The Traditional Catholic Liturgy

Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger

Ancient Customs of the Easter Octave

** Theodosius and St. Ambrose **

The Emperor Theodosius did much good for the Church, especially by the eradication of heresy and paganism.
He is best remembered, however, for his humble acceptance of a penance imposed on him by St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan.

Formerly, the whole of this week was kept as a feast, with the obligation of resting from servile work. The edict, published by the Emperor Theodosius in 389, forbidding all law proceedings during the same period, was supplementary to this liturgical law, which we find mentioned in the Sermons of St. Augustine, and in the Homilies of St. John Chrysostom. The second of these two Fathers of the Church thus speaks to the newly baptized: "You are enjoying a daily instruction during these seven days. We put before you a spiritual banquet, that thus we may teach you how to arm yourselves and fight against the devil, who is now preparing to attack you more violently than ever; for the greater is the gift you have received, the greater will be the combat you must go through to preserve it… During these following seven days, you have the word of God preached to you, that you may go forth well prepared to fight with your enemies. Moreover, you know it is usual to keep up a nuptial feast for seven days: you are now celebrating a spiritual marriage, and therefore we have established the custom of a seven days' solemnity."

So fervently did the faithful of those times appreciate and love the Liturgy, so lively was the interest they took in the newly made children of Holy Mother Church, that they joyfully went through the whole of the services of this week. Their hearts were filled with the joy of the Resurrection, and they thought it but right to devote their whole time to its celebration. Councils laid down canons, changing the pious custom into a formal law. The Council of Mâcon, in 585, thus words its decree: "It behooves us all fervently to celebrated the Feast of the Pasch, in which our great High Priest was slain for our sins, and to honor it by carefully observing all it prescribes. Let no one, therefore, do any servile work during these six days (which followed the Sunday), but let all come together to sing the Easter hymns, and assist at the daily Sacrifice, and praise our Creator and Redeemer in the evening, morning, and midday."

Such was the practice until the 11th century, when a Council held in Constance reduced the days of obligation to the Monday and Tuesday. This gradually became the discipline of the whole of the Western Church, and continued to be so, until sadly, 'relaxation' (for want of a better word) crept still further on, and a dispensation was obtained by some countries, first for the Tuesday, and finally for the Monday.

In order fully to understand the Liturgy of the whole Easter Octave, we must remember that the newly baptized were formerly present, vested in their white garments, at the solemn Mass and Divine Office of each day. Allusions to the Baptism are continually being made in the chants and Lessons of the entire week.

The Wednesday of Easter week was the day set apart, at Rome, for the blessing of the Agnus Dei. This ceremony was performed by the Pope, the first and every seventh year of his pontificate. The Agnus Dei are discs of wax, on which are stamped, on one side the image of the Lamb of God, and on the other that of some Saint. The custom of blessing them at Eastertide is very ancient. We find traces of it in the Liturgy even so far back as the 7th century. When, in the year 1544, there was opened at Rome the tomb of the Empress Maria (wife of Honorius, and daughter of Stilicho), who died before the middle of the 5th century, there was found in it an Agnus Dei, resembling those later blessed by the Pope.

It is therefore incorrect to state, as some authors have done, that the Agnus Dei originated at the time when the administration of Baptism at Easter fell into disuse, and that they were meant as symbols commemorative of the ancient rite. There is very little doubt that at Rome each neophyte used to receive an Agnus Dei from the Pope on Holy Saturday. We may, then, rightly conclude – and the conclusion is confirmed by the fact just mentioned regarding the tomb of the Empress Maria – that the solemn administration of Baptism and the blessing of the Agnus Dei were contemporaneous, at least for a certain period.

** Agnus Dei **

The Agnus Dei were made from the Paschal candle of the previous year – of course, a great quantity of other wax was added to it. Formerly, it was the custom to pour in some drops of the Holy Chrism. In the Middle Ages the wax was prepared and stamped by the subdeacons and acolytes of the Pope's palace; the Cistercian monks of the monastery of St. Bernard, in Rome, later had that honor.

The ceremony took place in one of the rooms of the pontifical palace. A large vase of holy water was prepared, and the Pope, standing near it, recited a blessing recalling the waters of Baptism. After this, the Pontiff poured balsam and Holy Chrism into the water, beseeching God to sanctify it for the purpose to which it was now to be used. He then turned towards the baskets, which held the wax tablets, and recited two prayers. Then the Pope girded himself with a cloth, and sat near the vessel of holy water. The ministers brought him the Agnus Dei tablets, which he plunged into the water, in imitation of the Baptism of the neophytes. The prelates who were present took them from the water, and placed them upon tables covered with white linen. Then the Pontiff rose, and recited a prayer of blessing invoking the Holy Ghost. The final prayer of blessing was addressed to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, Who art the innocent Lamb, the Priest and the Victim; Whom the prophets called the vine and the corner-stone; Who didst redeem us by Thy Blood, and with that same didst sign our hearts and foreheads, that the enemy, when passing over our dwellings, might not wreak his anger upon us; Who art the spotless Lamb offered in ceaseless sacrifice; Who art the Paschal Lamb, become, under the sacramental species, the remedy and salvation of our souls; Who guidest us across the sea of this present life to the resurrection and glory of eternity: deign, we beseech Thee, to bless +, sanctify +, and consecrate + these spotless lambs, which in Thy honor we have formed out of virgin wax, and have impregnated with holy water, and sacred balsam and Chrism, intending thereby to commemorate Thy being divinely conceived by the operation of the Holy Ghost. Protect those that wear them from fire, lightning, tempests, and every adversity; grant them to be a safeguard to mothers in the pains of childbirth, as Thou didst assist Thine own when She gave Thee birth. And as Thou heretofore didst save Susanna from her false accusers, and the blessed Martyr and Virgin Thecla from torture, and Peter from his prison chains; so now vouchsafe to deliver us from the dangers of this world, and give us to merit life eternal with Thee.

