We have previously noted that the Gospels of the Masses “for the baptized” during Easter week are attested in some of the very oldest sources of the Ambrosian Rite. Among these sources are the Capitulary and Evangeliary of Busto Arsizio, which give the order of readings before the major reform which the Ambrosian lectionary underwent in the Carolingian period. Here we shall give some indications of the historical traditions behind the choice of these readings, and their thematic connection to the other readings of the same Masses.
The first reading of the Mass on Easter Tuesday is 4 Kings, 5, 1-15a, the miraculous healing of the leprosy of Naaman the Syrian, when the Prophet Elijah tells him to wash seven times in the river Jordan. St Ambrose cites and comments on this passage in his two mystagogical treatises, lectures delieved to the newly-baptized catechumens, the De Sacramentis and the De Mysteriis, and interprets it as a clear prefiguration of the Sacrament of Baptism.
“I can have no doubt that what happened to Naaman the Syrian cannot befall in your minds, because even though he was cleansed, yet beforehand, he doubted.” (De Sacr. 1, 3, 9). …
In the story of the Naaman the leper was signified that that water alone can heal, which has the grace of Christ, and that Christ wished to be baptized only for our sake. Wherefore the Holy Spirit, appearing in the likeness of a dove, did not come down upon Him before He Himself entered the water of the Jordan, and (thus it was also signified) how the whole Trinity was there present.” (De Sacr. 1, 5 passim).
In the De Mysteriis, he makes it clear that this reading was part of the day’s liturgy.
“Finally, let the reading lately gone through from the (books of) Kings teach you. Naaman was a Syrian, and suffered from leprosy, nor could he be cleansed by anyone. Then a maiden from among the captives said that there was a prophet in Israel, who could cleanse him from the defilement of the leprosy. And (the reading) said that, taking gold and silver, he went to the king of Israel, who, on hearing the reason for his coming, rent his clothes, saying that occasion was rather being sought against him, since things were asked of him which belonged not to the power of kings. But Elisha sent word to the king, that he should send the Syrian to him, that he might know there was a God in Israel. And when he had come, he bade him bathe himself seven times in the river Jordan.
Then he began to reason with himself that he had better waters in his own country, in which he had often bathed and never been cleansed of his leprosy; and so thinking back upon this, he did not obey the commands of the prophet. Yet on the advice and persuasion of his servants he yielded, and washed himself, and being immediately cleansed, he understood that it is not by the waters, but by grace that a man is cleansed.
Know now who is that young maid among the captives, to wit, the congregation gathered from among the gentiles, which is the Church of the Lord, held down of old in the captivity of sin, when it did not as yet possesse not the liberty of grace, by whose counsel that foolish people of the nations heard the word of prophecy about which it formerly doubted. But afterwards, when they believed that (that word) ought to be obeyed, it was washed from every defilement of sin. And he indeed doubted before he was healed; you are already healed, and therefore ought not to doubt. (De Myst. III, 16-18)
“So the Syrian washed himself seven times under the law, but you were baptized in the name of the Trinity, you confessed the Father. Remember what you did: you confessed the Son, you confessed the Holy Spirit. Mark well the order of things in this faith: you died to the world, and rose again to God. And as one buried to the world in that element (i.e. water), being dead to sin, you were raised again to eternal life. Believe, therefore, that these waters are not void of power.” (De Myst. IV, 21)
In the very brief Epistle of the same Mass, Romans 6, 3b-4, St Paul affirms that we have all been baptized in virtue of the death of Christ, and are buried and risen with Him. This is also cited in De Sacramentis as one of the liturgical readings to which his catechetical lecture refers.
“Therefore the Apostle cries out, as you have heard in the lesson just read, that whosoever is baptized, is baptized in the death of Jesus. What is in this death? It is that, as Christ died, so also you should taste death; as Christ died unto sin, and lives unto God, so also you should be dead unto the former enticements of sins through the sacrament of baptism, and rise again through the grace of Christ. It is a death, therefore, not in the reality of bodily death, but in its likeness. For when you wash, you take on the likeness of death and burial, you receive the sacrament of that cross, because Christ hung on the cross, and His body was pierced with nails. Therefore, when you are crucified, you adhere to Christ; you adhere to the nails of our Lord Jesus Christ, that the devil may not be able to tear you away. Let the nail of Christ hold you fast, whom the weakness of human nature seeks to call back (to sin).” (De Sacr. 2, 7, 23)
The Gospel is that of the healing of the paralytic at the sheep-gate, John 5, 1-15, which is cited in the De Mysteriis (4, 22, 24), and the object of a fairly lengthy analysis in the De Sacramentis. Here again, St Ambrose affirms that the passage was read during the liturgical celebration, and interprets it as a figure of baptism.
“What was read yesterday? An angel, the readings says, went down at a certain time into the pool, and, so often as the angel descended, the water was moved: and he who first descended into it, was made whole of every disease whatsoever he had. Which signifies a figure of our Lord Jesus Christ who was to come….
