31 January 2016


I wonder if anyone knows exactly when the Byzantine preLent season was invented? It occurs to me that, if it was in place when S Gregory was apocrisiarius in Constantinople, he could have picked up the idea for the Gesimas there. You will remember that on his return to Rome and his election as Pope, he was much criticised because he made changes in the Liturgy which the admirably conservative plebs sancta Dei of Rome deemed to be Byzantinisations. But let us look at the Propers for tomorrow, Sexagesima.

That great liturgist G G Willis (funny, isn't it, how so much of the best work on the early history of the Roman Rite was done by Anglican Catholics) pointed out that the propers for Sexagesima in the Missal of S Pius V and the Book of Common Prayer manifestly relate to S Paul; his own account of his tribulations in the Epistle being matched by the Parable of the Sower, so appropriate to the work of the Apostle to the Gentiles. (You will remember that the Pope's Mass, on these three Sundays before Lent, took place in turn at the three basilicas of Rome's great saints, Ss Lawrence, Paul, and Peter, which stand like protecting spiritual fortresses outside the City walls; and today, Sexagesima, Pope and people were at S Paul's.)

I don't like to tangle with as great a scholar as Willis; but with diffidence and respect I point out that this is not quite what the Begetter of the Gesimas, S Gregory the Great, himself actually says. Again I recommend those with access and a little Latin (Gregory's Latin is very easy) to read not only the extract which the Old Breviary gave in the third nocturn for Sexagesima, but the whole text of Homilia 15 in Evangelia (Migne, 76, columns 1131 and following). The emphasis here again is on the need for a sense of sinfulness as Christians approach the penitential season of Lent. The Holy Father picks up the Lord's explanation of the parable (the second section of the pericope, which the crass 'scholarship' of the twentieth century confidently and ludicrously assured us could not possibly be from the Lord's lips): i.e. the work of the Devil in frustrating the Gospel Word sown in our hearts, and the dangers of riches. It is this that becomes the basis of his attempt to stir up within his congregation an awareness of its sinful need to do penance.

[My incurable propensity to ramble inclines me to recommend the whole of the homily, not just the extract in the Breviary, if only for the sake of the (very 'modern') way S Gregory engages the congregation with his vivid account of the recent holy death of a devout cripple whom we all knew, who used to beg outside the Church of S Clement. Again, this is a classical, hands-on, mission sermon by a preacher who fears that his flock has lost its sense of sin. Plus ca change ...]

And, in the Divine Office, S Gregory's message is reinforced by the story of Noah. I hope you recall, from my post on Septuagesima, how S Gregory interpreted the parable of the husbandman hiring labourers for his vineyard. 'Morning' meant the period of Sacred History from Adam onwards [Septuagesima]; the 'Third Hour' was the period from Noah. So in the first nocturn of Mattins for Sexagesima Sunday we get the account of God's decision to punish human iniquity by a flood. Undoubtedly, that Flood evoked, for S Gregory's generation, vivid memories of the Great Tiber Flood of 589, followed by the epidemic which ended the life of many Romans, including Pope Pelagius II, S Gregory's own immediate predecessor.

But ... had all those who suffered in the Flood (either Noah's or Rome's) truly deserved, each individually, such punishment? I wonder if seminary courses dealing with 'Theodicy' take their starting points from Biblical and Patristic material. S Gregory, with the sort of realism from which our generation can shy away, meets head on the fact that a lot of people do their best to do good, but find themselves clobbered by tribulations. They flee earthly desires, and all they seem to get in return is worse wallops (flagella duriora). The solution is humiliter purgationis flagella tolerare: humbly to submit to the blows which cleanse us.

When did you last hear a sermon on Submission to God's Will ... whatever it be?


Henri Adam de Villiers said...

The Liber sacramentorum Romanae aeclesiae ordinis anni circuli (Sacramentarium Gelasianum) Vat. Reg. 316 have got already Seaxagesima :)

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Henri: my own position is that argued by Willis, Further Essays 1968, pp 41sqq.

GOR said...

Resignation to the will of God, indeed. We have lost any sense of this for some time now, not least in modern preaching. Given technology advances we’re made to feel nothing is inevitable, nothing must be suffered in patience, everything can and must be ‘fixed’.

