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

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Sarum rite: Vespers of Easter Day

Following on from my previous post: I am intrigued by the rubrics for the Vespers of the Easter Octave in the Sarum Breviary. Most people aware of distinctives of the Sarum rite around Easter know about Easter Matins, and the ritual of the "resurrection" of the third consecrated host of Maundy Thursday from its Easter Sepulchre - still an architectural curiosity in many medieval English parish churches. I have never read anyone waxing lyrical about Easter Vespers in the Sarum rite, however - although it is certainly elaborate, and (I imagine) extremely powerful and beautiful in actu. This discussion is admittedly slightly out of season...

I will not attempt to explain in any depth the vestments, the choreography, and "line-up" for the procession here, something way beyond my very limited knowledge of this kind of liturgical detail. What I can attempt, though, is to give a sense of the text and a rough outline of the procession.

For comparison, bear in mind that the sober and simple Roman rite, probably preserving a very ancient form of the Vesperal liturgy, has no hymn or little chapter of Scripture for Easter Vespers, with instead a very simple line of Scripture in the place of both: This is the day which the Lord hath made : we will rejoice and be glad in it. Easter Vespers according to the Roman rite therefore runs, (1) Opening Versicles, (2) Psalms of Sunday sung with the Antiphons, (3) the Versicle, (4) Magnificat with its Antiphon, and (5) the Collect. It is primitive, unfussy and structurally spartan. The Sarum rite has an instinct for a higher ceremonial, and not merely for the sake of aesthetics, I think. The elaborations one finds in the Sarum rite often bring into relief the sacramental bearing of the text of the Office - and in the case of Easter Vespers, this means drawing out from the Psalms of Sunday their typology vis-a-vis the Christological meaning of the Easter rite and its sacraments, viz. Baptism and the Eucharist.

First, for a brief resume of the ritual itself, and then a note on its significance.

The Sarum rite Easter Vespers is as follows:
  • It begins with a threefold Kyrie (not the Opening Versicle).
  • The first three Psalms of Sunday (110-112) are then sung with a fourfold Alleluia for their common Antiphon - the first Alleluia is intoned, and the choir replies with a threefold Alleluia.
  • The Gradual is then sung, This is the day which the Lord hath made : we will rejoice and be glad in it.
  • A series of Versicles are sung as follows - V. O give thanks unto the Lord for he is gracious: because his mercy endureth for ever. R. Alleluia. V. Let us keep the feast with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. R. Alleluia. V. The Lord is risen. R. As he said unto you. Alleluia.
  • Then the Magnificat is sung with the Antiphon, And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away : for it was very great. Alleluia.
  • The Collect comes after the Antiphon is repeated: Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that we, who celebrate the solemnities of the Lord's Resurrection, by the invocation of thy Spirit may rise from spiritual death : through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
  • Then the usual salutation V. Let us bless the Lord etc. completes this part of Vespers.
So far there is not much elaboration of the rite: but at this point the procession begins from the quire to the font and back. (Here I can't vouch for the complete accuracy of the details I am about to give.) It is led by an acolyte carrying the processional cross, two taperers, two thurifers, then two Deacons carrying the oil of the Catechumens and oil of Chrism, then a boy carrying the Office book, then (in order) the equivalent of the master of ceremonies, the Rulers of the choir, the bishop if he is present, the two other Rulers of the choir, and finally the choir.
  • Following a fourfold Alleluia, Psalm 113 is intoned, Praise the Lord, ye servants, and then the procession sets off as one half of the choir replies with the next line of the Psalm O praise the Name of the Lord. Alleluia. The choir then continues to the font, the other half of the choir singing - Blessed be the Name of the Lord : from this time forth for evermore. Alleluia. And the rest of the Psalm is sung alternately and completed at the font, with a repetition of the Alleluia after each line, and the fourfold Alleluia repeated at its end.
  • At the font: Three choirboys join the procession, just behind the Deacons. When the psalm is finished, they sing in unison: Alleluia. Then is sung: Praise the Lord, ye servants : praise the Name of the Lord (in Latin the word "servants" is pueri, which can also translate as "boys"). The boys reply Alleluia.
  • The font is then censed.
  • The Priest says V. The Lord is risen from the tomb. R. Who hung for us upon the tree. Alleluia, and then the Collect, Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that we, who celebrate the solemnity of the Lord's Resurrection, may worthily rejoice in our deliverance. Through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
  • After another Alleluia, the Psalms 114 and 115 are sung (as a single Psalm, as it is in the Vulgate), and the Psalm is sung alternately by the two halves of the choir as the procession sets off again. There is a station at the line All the whole heavens are the Lord's, until the end of the Psalm.
  • Here the Priest censes the crucifix, and the Psalm is finished with a repetition of Alleluia.
  • Then the Versicle is said, V. Tell it out among the heathen. R. That the Lord reigneth from the tree. Alleluia, and another Collect is said, God, who for our sake didst will that thy Son should undergo the suffering of the Cross to drive away from us the power of the enemy : grant to us thy servants that we may ever live in the joys of his Resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
As the procession enters the quire again, Alma Redemptoris Mater is sung with an Alleluia, followed by the Versicle V. Holy Mother of God, ever-Virgin Mary. R. Pray for us unto the Lord our God. Alleluia, and then the Collect, We beseech thee, O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts : that as we have known the Incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an Angel, so by his Cross and Passion we may be brought to the glory of his Resurrection; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

