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Friday, March 31, 2017

Passiontide: A Time to Feel Lent

This article was posted last week, containing several errors.  Originally I considered passing them off as an early April Fool's joke.  However, those errors were simply the result of my own poor memory and, in my haste, I did not consult sources as I ought.  I apologize for any confusion, as well as for any misinformation that has been perpetuated by my own lack of vigilance.

Having looked briefly at the overall structure of the calendar, and in order to avoid boring even myself, I have elected at this point to deviate ever so slightly and begin to focus on the upcoming Paschal feasts.  Next weekend we begin Holy Week with Palm Sunday, which sometimes is referred to as Passion Sunday.  More on that in a moment.  Next week’s liturgical musings will provide an in-depth look at many of the sights and sounds that we can expect throughout Holy Week as we enter into the mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
Today, however, we focus on this current Sunday, which in the calendar that was in force up until 1969 was called Passion Sunday (Dominica Passionis I).  The last two weeks of the Lenten observance have been given the title of Passiontide as the focus of the liturgy now turns more fully to contemplating the Passion of Our Lord.  The first week of Passiontide would be spent in heightened preparation for Holy Week.  Dom Prosper Gueranger suggests that this week has been observed since possibly the third century, citing St. Denis of Alexandria, who lived at that time.  Penances were increased.  Even the rules of fasting were intensified.  
With the reform of the liturgy, the intensity of the prayers and readings of the Mass mostly remained, but the title of Passion Sunday was dropped from this Sunday and applied to Palm Sunday to highlight the first proclamation of Our Lord's Passion of Holy Week.  In 1969 the Lectionary, as it was reformed, was expanded to a three-year Sunday cycle, and now only two chronicles of the Passion are proclaimed each year (Palm Sunday and Good Friday).  Prior to the liturgical reform all four Passion narratives were proclaimed during Holy Week.  The Passion was heard on Palm Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week, and Good Friday.  Thus, all four accounts of the Passion were incorporated into the liturgy, progressively getting shorter.  This was to show the passage of time, wherein the events that already happened (e.g., Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday) were not proclaimed after the fact—an effect that would leave those hearing the words of the Passion with a sense that the events proclaimed were taking place at that moment, and not merely as an historical chronicle. 
Ultimately this serves to touch on a central issue relating to the calendar, which we may explore in the future—namely, the fact that the Sacred Liturgy itself, being a Divine institution and participating in the Heavenly Supper of the Lamb, mystically takes place outside of time and space.  Thus, whenever we enter into the Sacred Mysteries, the action of the Mass—the events re-presented (not represented)—are not occurring as an historical re-enactment, but are happening, as St. Paul suggests, once and for all time.  While we experience the action of the Mass according to earthly time—characterized most especially by those who insist on checking their watches periodically—the actuality is that we are transported mystically outside of time and space as Heaven comes to earth, and we engage in all of the events proclaimed within the Mass as they are actually occurring.
This concept of time as it relates to the Mass is a complicated one, and I encourage everyone to pick up a copy of Scott Hahn’s book The Lamb’s Supper to get a better sense of the reality of the Mass.  In it, Dr. Hahn uses the writings of the Fathers of the Church to craft an accessible and rather complete explanation of this very principle.
Having deviated significantly from what I intended to propose, I want us to look at this Sunday—old Passion Sunday, if you will—and the time commonly referred to as Passiontide.  The first thing that most people will notice is that the statues and sacred images of the Church are veiled.  This ancient tradition corresponds to a distinct change of tone in the readings and texts of the Mass, where in Jesus is now actively hiding himself in order to avoid persecution by the Jews before His time has come.  Having explored earlier this year the practice of veiling various items within the Church, the practice of veiling these images makes clear a sobriety and starkness that should visually impress upon us the somber nature of the season.  Statuary and images are meant to draw us into the mysteries of Christ and His Saints.  But now they are hidden from us.  The call of psalmist, “Seek the Lord while he may be found,” now demands of us a greater searching, a deeper interior movement that forces us to see no longer with our physical eyes, but the eyes of Faith. 
At Rome on this day, Solemn Vespers continues to be celebrated at St. Peter’s Basilica, which  is the Lenten Station Church for the day.  The celebration begins with the great hymn, Vexilla Regis.  This hymn, while often sung at snail’s pace due to the fallacious perception that Gregorian Chant should always be slow and meditative, is actually composed musically in the style of a military march, which more accurately reflects the text: “The Royal Banners march forth, the Mystery of the Cross shines resplendent, where the enfleshed Creator of all flesh on the gibbet was hung.  Hail, O Cross, our singular hope! In this Passiontide Grant justice to your pious ones, and grant pardon to the guilty!”  This glorious hymn of triumph was first sung on November 19, 569 (not 1569!), as a relic of the True Cross of Christ given by the Byzantine emperor Justin II was solemnly processed into the monastery of Saint-Croix in Poitiers, France.
Toward the end of Vespers, all of the relics of the Basilica are placed on the altar and are incensed, after which a procession forms and beings to move throughout the cavernous space, while the Litany of the Saints is sung.  This particular Litany is one of the great musical treasures of Christendom, as it features only the Saints whose relics are housed in the Basilica!  In addition to being culturally and historically significant, it is also noteworthy that this litany is extremely long!
Finally, when the procession returns to the middle of the Basilica at the Papal High Altar, one of the more curious and significant events in the City of Rome occurs.    A small bell rings, and then high above the crowd, from the loggia that sits atop the pillar over Francesco Mochi’s dramatic statue of Veronica, two of the canons of St. Peter’s appear.  They

raise up what appears to be a large picture frame, and bless the crowd.
  Contained in that frame, revealed for all to see is one of the most precious relics of St. Peter’s Basilica: the Veil of Veronica, imprinted with the image of the Holy Face of Our Lord!  In centuries past, the Church placed so much importance on this relic that, at one point being blessed with it carried an indulgence of 10,000 years off Purgatory (if memory serves)!

I communicate all of this for good reason.  In the modern liturgy it is very easy to see this Sunday merely as the Fifth Sunday of Lent.  But it is so much more.  Historically, liturgically, and culturally this Sunday is the gateway to the holiest time of year: Holy Week.  It is the portal through which we must all pass to enter more fully into the Paschal Mystery.  And everything about this day makes more and more clear that we are descending deeper and deeper into the darkened Tomb, our bodies now weary with fasting and penance, our minds becoming increasingly clarified, and our hearts burning even more with desire—desire for redemption, for relief, for blessed resurrection.  See, then, in this Sunday not merely one more marker in the countdown toward Easter, but a hallmark of the Church’s liturgy that is given to help us not only observe Lent, but to feel Lent in a way that is visceral and meaningful. 

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