Recently I started re-reading St. Augustine’s City of God which has much to say about resignation. While denouncing those who attributed the Sack of Rome to the Christians he makes no bones about the need to endure suffering - and even martyrdom - due to the fallen state of human nature and Our Lord’s example.

He doesn’t mince words, also decrying suicide as murder and not a pious escape to avoid a ‘greater evil’. His words would sound very alien to many Western ears “depraved by good fortune and not chastened by adversity.” But their truth remains and is lived daily by many of our fellow Christians under persecution in other countries.

William Tighe said...

"I wonder if anyone knows exactly when the Byzantine preLent season was invented?"

I've just paged through the subsection "Lent in Constantinople" of Thomas J. Talley's *The Origins of the Liturgical Year* (1991) who, writing of the week of mitigated forefast preceding Lent in Constantinople, continues "That preliminary week of lighter fasting, the 'tyrophagy,' during which dairy products are allowed to be eaten, was added during the reign of the emperor Heraclius in the seventh century" (p. 184).

Talley's footnote reference for this is to Alfred Rahlfs,"Die alttestamentlichen Lektionen dre griechischen Kirche," *Mitteilungen des Septuaginta-Unternehmens der K. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Goettingen,* Band I (Berlin 1919-1915), pp. 202-205.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Willis argues what I argued in my Post.

It is clear that, a generation before S Gregory, the so-called 'Gelasianum' gives evidence for the names Septuagesima and Sexagesima (not Quinquagesima). But the Mass formulae it offers are not the penitential ones which, in the view of Willis and myself, were almost certainly the work of S Gregory.

Henri Adam de Villiers said...

Certainly, Gregory worked for the establishment of our texts for the time of Septuagesima. The texts of the Ambrosian rite may present the atmosphere that prevailed before him.

Anyway, it is difficult to date the pre-Lent both East and West. But we have traces before St. Gregory. I think we should not consider that St. Gregory imported a new and totatlement unheard practice in the West.

I have tried to explore the trail of a progressive development from the week without meat (Carnival) attested from the fourth century (long before the fast of Heraclius, which has only reinforce this practice) and the fast of Nineveh => http://www.schola-sainte-cecile.com/2014/02/16/le-temps-davant-careme-septuagesime-dans-les-liturgies-chretiennes-antiquite-universalite/

Sorry, it's in French :-)

Fr John Hunwicke said...

A reader tells me that te book to which Dr Tighe refers can be found at

Dr. Adam DeVille said...

Though notoriously dodgy as an historian per se, the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann's book *Great Lent: Journey to Pascha* also takes up the question of the origins of Lent, and the ante-Lenten period, in the Byz. tradition, noting that both are the "fruit of a long and extremely complex historical development, not all aspects of which have been adequately studied" (p.135). He then writes a mini bibliographical essay (pp. 135-37) with numerous sources, ancient and modern, trying to give a bit of a sketch of this history. The book was published in 1969, and since then other scholars have entered the fray at least piecemeal though I have not seen a comprehensive survey of Byz. Lenten practices.

Liam Ronan said...

Dear Father,

You wondered: "When did you last hear a sermon on Submission to God's Will ... whatever it be?"

To my mind that would be a fearsome undertaking for any sermon. The Book of Job, the Psalms, and all the threads in-between and beyond would want careful examination lest the congregation fall into the error of 'quietism' (although there is much to be said for a quiet congregation)or superstition, or false mysticism, etc.

An elderly priest who provides me with spiritual advice recommended a certain book to me so that I might have some understanding of the topic of submission to the Will of God, i.e. "Abandonment to Divine Providence by Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, SJ., Ignatius Press, (2011). You may be familiar with it.

The priest suggested I read it a few pages at a time to reflect on what I had read. It is indeed a meal, but I find it both edifying and helpful.

In answer to your question; however, usually the last and only time one hears of submission to God's Will is at the funeral of some poor soul who has died a sudden, violent, unexpected, and unprovided death. Unshriven deaths are God's affair, of course, and the reason why there are/were prayers for the dead at funeral Masses.