Saturday, May 23, 2015

Another Lost Vigil?

In the last pre-conciliar liturgical reform - reflected in the 1961 calendar and the 1962 "typical edition" of the Missal - the Vigil of Pentecost was still observed as a liturgical day of highest rank (and a fast day), and it still retained its ancient vigil Mass, although without the ancient vigil service itself, which had been abolished in the 1955 reform of Holy Week.

Apparently, ancient Roman practice permitted baptisms at Pentecost as it did on Easter (perhaps as a make-up date for those who weren't ready or for whatever reason missed getting baptized at Easter?) A Pentecost Vigil thus developed that closely paralleled that for Easter (minus the blessing of the new fire, etc.) Like the pre-1970 Easter Vigil, this Pentecost Vigil was celebrated in penitential purple. It began with a set of six "prophecies" - repeated from among the Easter Vigil's 12 - followed by the blessing (again) of the baptismal water and font (on this occasion re-lighting and re-immersing the Paschal Candle that had been extinguished on Ascension). Then, after the Litany, came the festive Mass (in red vestments) which exhibited some of the same liturgical peculiarities that the Easter Vigil Mass did. Unlike on Holy Saturday, however, other Masses were also permitted that day, with the addition of a proper Introit but otherwise with the textual peculiarities of the solemn Vigil Mass. The Mass (minus the Paschal Candle but retaining its other Easter-like features) survived the 1955 abolition of the prophecies, font blessing, and litany, thus rendering it into a real historical curiosity. Given the disappearance of Pentecost baptisms and the antipathy of the liturgical reformers to penitential practices in general and vigils in particular, its eventual demise in the Paul VI rite really should probably have come as no surprise.

Still, it obviously possessed some residual appeal - reflected in the preservation in the new Missal of not just a separate Saturday evening Mass but of an alternative longer form for it which, like the older Pentecost Vigil, again mimics that of Easter.  My guess would that that longer form is seldom celebrated in parishes. The whole psychology of the Saturday evening "anticipated" Mass - let's get Sunday over with as early and quickly as possible - militates against seriously reviving vigils. Still, the attempt is commendable and (given the constraints imposed by the current model of a vigil as essentially just a longer than usual Mass) not badly done.

So, after introductory didactic lecture that has become customary on such occasions, four readings are proposed (following the standard reading-response-prayer format). The readings are well chosen selections that relate to Pentecost - Genesis on the tower of Babel, Exodus on God's appearance at Mount Sinai seven weeks after the first Passover, Ezekiel on God's Spirit animating the dry bones, and Joel on the outpouring  of the Spirit - actually a more fitting set of selections in my opinion than some of those proposed at the Easter Vigil.

The Christian Pentecost is to Easter what the Jewish Pentecost (Shavuot) is to Passover. The old post-Pentecost Ember Days included Old Testament readings from Leviticus and Deuteronomy that recalled that connection. But, with the demise of the Ember Days, where is that remembrance to be found in the liturgy? Likewise, I'd personally like to see something from the Book Ruth, which is read on Shavuot (because its central event takes place - like Shavuot - at the time of the wheat harvest and also because of the belief that King David, Ruth's grandson, died at Shavuot). Perhaps such linkages are now too arcane for a post-modern mentality. But Ruth is a beautiful book on several levels and definitely deserves more attention than the liturgical cycle gives it. Perhaps in Advent?

Pentecost connection with Shavuot is especially relevant this year when they occur on exactly the same day. This Saturday night, observant jews all over the world will be keeping an all-night vigil. How fitting it would be if we were doing the same!

Anyway, alone among all the many suppressed vigils, the Vigil of Pentecost survives slightly and in some still recognizable form. The challenge is to find a viable context for using it that could be perceived by people as beneficial rather than just being burdensome.

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