Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Infra Octavam

In the Roman Rite, this week is the Octave of Easter, an ancient prolongation of the Easter feast over an entire week. The antiquity of the Easter Octave is evident in the assignment of Roman stational churches to each day. The Octave's traditional importance is evident in the status of the particular churches chosen as the stations each of the these days: Saint Mary Major (Easter Sunday), Saint Peter's (Monday) Saint Paul's Outside the Walls (Tuesday), Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls (Wednesday), The 12 Apostles (Thursday), Saint Mary ad Martyres ("The Pantheon," Friday), Saint John Lateran (Saturday), and Saint Pancras (Sunday). 

Of course, in the aftermath of the liturgical demolition of the 1960s, the stational churches are no longer mentioned in the Missal, and the order of the scripture readings during the octave has been unaccountably altered with the result that their original connections with the stations have largely been lost.

But at least the Octave of Easter has survived, which is more than can be said for the now suppressed "Privileged" Octaves of Epiphany, Ascension, Pentecost, Corpus Christi, and Sacred Heart, the now suppressed "Common" Octaves of the Immaculate Conception, Saint Joseph, Saint John the Baptist, Saints Peter and Paul, the Assumption, and All Saints, and the now suppressed "Simple" Octaves of Saint Stephen, Saint John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents, Saint Lawrence, and the Nativity of the BVM! 

Only the Octaves of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost survived the preliminary demolition of the 1950s, while the Octave of Pentecost (arguably as ancient as that of Easter) was killed off in 1969. (According to one story, when Paul VI expressed surprise at green vestments being laid out for him on Pentecost Monday and had to be reminded that he had recently abolished the Pentecost Octave, he supposedly cried then and there! Tears justly shed surely, but also too late!)

To be fair, the number of octaves prior to 1955 was certainly excessive - especially when one includes all the proper octaves in particular calendars. It was a clear case of too much of a good thing. Some sort of reform was really required, and I for one certainly do not lament the loss of many of the aforementioned octaves. (Nor do i consider the elimination of octaves at all as sad or significant as the loss of vigils and ember days.)

On the other hand, the loss of the octaves of Epiphany, Ascension, and Pentecost, which - in practice even if not in theory - effectively downgraded the standing of those days, did, I believe, represent something of a loss to the Church's liturgy. There were some real improvements in the Easter season wrought by the 1969 Missal - most notably the more paschal Collects on both Sundays and weekdays. But those enhancements hardly necessitated the diminished importance of Ascension and Pentecost - both biblically based, ancient, and once widely popular festivals.

Of course, it can be said that many people hardly notice such things. In today's world, in which the secular and liturgical calendars have been divorced, it may well be that whether a day is Pentecost Monday or the feast of Saint Paphnutius or a mere feria, whether the color is red or white or green, hardly impinges on most people's experience at all. But that is at best an argument for indifference to the liturgical tradition - not an argument for changing it. It can hardly be claimed that the absence of octaves has made the alternative celebrations any more resonant!

Whether it is seriously possible to make Epiphany, Ascension, and Pentecost really resonate once again in today's secular consumerist culture is certainly a fair question. And how to do so is an even more challenging question. But one first step would be a calendar that more obviously suggests that such days - and the mysteries they celebrate - really do matter a lot more than the secular world is disposed to notice.

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