New Liturgical Movement: The Ambrosian Feast of Mid-Pentecost

Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Ambrosian Feast of Mid-Pentecost

Even though it was called by a different name, the Ambrosian Rite originally had a feast which was the equivalent of the Byzantine Mid-Pentecost, which I wrote about yesterday, borrowed from that tradition. This article is mostly a translation of notes about it by Nicola de’ Grandi.

In the Ambrosian Rite, the Wednesday between the third and fourth weeks after Easter was a feast known as “In mediante die festo – in the middle day of the feast.” This custom is attested from the very earliest pertinent liturgical books of the rite until the Missal of 1560, the last edition before the post-Tridentine reform and the revised Missal of 1594. The name comes from its Gospel, John 7, 14-31, which begins with the words. “About the midst of the feast, Jesus went up into the temple, and taught.”

The Mass “in mediante die festo” in an Ambrosian Missal printed in 1548
Like the Byzantine feast from which it derives, and unlike the other celebrations of the temporal cycle, this feast has the particular characteristic that it does not commemorate a specific event in Christ’s life, or a particular deed of His. Rather, it underlines the unity of the Easter season, marking its middle point, and at the same time, giving a particular reading of its liturgical significance.

In the Gospel, Jesus compares Himself to Moses, reproving those who declare that they want to follow the law of Moses, while they attempt to kill Him who gives the Law. He does not cancel the Law, but fulfills it, bringing salvation to all of humanity, represented by the paralyzed man whom He heals on the Sabbath.

These words illuminate the authentic meaning of the Christian Pentecost as the replacement of the Jewish Pentecost. The latter celebrates the revelation of God on Mount Sinai, seven weeks after the Jewish Pascha, and the gift of the Law, (“was it not Moses who gave you the law?”); the Christian Pentecost, seven weeks and one day after the Christian Pascha, celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This parallelism between the Jewish and Christian Pentecosts is certainly very ancient, and is found in the West in a work entitled “Questions about the Old and New Testament” (95, 3), which can be dated to the pontificate of St Damasus (366-84), a contemporary of St Ambrose.

“Therefore, the law was given through Moses to the sons of Israel on the third day of the third month, as is written in the book of Exodus, which day, counting from the fourteenth day of the first month, on which the Pasch took place in Egypt, is the fiftieth, that is, Pentecost. And from this it happened that the Holy Spirit came down upon the Apostles on Pentecost to preach the law of Faith, so that the deeds of the elders might serve as images of those deeds that were to come, and this for the assurance of our faith, for that cannot seem false which was foretold from the beginning.”

Likewise in St Jerome, who was Damasus’ secretary (Epistle 22):

“Wherefore also the solemnity of Pentecost is celebrated, and afterwards, the mystery of the Gospel is fulfilled by the descent of the Holy Spirit; so that, just as the law was given to the former people, on the fiftieth day, in the true jubilee, and the true year of remission, and by the true fifty and five-hundred denarii, which were owed to the debtors: so also the Holy Spirit came down to the Apostles and those who were gathered together with them, unto the number of 120, (which is also the age of Moses), and the whole world was filled with the preaching of the Gospel by the sharing of the speech of those who believed.”

St Jerome Presents His Biblical Translations to Pope St Damasus I; from the ceiling of the Gaddi Chapel of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko; CC BY 3.0)
Therefore, we can say with certainty that by at least the end of the fourth century, this parallelism was known in Rome. However, its solemn celebration in the liturgy is proper to the tradition of northern Italy.

We know in fact that this feast was celebrated in the same position on the liturgical calendar by all the churches of that region, as attested by the most ancient and important manuscripts: for the Ambrosian tradition, the capitulary and Gospel book of Busto Arsizio, and the Biasca Missal; for the broader province of Milan; the Codex Mediolanensis, Vercellensis, and Vat. Reg. Lat. 9; from the province of Aquileia, Codex Rehdigeranus and Forojuliensis.

Therefore, although it looks back to a reading of the Easter season already known in the area of Rome, the solemn liturgical celebration of Mid-Pentecost is a trait strongly distinctive of the liturgical tradition of northern Italy, led by the metropolitan sees of Milan and Aquileia.
The Ambrosian Missal of Biasca, dated between the end of the 9th century and the middle of the 10th. 
The feast is first mentioned in the West in two homilies attributed to St Peter Chrysologus, the first metropolitan of the new ecclesiastical province of Ravenna, in the 2nd quarter of the fifth century.

“Even though some matters seem obscure for the very depth of their mystery, nevertheless, no solemnity of the Church’s worship is without fruit: the divine feast is not to kept holy in accordance with our wills, but ought rather to kept for the sake of its own virtues. The true Christian spirit has no notion of bringing those things which come from the tradition of the Fathers, and have been strengthened by the passage of time, to oblivion, but desires rather to venerate them with all the eloquence of its devotion.

Now in the middle of the feast, the Scripture says, the Lord went up to the temple. Which temple? You are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells within you. Today the Lord deigned to go up to the temple of our heart, who so mercifully came down into the form of our body.” (Serm. 85,1-2)

The Mass of this feast is the same as that of the preceding Sunday, but with its own proper prayers, Gospel and Preface. The “oratio super populum”, the Ambrosian equivalent of the Collect, is the only one of the prayers that refers specifically to the character of the feast, as it looks back to Easter and forward to Pentecost.

“Deus, per cujus providentiam nec praeteritorum momenta deficiunt, nec ulla superest expectatio futurorum: tribue permanentem peractae, quam recolimus, solemnitatis affectum; ut quod recordatione percurrimus, semper in opere teneamus. Per. – O God, through whose providence the remembrances of things past do not fail, nor does any hope of the things to come remain unfulfilled; grant us abiding affection for the solemnity which we have completed and now remember; so that what we pass through in remembrance, we may also keep hold of in deed. Through…”

The prayer “over the shroud” which closes the Mass of the Catechumens, is more oblique. “Populus tuus, quaesumus, Domine, renovata semper exultet animae juventute, ut qui antea in peccatorum veternosae mortis venerat senio, nunc laetetur in pristinam se gloriam restitutam. Per. – May Thy people, we ask, o Lord, always exult in renewed youth of the soul; so that, having formerly come to the old age of that languid death caused by sins, it may rejoice that it has been restored to its former glory. Through…”

The preface is first attested in the second half of the 9th century in sacramentaries of the Roman Rite, in which it is appointed to be said on the Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent, when the same Gospel is read. This is also indicated by the reference to “the devotion of the saving fast.” On the other hand, the references to Resurrection and Ascension certainly seem to fit more with its Ambrosian placement in Eastertide.

“VD: Per mediatorem Dei et hominum, Iesum Christum, Dominum nostrum: Qui mediante die festo ascendit in templum docere, qui de caelo descendit mundum ab ignorantiae tenebris liberare. Cuius descensus genus humanum doctrina salutari instruit, mors a perpetua morte redemit, ascensio ad caelestia regna perducit. Per quem te, summe Pater, poscimus, ut eius institutione edocti, salutaris parsimoniae devotione purificati, ad tua perveniamus promissa securi. Per quem maiestatem. – Truly it is worthy… through the mediator of God and men, Jesus Christ, our Lord: who when the feast was at its middle day, went up unto the temple to teach, even He who came down from heaven to free the world from the darkness of ignorance. Whose coming down instructs the human race with saving teaching, whose death redeems it from everlasting death, whose ascension bringeth it to the heavenly kingdoms. Through whom we ask Thee, Father most high, that we, being taught by his institution, and purified by the devotion of the saving fast, may safely come to Thy promises. Through whom the Angels praise Thy majesty…”

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