So ends Easter Vespers.


Now for a note on what I think the significance of all this ritual is.

The psalm sung on the way to the font, Psalm 113, is an invocation to the praise of the God who raises the poor from the dunghill to sit with the princes of his people - language which resonates with the Resurrection - and it also rejoices in the fruitfulness of the once-barren woman, the Church, now a joyful mother bearing children for her newly-risen Bridegroom. The Collect said as the font is censed is a joyful "variation on a theme" of the main Collect of the Vespers Office which invoked the Holy Ghost over the people. The font is the place of the death and resurrection of the Christian people: the place where (as St Paul puts it) they are baptised into Christ's death. But there is another layer of Old Testament typology ready to hand. In the Easter Vigil, Baptism is the crossing of the Red Sea by the people of Israel in their escape from the slavery of Egypt, Egypt being the type of the slavery of sin. The word ereptio, "deliverance", in the Collect really means being wrenched away with some force, suggesting a somewhat uncomfortable escape by the skin of one's teeth from a strong captor. Appropriately, the next psalm (Psalm 114 and 115 sung as a single psalm) is the "Peregrine" psalm, the psalm of pilgrimage of the people after the crossing of the Red Sea out of Egypt, and mentions the water coming from the rock from which Israel drank in the desert, and which followed them in their journey - one is instantly reminded of St Paul's "and that Rock was Christ".

To sing this psalm of pilgrimage in procession, as if the clergy and choir really were the people of Israel, processing back towards the land of promise (they are now returning towards the Altar, the place from which they receive the manna, the Bread of Angels, for their arduous journey to the heavenly kingdom) somehow gives the words an added sense of embodiment in a way that does not feel factitious.... is not, I believe, factitious. The people of the procession, by faith, touch with their hands the Things of eternity, which although hidden by the veil of the visible creature, are yet the Real enacted in mysterio, so that the types of the Old Testament and the stuff of earth are translated (in a little stone building in a small corner of a small cold island) into the Divine Tongue that spoke and the world was.

Honour is done to the crucifix on the return towards the quire at the lines from Psalm 115, All the whole heavens are the Lord's... The dead praise not thee, O Lord, neither all that go down into silence... But we will praise the Lord, from this time forth... This Psalm, and the subsequent Versicle and Collect, seems to imply a glory and power and kingship issuing from the Cross of the Risen Christ, as it precedes the Church in its pilgrimage.

The Marian Antiphon is sung on the return towards the sanctuary, which is the place of Christ's sacramental presence. Continuing the idea of the Peregrine Psalm, of the pilgrimage of Israel through the Arabian desert, one is put in mind of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, which contained the Holy of Holies, the terrible place of God's eternal glory. The Ark of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies was God's meeting place with Israel at the annual sacrifice of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement: and the meeting place of God and Man is the womb of Mary, where God and Man became One Person and began the reconciliation of all things in heaven and earth.


One can imagine this procession, or a simplified version of it at the very least, being done with great dignity in even a small parish church. In fact, that is what fascinates me the most about the idea of such ritual being performed: how powerful it would be in a place where the scale and grandeur of the rite itself was reduced and muted to allow the significance of it to speak louder, and where everyone's face was a distinct and familiar one.

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