in sabbato post pascha.

And, curiouser and curiouser:

Sexagesima inchoatur a dominica, in qua cantatur: exsurge, quare obdormis domine, et terminatur in quarta feria post pascha.

Quinquagesima, however, is said to terminate in ipso die paschae.

I have not seen these lengths of time mentioned anywhere else that I can recall. Do you have any idea about their origin, or whether they have ever been (or still are) accurate?