For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Christmas & Epiphany lessons

Next - in this series about the attempt to build a fuller lectionary (see Sarum Office page at the top of the blog for a link to the lectionary) - for the rationale behind the Christmas and Epiphany Lessons.

Matins of the Sarum rite provides unique homilies, and a series of legends, for the feasts and saints of Christmas and Epiphany. During the entire period (from Christmas to the end of the Octave of Epiphany) the Christmas Vespers are said daily, while Matins varies according the feast. There are provisions for festal processions with incense and chants on each of the major feasts after Christmas, notably a procession of deacons on St Stephen, of priests on St John, and choirboys on Holy Innocents: these take place immediately after Vespers.

Filling in extra lessons for this period in addition to the Matins lessons requires a lesson for Prime, and two lessons for Vespers. One can fill out Vespers lessons for many of the major feast days with relevant lessons taken from e.g. the 1928 BCP lectionary. Even then, though, one is left with quite a few gaps.

To take Epiphany first: I found it easy to decide on lessons for the Octave of Epiphany. For the first lesson of Vespers, many passages from Isaiah (many of them packed into the Epistle lesson of the Octave Day Mass which is put together from excerpts from Isaiah) are replete with the symbolism of water and therefore our Lord's baptism. And for the second lesson of Vespers, the first three chapters of John seemed a very apposite series for the entire Octave - I am told that the Coptic lessons at Epiphany also cover the early part of John's Gospel. Finally, there was the Prime lesson: I picked out a series of lessons from the detail in Exodus about the service of the altar and the priestly clothing of Aaron and his sons. There is a lot of detail about the priestly state here, and it is rich in symbolic detail (the use of gold, incense and anointing oil, the laver in which the priests are to wash, the clothing in priestly linen which was symbolically understood as a reference to our Lord's clothing with the stuff of earth, the offerings of wine). The passages from Exodus are ripe for the juxtaposition of the symbols of the Magi, the wedding at Cana, and the Baptism with the ultimate reference of these symbols and happenings, i.e. the Cross and Christ's Ascension to the Altar in Heaven. This is not a connection foreign to the liturgy of this period: the link is explicit enough in the symbolism of the gifts of the Magi, and I understand that there is quite a systematic link made in the Byzantine rite between the feast of the Theophany and the Paschal rites.

The Christmas lessons - mainly the lessons of Prime, and the remainder of the first lessons of Vespers on the days after the feast of St Thomas until Epiphany - caused me some difficulty. Eventually, drawing in the main upon the idea of Christmas as a feast of the birth of a king (remember that Christmas was once seen as particularly appropriate for a coronation), but specifically a king who is the Heir of David, I tried to construct a series of lessons from the building of the Temple of Solomon in the book of Chronicles. The series starts on Christmas Eve with David's prophetic utterances to his son, commanding him to build a house for God to dwell in among his people, and promising Solomon an eternal kingdom; the rest of the series leads on from there, and ends on Epiphany Eve with the visit of the Queen of Sheba (bringing spices in abundance, of course). It seemed as if the series from Chronicles provided a ready-made progression from the building of the Temple (i.e. the Incarnation, understanding the Temple as Christ's body) to the coming of the Gentiles to the Temple (the Queen of Sheba, or Saba, bringing gifts on camels) at the glorious Shewing or Epiphany of our Lord. And the account of the building of the Temple by Solomon covers much of the symbolic material, in anticipation, that will be reiterated in the lessons from Exodus read throughout the Octave of Epiphany.

Something that may cause some disagreement about the nature and purpose of a lectionary is the inclusion of the series of names connected with the service of the Temple, from I Chronicles 23 onwards. In the lectionary as it stands, the role and names of the Levites are detailed on the feast of Stephen; there is further documentary detail of the sons of Aaron (the priests) on the feast of John; and the lists on Holy Innocents concern the singers and musicians. One could draw a line between the liturgy of the Old Testament and the New - as I have done with this lectionary - between the deacons and their procession on St Stephen, to the Levites; between the sons of Aaron (i.e. the priests), and the priestly procession on St John; and between the choir of boys and its procession on Holy Innocents, and the musicians of the ancient Temple. My justification of this typological link between the old worship and the new is that it was made very early on in the history of Christianity by Clement of Rome, who is likely to have known the Apostles Peter and Paul.