But observe the mystical sense. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to the pool. … Consider where you were baptized. What source can there be for baptism, save the cross of Christ, the death of Christ? Herein is the whole mystery, in that He suffered for you. In Him you are redeemed, in Him you will be saved.”
While we cannot prove that these three readings were originally all read on the same day, we do know with certainty that St Ambrose based part of his mystagogical catecheses on liturgical readings which are exactly the same as those now read on Easter Tuesday in the traditional Ambrosian rite. This is further proof of the care which the church of Milan has taken to jealously guard some of its most ancient traditions, going back to the earliest days of the Church.
The purpose of the mystagogical catecheses was to explain in greater detail the significance of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, which the catechumens had received at the Easter vigil. The readings of the Mass “for the baptized” on Easter Wednesday touch on both of these sacraments, and again, bring us back to the writings of St Ambrose himself.
The Old Testament reading is also taken from the fourth book of Kings, chapter 6, 1-7, the story of the floating axe-head; in the Ambrosian Rite, this is also read at the First Vespers of the Epiphany.
“In those days: the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, ‘Behold the place where we dwell with thee is too strait for us. Let us go as far as the Jordan and take out of the wood every man a piece of timber, that we may build us there a place to dwell in.’ And he said, ‘Go.’ And one of them said, ‘But come thou also with thy servants.’ He answered, ‘I will come.’ So he went with them, and when they were come to the Jordan they cut down wood. And it happened, as one was felling some timber, that the head of the axe fell into the water, and he cried out, and said, ‘Alas, alas, alas, my lord, for this same was borrowed.’ And the man of God said, ‘Where did it fall?’ and he shewed him the place. Then he cut off a piece of wood, and cast it in thither, and the iron swam. And he said, ‘Take it up.’ And he put out his hand and took it.”
St Ambrose comments on this passage in both of the works previously cited. In the De Sacramentis (2, 4, 9) he explains the miracle as a symbol of Baptism.
“Elisha called upon the name of the Lord, and the axe-head which had sunk came up out of the water. Here is another kind of baptism. Why? Because every man before baptism is weighed down like iron, and sinks: when he has been baptized, he is no longer like iron, but now rises like the fruit-bearing wood, which is a lighter kind of thing. Therefore here is another figure. It was an axe by which wood was cut down. The handle fell from the axe; that is, the iron sank. The son of the prophet knew not what to do; but this alone he knew, to ask the prophet Elisha for help. Then the latter cast wood (into the water), and the iron was raised. Do you see, therefore, how the weakness of all men is raised on the cross of Christ?”
In the De Mysteriis (9, 50-51), the same miracle is read as a figure of the Eucharist. Just as the axe-head changes its substance while preserving its form and accidents, so also in the Eucharist, the substance of the bread is changed into the body of Christ, without changing its form and accidents.
“Perhaps you may say, ‘I see something else; how do you assert to me that I receive the Body of Christ?’ And this remains for us to prove. What great examples then shall we use? Let us prove that this is not what nature made, but what the blessing consecrated, and that the power of blessing is greater than that of nature, because by blessing, nature itself is changed. …
In the time of the prophet Elisha, one of the sons of the prophets lost the head from his axe, which sank at once. He who had lost the iron asked Elisha, who cast a piece of wood into the water, and the iron swam. This, too, we clearly recognize as having happened contrary to nature, for iron is of a heavier nature than water.”
In the second reading, 1 Corinthians 10, 1-4, St Paul teaches that certain events of the Exodus are to be read as prefigurations of Baptism.
“Brethren: I would not have you ignorant that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea. And all in Moses were baptized, in the cloud, and in the sea: And did all eat the same spiritual food. And all drank the same spiritual drink; and they drank of the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”
St Ambrose also cites this passage in two places, and again, in two complementary senses, corresponding to the two themes of the mystagogical catecheses; first as a symbol of baptism.
“There is also a third testimony, as the Apostle teaches us: For all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and were all baptized to Moses in the cloud and in the sea. (1 Cor. 10, 1-2) And further, Moses himself says in his song, ‘You sent Your Spirit, and the sea covered them.’ (Ex. 15, 10) You observe that even then holy baptism was prefigured in that passage of the Hebrews, wherein the Egyptian perished, the Hebrew escaped. For what else are we daily taught in this sacrament but that guilt is swallowed up and error done away, but that virtue and innocence remain unharmed?” (De Myst. 3, 7; 12)
Secondly, once again, as a prefiguration of the Eucharist.
“In that sacrament is Christ, because it is the Body of Christ; it is therefore not bodily food, but spiritual. Whence also the Apostle says of its type, that ‘our fathers ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink (1 Cor. 10, 3), for the Body of God is a spiritual body; the Body of Christ is the Body of the Divine Spirit, for the Spirit is Christ, as we read, ‘The Spirit before our face is Christ the Lord.’ ” (Lam. 4, 20)
Here also, we may well suppose from St Ambrose’s use of these passages that they were already established in his time as a part of the liturgy of this week dedicated to the newly-baptized catechumens.