6 February 2007


The ancient usage of the Western Church suggests you should be reading the book of Genesis. And that you should have started reading Genesis in the Divine Office 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 (Knox's translation ... for use in the Patrimony?); 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 Pius V/Book of Common Prayer Eucharistic propers for Septuagesima and its season enhance this spirituality. The Introit is: "The groanings of Death have surrounded me". This recalls 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 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 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 for complacency on the part of Gentile Christians. The whole point of I Corinthians 10, from which the Septuagesima 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 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 year or two ago, the Principal of an Evangelical PPH in this University got into trouble for asking a question very much 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 me. Perhaps it is a trifle politically incorrect: the Journalist In The Street tends to ask fashionable bishops whether Disasters are a Divine Punishment (why do their right reverend answers always begin "Well, y'know ..."?). But my assumption is that this blog has a superior class of theologically literate readers who can do the theodicy stuff for themselves. It bores me to tears.

I urge those who can to read 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 to Brompton. Gregory wasn't half the Latin stylist that Leo was; but, to be regretfully honest, I doubt whether the plebs sancta Dei understood much of S Leo's lapidary periods and abstracted concretes. I bet you could have heard a pin drop when S Gregory got into a purple passage and the pontifical spittle was really flying.


Anagnostis said...

As somebody said, "The Corinthians made it into the Bible the same way Pontius Pilate made it into the Creed".

Xristoforos McAvoy said...

Yes dear Father, one of the most mememorable experiences one can have is celebrating matins in a romanesque chapel on the top of a mountain at around 6 AM on Septuagesima Sunday and after exhaustively singing about 18 psalms than hearing read lesson III right as the sun begins to rise and glimmer into the windows: "And God said, Let there be lights in the firmanent of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years: and let them be for the lights in the firmanent of heaven to give light upon the earth; and it was so".

There is great iconography for this day in places like St Mark's Cathedral Venice and the Hortus Deliciarum showing the creation of the world and first man.

I use the "Venite" from St Dunstan's Plainsong psalter and hymn from Dr. Renwicks english matins .pdf's. Let us hope more people can regularly experience this in the future of our Church.

Fr John Hunwicke said...


Woody said...

I think it is available in English here: