Parsch on Easter Sunday: what does the Church really celebrate?

In monasteries, the Triduum is a busy time: liturgy abounds! Here the time between the Vigil and Pontifical Second Vespers of Easter Sunday allows only a few periods of respite, as this one now. Having had little time to put together many thoughts, I leave it again to Fr Pius Parsch to edify us in any moment of repose we might have today on this feast of feasts. Perhaps we might do well to realise more deeply that, at Easter, we celebrate more than just the Resurrection of Christ. It is far richer than this great mystery alone.

…from the liturgical point of view Christ’s death and resurrection, considered merely as historical events, take second place to the acknowledgement of the fruit which resulted from them, namely grace. …

… We would almost certainly get a completely false idea of the liturgy if we failed to set Christ’s resurrection at the very centre of the Easter festival and of the whole of Paschaltide. Indeed, every Sunday is an echo of the Lord’s resurrection, for Sunday is the Lord’s Day… My purpose is merely to establish that it is not the resurrection alone that we are celebrating at Eastertime. …

…We tend to take far too simplified a view of the feasts we celebrate. We divide up the life of Jesus into parts, allocating each to a special season of the Church’s year. At Christmas we see only the Child in the crib, during Lent the Man of sorrows, at Easter the risen Christ, at the Ascension Christ glorified. But we must think more in terms of the ‘mysteries’. In every feast the Church has the whole of Christ’s redemptive work before her eyes, even when she selects a particular event for special consideration. This is most especially true of the two fundamental acts of our Lord’s life: His death and resurrection. The liturgy never separates these events. When it tells of His death, it tells also of the glory of His resurrection. When it tells of the resurrection, it tells also of His death. …

Take today’s Mass. You will be amazed to find how frequent is the mention of Christ’s death there. Indeed, the leitmotif of today’s Mass is not the resurrection, but Christ’s death: “Christ, our paschal victim, is sacrificed”. … Death and resurrection belong together; together they form the whole content of our Easter celebration, which began in Holy Week. …

We come now to the main point: the Church is here not really celebrating the historical events of Christ’s death and resurrection. She is celebrating His redemptive work, which comprises His death and resurrection. She keeps her eyes steadfastly on the fruit of this redemptive work, the glory of grace. If we want to gain a complete picture of the Easter festival in all its magnificence, we must see it as the feast of our reception into the state of grace. …

… There were two fundamental acts in Christ’s life, His death and resurrection, and these must continue their effect in the life of the person in grace. He must die with Christ – die, that is, in respect of his former, sinful nature – and there after must be continually risen with Christ.  Our sinful state of death is constantly being annihilated by Christ’s death, and our life of grace is renewed and restored by Christ’s resurrection. This happens because by grace we have become members of Christ’s Body, and as such have a continual share in His death and resurrection. …

And that, Christians, is what our Easter resolution must be. That is our Easter programme; a programme which demands all our love and zeal and strength of purpose. That is why the Epistle [1 Cor 5:6-8] admonishes us to rid ourselves “of the leaven that remains over”, so that we “may be a new mixture”. “Let us keep the feast, then, not with the leaven of yesterday, that was all vice and mischief, but with unleavened bread, with purity and honesty of intent”. … Let us die: away with the leaven of vice and wickedness! Let us rise again, with the unleavened bread of purity and sincerity. That is what the Church has so much at heart: that we should rise again with Christ in the spirit of love.

[“Easter Sunday” in Seasons of Grace, London, 1963]

Parsch’s point in a nutshell seems to be this: we celebrate on Easter day not so much what happened to Christ in his death and resurrection, but what Christ’s death and resurrection have done to us. They have given to us the life of grace, which allows us to live obedient to Christ’s commandment to love in this world, that we might live eternally in the next.

Let us pray that, not least through us, the contagion of divine love might spread through the whole world, that all of us might, at the last, come to the joy of the Kingdom.

Parsch on Maundy Thursday: Christ delivered for his brides

Fr Pius Parsch again offers some sage words, reminding us that Maundy Thursday is about Christ’s self-giving in freedom, to win us for God in our freedom.