The Agnus Dei were then respectfully taken, and kept for the solemn distribution to be made on the following Saturday. On account of their sublime symbolism, their being blessed by the Sovereign Pontiff, and the solemnity of their rite, the Agnus Dei were considered as one of the most venerated objects of Catholic piety. They were sent from the holy city to every part of the world. The faith of those who respectfully kept them in their homes, or wore them, has frequently been rewarded by miracles. During the pontificate of St. Pius V, the Tiber overflowed its banks, and threatened the destruction of several quarters of the city; an Agnus Dei was thrown into the river, and the water immediately receded. This miracle, which was witnessed by several thousands of the inhabitants, was brought forward in the process of the beatification of this great Pontiff.

** Blessing of Agnus Dei **

Pope Pius XII blessing the Agnus Dei.

There was a numerous attendance at Vespers of each day of this week in the cathedral. The faithful thus testified their affectionate interest in the white-robed neophytes, who visited during Vespers, the sacred font where they had been born to a new life of grace. On Saturday afternoon [called "Sabbato in albis"], the concourse of people was much greater than on the preceding days, for an interesting ceremony would take place. The neophytes would lay aside the outward symbol of innocence which they had been wearing; but they also had to give a solemn promise to maintain the inward purity of the soul. By this public ceremony the Church restored the newly baptized to the duties of their ordinary station of life: they had then to return to the world and comport themselves as Christians – disciples of Christ – for such they were.

The visit to the baptistry having been made, and the Office of Vespers [i.e. the First Vespers of Low Sunday – also called "Dominica in albis," or, more accurately, "albis depositis," that is, "the white garments removed"] having terminated with the Station before the crucifix of the chancel, the neophytes were then led to a room adjoining the cathedral, in which was prepared a large vessel of water. The Bishop would go to his throne. Seeing the newly baptized standing around him, he addressed them in a discourse, wherein he expressed the joy he felt, as their pastor, at the increase wherewith it has pleased God to bless his much-loved flock. He congratulated them upon the grace they had received; and then, alluding to the main object of their coming together – that is, the laying aside of the white garments they had received after Baptism – he warned them, with paternal affection, to keep a guard over themselves, and see that they never sully the purity of soul, of which their white robes had been but an emblem.

These were lent to the neophytes, by the Church, on Holy Saturday; they came now to restore them. The water in which the garments were to be washed was blessed by the pontiff. As soon as he had finished the address to which we have just been alluding, he said a prayer, wherein he spoke of the power given to this element of cleansing the stains of the soul herself. Then turning to the neophytes, he recited the 116th Psalm in thanksgiving and added a final prayer. Then, aided by their sponsors – the men by their godfathers, the women by their godmothers – the neophytes removed their white garments, which were then consigned to those whose duty it was to wash and keep them. The sponsors having assisted their spiritual children to put on their ordinary dress, led them to the pontiff, who distributed to each an Agnus Dei.

We cannot conclude without saying a few words upon the Annotine Pasch. It was the anniversary day of the previous Easter Sunday, and was looked upon as the special feast of those who were a year old in the grace of their Baptism. The Mass was solemnly celebrated for them. The remembrance of the happy day when they were made children of God was thus brought before them; and, of course, their families kept the glorious anniversary as a glad holiday. If it came during Lent, the Annotine was not kept, or it was deferred till Easter Monday. It would seem that in some places, in order to avoid these continual changes, the anniversary of Baptism was regularly fixed for the Saturday of Easter Week. When the custom of administering Baptism at Easter fell into disuse, the Annotine Pasch also ceased to be observed; however, we find traces of it as late as the 13th century. The custom of looking on the anniversary of Baptism as a feastday is one of those which may be called Christian instincts. The pagans made much of the day which had given them temporal birth; surely, we ought to show quite as much respect to the anniversary of our Baptism, when we were born to the supernatural life. St. Louis used to sign himself Louis of Poissy, because it was in the little church of Poissy that he had received Baptism. Let us learn from this holy king to love the day and the place of our Baptism, that is, of our being made children of God and of His Church.

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