One might object of course that the sheer volume of lists names, names, names simply makes the reading aloud of such passages rather silly. In that case, the idea of an annual lectionary to read all of Scripture should be forgotten about. My own feeling is that there is a purpose for such lessons other than to provide material for satirical sketches about Christian worship. (1) To remind us that the meaning of Scripture is in excess of our understanding of it; which entails a belief that (2) the mystery of Scripture is ultimately its reference to Christ, which is often hidden; which prompts us (3) to try to uncover the meaning of the sacred images and narrative because this in itself involves a creative sanctifying of the imagination: we "realise" the images of history and creation, renewing and making them holy by bringing them within the orbit of the mystery of Christ. The public reading of such difficult passages will help (4) to guard against an attitude towards any part of the canonical books that is casual, dismissive, or treats them as an obsolete historical record for critical scholarship to chew over. "Search the Scriptures... they testify of Me."

A final note about the last few days of the series of Epiphany lessons. I have added in an optional extra series of lessons for 14th to 19th January, because these days may occur before the First Sunday after the Epiphany Octave, but after the Octave Day of Epiphany. (Sarum has an Octave Sunday in Epiphany, as did the Roman rite before its removal in Pius V's reform, and therefore the Sunday Gospel of Christ in the Temple occurs a Sunday later in Sarum than it does in the 1570 "Tridentine" rite.) The Sarum rite provides a series of Matins lessons for the feasts of these few days; it would seem to make sense to downgrade these feasts to memorials if they occur after the Sunday after the Epiphany Octave, but to celebrate them with a full festal office if they fall before it.

The Prime lesson and the first Vespers lesson for 14th to 19th January are from the book of Chronicles, which is now read chronologically until Septuagesima, from chapter 1, beginning with the geneology of Adam, and moving on swiftly to the time of king David and his heirs. This series of lessons - which unfolds between Christmastide and the weeks before Lent, has a double reference to the seasons with which it both starts and ends, linking the time of Christmas (concerned with the birth of the eternal Son of David) and Septuagesima (which is liturgically the time of Creation, when the book of Genesis is begun). The period "after Epiphany" can be cut very short, of course, if Easter and hence Septuagesima fall early - which is one instance in which the proposed lectionary would often fall short in practice of the goal of traversing the entire Bible in one year. The second lesson of Vespers for the 14th to 19th January is from the first Epistle of John, suited to Christmastide because of its references to the flesh and bone nature of the Incarnation, the tangible, visible appearance of the Word of life.

Next: I have still to make the final adjustments to the lessons for the Sundays after Epiphany, but will post the link sometime soon. There is little to say except that these lessons will continue through Chronicles, and include the historical material from the reign of Hekekiah from Isaiah. Chronicles makes up the lessons for Prime and the first lesson of Vespers. The scheme incorporates the Pauline epistles, which provide the traditional Matins lessons for this period. The Epistles of Paul are read serially at Matins and at the second Vespers lesson, with six instead of three lessons of St Paul at Sunday Matins. This is on account of a peculiarity of the Sarum rite: on Sundays after Epiphany and Trinity, unlike the Roman Breviary, Sarum has no homily in the lessons of the second nocturn on Sundays - it simply has six consecutive lessons from the "Histories", as they are called... although they aren't necessarily from the historical books of the bible. Because of theological significance of the Epistles of St Paul, the lectionary will provide a place much later on, after Trinity, to fit in any of his Epistles that are not read in this season, or any lessons from Paul that are displaced because of an early Easter and hence an early date of Septuagesima.


  1. I used to think the recitation of names was foolish until I heard the chants of the genealogy on CDs of both Sarum and Dominican usages. Connections are made in our times with folks from earlier days.

    Good luck on your intriguing project!

  2. Absolutely, I didn't mention the singing of the very beautiful "tenth lesson" of Matins at Christmas & Epiphany, the genealogies of Matthew and Luke - they would have been sung with censing of the Altar, with full ceremonial, with a crucifer and taperer. Oh to have been there!


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