Today is Maundy Thursday. It was on this hallowed day that Christ began His sufferings with His agony on Mount Olivet, and Judas imprinted the traitor’s kiss upon His cheek. It was on this day that Jesus was led a prisoner before the High Council and condemned to death, and was spat upon and mocked. On this day, too, Christ gave His Church the mystery of love, His own flesh and blood offered in sacrifice, and by washing the feet of his disciples bequeathed a precious legacy to his Church: the spirit of loving service. It is the day on which in the early Church penitents were received back into the community of Christ’s Body, and the day on which the holy oils, those instruments and symbols of grace, are newly blessed, and flow anew into Christian vessels, emptied now of sin. …

Today the Church celebrates “that most sacred day on which our Lord Jesus was delivered up (traditus) for us”. It is also the day on which “our Lord Jesus Christ delivered to His disciples the mystery of His Body and Blood for them to celebrate”. Today, therefore, is the memorial of a twofold giving. The Son of God had to be delivered up to death by the traitor’s kiss and the treachery of His people, so that He could deliver Himself up to us men. …

You may ask: Was not Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross sufficient – once and for all sufficient? Why, then, this continuation of His sacrifice in the Eucharist? Was not Good Friday sufficient? Why, then, Maundy Thursday? I answer: His love was not content with His being delivered up to death once and for all. He wanted to deliver Himself up anew, again and again, and for each one of us.

He did not love us merely as the atoning Son of God who willed by His death to satisfy once and for all the justice of God; He loved us also as a Bridegroom, wooing each one of us, uniting us to Himself. He did not want us merely to share His death, but to share too in His divine life. Such was His regard for our freedom that He did not want to redeem us against our wills, without our cooperation. It was not as slaves that He wanted us, but as brides: to share freely in the divine life; freely to die with Him, and freely to live with Him. That is why He left us the Eucharist… that sparkling jewel of grace in the Church’s crown. …

It was for the sake of grace that He delivered to us this day His body and blood as a memorial for us to celebrate, that we might ever unite ourselves with Him as His brides, and nourish and fill our souls with grace.
[Seasons of Grace: New Meditations for Sundays and Feastdays, London, 1963]

In Baptism, as much as anything else we are all Christ’s brides, together in that one great Bride, the Church.

Parsch on Palm Sunday: the sermon preached by the palms

Fr Pius Parsch (1884 – 1954), an Augustinian canon of Klosterneuberg in Austria, was one of the great figures of the authentic Liturgical Movement. Much of his body of writing is devoted to breaking open the treasures of the liturgy for the benefit of the faithful, and not a few clergy! Much of what is found in the conciliar document on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, is an affirmation of his work, though I suspect much of the later reform in practice would not have cheered him.

For your spiritual reading today here is an excerpt from “Palm Sunday”, found in his Seasons of Grace: New Meditations for Sundays and Feastdays (London, 1963):

Today we enter Holy Week, the great week of the Christian year, a week so rich in associations for all Christians who take the Church’s year seriously. It is nothing less than the celebration of Easter, the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. At this point perhaps, we will need to revise some of our ideas. The celebration of Easter does not begin with Easter Sunday and does not conists merely of Christ’s resurrection. It begins on Palm Sunday – or rather on Passion Sunday – and consists of the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. We cannot separate the Cross from the resurrection; they belong together. They belong together, too, in the life of the Christian, a life of grace which consists in conforming to “the likeness of Christ’s death and resurrection”.

… The Church our Mother, therefore, puts a symbol into our hands, a sign to show that we are Christ’s fellow-warriors, that we die with Christ and with Him gain the victory. She gives us these branches of palm and olive.

If up to now we have looked upon palms as symbols of martyrdom, that is quite true, as we know from the tradition and liturgy of the Church. When, however, we read carefully the prayer with which the Church blesses the these palms, we find she gives them a much richer symbolism. These branches are signs of our readiness to die and rise again with Christ, to fight at His side and to conquer with Him. By taking them in our hands we show that we want “to live in the likeness of Christ’s death and resurrection”. And that means living in union with Christ, which, as St Paul said, involves dying with Christ and rising again with Christ.

… By taking these branches into our hands we announce our firm resolve to take up the struggle against our sinfulness and to receive the gift of grace with joy; for that is what is meant by the work of divine mercy. When therefore we take these branches from the hand of the Church, we say to ourselves: “Thus may I receive grace from the hands of God”. Grace is the greatest possession of our lives, to be carried by us in our procession through life. We take these palms home with us and put them somewhere where we can always see them, to remind us that we are God’s children of grace.

Boughs of palm and olive – see, then, what they mean. We are warriors and victors, and friends and brides of God. We must die daily with Christ, struggle against our sinful nature and love the mercy of God. We must be strong, valiant, steeled against sin; but grace, the olive, steals mildly, softly, mercifully, gently into our souls.

Often, then, during this year let us listen to the sermon which these bough of palm and olive preach us. But now we want to carry them in our hands with pride and joy, as we accompany Christ the Warrior, the Conqueror, our Brother, Friend, and Bridegroom, through death to resurrection.

It can be a little startling to accept that in a sense our Easter celebration has already begun. Yet our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem on a kingly colt is more than a piece of dramatic irony for we who know what is to come but a few days later on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It reminds us that as he processes to his death, Christ processes also to his resurrection and to his coronation as eternal King. How fitting that his crown be of thorns, for his power is found in self-sacrifice for our sake, and not in the pomp that is his right. It gives us heart for the days that are to come, to know that Christ has already won the victory, as he promised. It reminds us what rich reward will crown our own sufferings as we battle the power of sin with the weapons of love, as He did.

Ironically, the liturgy that Parsch expounded is not quite the same as we have today. Many of the prayers are changed, or indeed removed. The prayer of blessing for the palms he refers to is gone, and the reformed liturgy’s prayer has none of the resonance of the previous. Until the post-conciliar reforms the prayer of blessing (translated) was:

Bless, we beseech Thee, O Lord, these branches of palm; and grant that what Thy people today bodily perform for Thy honour, they may perfect spiritually with the utmost devotion, by gaining the victory over the enemy, and ardently loving every work of mercy. Through our Lord…

However, there is something of this meaning lingering in the introduction before the blessing in the new Missal, which also gathers into it the emphasis Parsch placed on Palm Sunday as the beginning of the Easter celebration:

Dear brothers and sisters, since the beginning of Lent until now we have prepared our hearts by penance and charitable works. Today we gather together to herald with the whole Church the beginning of the celebration of our Lord’s Paschal Mystery, that is to say, of his Passion and Resurrection. For it was to accomplish this mystery that he entered his own city of Jerusalem. Therefore, with all faith and devotion, let us commemorate the Lord’s entry into the city for our salvation, following in his footsteps, so that, being made by his grace partakers of the Cross, we may have a share also in his Resurrection and in his life.

Hosanna to the Son of David!

To Gesima, or not to Gesima

In the last week or so there has been quite a bit of talk and agitation on the blogosphere about Septuagesima. Yesterday was, if we had been using the pre-conciliar liturgical calendar, Septuagesima Sunday. In the new liturgical calendar it was merely the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time. One might wonder what is the difference, and what, if anything, has been lost with the suppression of Septuagesima (and of Sexagesima, Quinquagesima, though not Quadragesima, which is Lent).

Literally the word septuagesima means seventieth, though that is not necessarily much help in understanding its liturgical use. Septuagesima Sunday is neither 70 days after anything in particular, nor is it 70 days before anything, though it is dated according to Easter. It is the ninth Sunday before Easter and the third before Lent. Why it is called the seventieth is not exactly clear. While Quinquagesima is, in fact, 50 days before Easter by one way of counting, and Quadragesima is in fact 40 days before Easter by another way of counting, neither Septuagesima nor Sexagesima have a corresponding accuracy. Perhaps it is a form of rounding off to the nearest -gesima?

What is somewhat clearer is that in the earliest days of the Church many pious Christians, not least the clergy (yes, pious clergy), began to fast 70 days before Easter. At various times and places other Christians began to fast 60 days before Easter, some 50, and some 40. The term Septuagesima is first found in liturgical books (that survive, at least) with the Gelasian Sacramentary, which seems to date from the 8th century in the manuscripts we still have, but is linked by ancient tradition to Pope St Gelasius I (d. 496). It was Pope Gregory who fixed the pre-Easter period of preparatory penance, Lent, at 40 days so as to bring about some consistency in Christendom.

However, Septuagesima continued to have signficance liturgically. For from this Sunday the Alleluia would cease to be sung or said until Easter (and not from Ash Wednesday, as in the modern calendar). Likewise the Gloria was not sung until Easter. While there was no fasting yet, the colour purple was used from this Sunday. It was almost-Lent, a fore-Lent. Or, as the people’s hand missals used to explain so well, it was a season of its own to prepare for Lent.

Indeed, it would not hurt to see what a few of these missals taught about the seemingly obscure season of the -Gesimas. The St Joseph Daily Missal (NY, 1959) explains that the three -Gesima Sundays marked the beginning of the second part of the ecclesiastical year, a mini-season of three weeks which “form a transition from the joy of Christmastide to the austerity of the Penitential Season of Lent”.

The Layman’s Missal (London, 1961) offers a very full set of notes. It also observes that this season moves us from Christmastide towards Easter, in part by recalling the 70 years Israel spent in captivity in Babylon. Then the notes go on to explain the more direful and dolorous tone of the prayers and chants of the season of the -Gesimas in this context of transition:

Since Christmas and Epiphany we have learned to know our Saviour and our King. It was our great joy to “see the heavens opened”, to “receive the Lord our God come in person” in order to establish at last his kingdom of justice and of peace.

God united himself with us by means of the Incarnation; and yet our state of misery is still with us:”The surging tide of death has engulfed me: the meshes of hell have entangled me”. That is because only the first page of the history of our redemption has been written. It is now our task to accept our Saviour and unite ourselves to him, in order that he may bring us out of our wretchedness and lead us all on the way to God.

… we have to aqccepot the conditions of our redemption: “Lord teach me your law”. The promise has not yet developed into victory. It is necessry fort to “bear the day’s burden” like the labourers in the vineyard…


The gospel for Septuagesima Sunday: the parable of the labourers in the vineyard

The Bible Missal (Bruges, 1962) offers a somewhat different history of the development of the -Gesimas, itself a reminder that much of the early origins of our liturgy are clouded by the passing of the centuries, leaving much for liturgists to argue about. It brings in that school of thought that emphasises the formal erection in the seventh century of Septuagesima, with its tone of being surrounded and engulfed by the tides of evil and death, as being a response to the violent onward press of the barbarians into the Roman world at that time. This missal even adds a “Theme”, namely the Sacraments. It highlights that the Sacraments are more than rituals but are intended to “change our lives”. Since sacraments are encounters with the living Christ, they should then, in this season especially, be seen as the means of our entering “completely into the Covenant between God and ourselves” established eternally in Christ, learning from the failure of Israel to embrace their now-superseded covenant.

Lastly, moving beyond the hand missals, the great popular liturgical expositor Pius Parsch (d. 1954), in his The Breviary Explained (London, 1952) described the season of the -Gesimas as a transition, but more, as a preparation for Lent, “the antechamber of the Lenten Season”, and noted that

[t]he Liturgy for these three Sundays is particularly beautiful and artistic in structure. This is true of the Mass liturgy especially.

In light of that assessment particularly, it is no surprise that many are lamenting the loss of this season of the -Gesimas. Kate at Australia Incognita feels that the season’s emphasis on perseverance amidst a sea of troubles speaks as much to us now as it did to the Church in the seventh century. Moreover, she holds that this pre-Lent season helps us better to prepare for Lent itself, to take it more seriously, than we find when Lent springs upon so suddenly on Ash Wednesday.

Fr Hunwicke’s Liturgical Notes, referenced by Kate, point to the Second Vatican Council’s explicit mandate in Sacrosanctum Concilium that “[t]he liturgical year is to be revised so that the traditional customs and discipline of the sacred seasons can be preserved or restored to meet the conditions of modern times; their specific character is to be retained”. He ruefully wonders why the season of the -Gesimas was not protected by the Council’s express desire.

There is much to recommend the restoration of the season of the -Gesimas, when one thinks about it. Certainly there are many of us who find that Lent is upon us before we have given serious thought as to how we might fruitfully participate in that sacred season, what to read and what more-than-cursory penance we might offer – in short, how to make Lent a time for true re-conversion.

At a deeper level it reminds us of one the least satisfactory aspects of the new liturgical calendar: Ordinary Time. Before the post-conciliar reform of the Calendar the Church had no concept at all of any time being ordinary. Of course, the reformers did not intend the more banal meaning of the word to apply, but for the common Catholic it does, more often than not. All time, including that we call ordinary or “throughout the year”, is salvation time. “Now is the acceptable time” says St Paul (2 Cor 6:2), “this is the day of salvation”. In the old calendar all time was labelled in reference to one of the great moments in salvation history: Advent, the season preparing for Christmas and also for the Second Coming; Christmas; Epiphany and the days counted after Epiphany; the season of the -Gesimas, easing us out of Christmastide and preparing for…; Lent, the season of re-conversion in preparation for…; Easter and the days counted after Easter; Pentecost, the feast of the establishment of the Church as the enduring and saving presence of the Body of Christ in the world, and the days counted after Pentecost.

Every day was thus anchored to salvation history. No day was ordinary, none humdrum. Every day was a call to experience more fully an aspect of our redemption, and the mystery of God’s love for us revealed in that chapter of salvation history. While the reform of the Lectionary is a far richer gift to the Church, expounding in greater detail the biblical aspects of salvation history throughout the liturgical year, nevertheless we consciously mark the time by its liturgical title, not firstly by the readings of a particular day. So, hearing a Sunday called the fifth in “Ordinary Time”, with no explicit anchorage in salvation history, will usually lead the unwary into considering that day to be, indeed, ordinary, humdrum, of no great consequence.

Could that, perhaps, be part of the reason why ours has become a Church of Christmas-Easter-wedding-and-funeral churchgoers? At least those times sound special. It is a question worth pondering.