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The Ambrosian Liturgy of Easter Week - Part 4: the Masses of Friday and Saturday

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We continue with Nicola de’ Grandi’s notes on the Ambrosian liturgy of Easter week; previous parts of this series may be read at the following links: part 1; part 2; part 3.

As on the previous days, the Ambrosian Mass “for the baptized” on Easter Friday contains elements of the mystagogical catechesis centered on the sacraments administered to the neophytes during the Easter vigil, baptism and the Eucharist. The first reading is the famous episode of the meeting between Abraham and Melchisedek, priest and king of Jerusalem (Genesis 14, 18-24).
Melchisedek Offers Tithes to Abraham; mosaic in the basilica of St Mary Major in Rome, 440 A.D, one of a series of 42 such panels which date back to the church’s original construction. (27 of the originals survive.) It is located to the right of the altar from the point of view of the priest as he stands at it facing into the nave; its placement is clearly deliberate, and may be taken as an attestation of the words of the Roman Canon “quod tibi obtulit summus sacredos tuus Melchisedech”, which is also attested in St Ambrose’s De Sacramentis, 4, 27.

We have direct proof that this passage was already in ancient times part of the system of catechetical readings of Easter, since it is omitted from the continual reading of Genesis on the ferias of Lent. Like some of the passages discussed earlier in this series, this one also is also mentioned in the Easter catecheses of St Ambrose himself, who writes in the De Mysteriis, 16, 45-46:

“The lesson from Genesis just read shows that (the sacraments of the Church) are more ancient (than those of the synagogue). For the synagogue took its origin from the law of Moses, but Abraham was far earlier, who, having conquered his enemies, and recovered his own nephew, as he was enjoying his victory, was then met by Melchizedek, who brought forth those things which Abraham reverently received. It was not Abraham who brought them forth, but Melchizedek, who is introduced ‘without father, without mother, having neither beginning of days, nor ending, but like unto the Son of God’, of Whom Paul says to the Hebrews, that He remains a priest forever. (Hebr. 7, 3), and whose name means ‘king of justice’ and ‘king of peace.’
Do you not recognize Who this is? Can a mere man be king of justice, when he himself is hardly just? Can he be king of peace, when he can hardly be peaceable? Without mother according to His divinity, for He was begotten of God the Father, of one substance with the Father; without father according to the Incarnation, for He was born of a Virgin; having neither beginning nor end, for He is the beginning and end of all things, the first and the last. The sacrament, then, which you received is the gift not of man but of God, brought forth by Him Who blessed Abraham, the father of the faith, even him whose grace and deeds we admire.”
St Ambrose, by the Neapolitan painter Cesare Fracanzano (1605-51)
In this case also, there is a parallel in the Saint’s other mystagogical catechesis, the De Sacramentis (3, 12):
“Melchizedek, therefore, offered bread and wine. Who is Melchizedek? ‘Without father,’ it says, ‘without mother, without order of generation, having neither beginning of days nor end of life’; this is in the Epistle to the Hebrews. He is without father, it says, and without mother. Like unto whom? The Son of God. The Son of God was born without mother in his heavenly generation, because he was born of God the Father alone, and again, he was born without father, when he was born of the Virgin; for he was not generated of the seed of a man, but born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary (Matt. 1, 20), brought forth from a virginal womb, in all things like to the Son of God. Melchizedek was also a priest, since Christ too is a priest, to whom it is said, ‘Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek?’ (Ps. 109, 4)”
As with the passages from the books of Kings on the preceding days, we thus have proof that this reading was already in the fourth century an important part of the neophytes’ post-baptismal instruction in the Milanese tradition, carefully preserved over the many centuries.
The Gospel of Low Saturday
Among the Masses of the Ambrosian Easter week, that of Low Saturday is the certainly the most interesting.
The prophetic reading of the day, Isaiah 61, 10 – 62, 3, begins with these words: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, and my soul shall be joyful in my God: for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation: and with the robe of justice he hath covered me, as a bridegroom decked with a crown, and as a bride adorned with her jewels.” This is clearly an allusion to the white garments which the newly baptized wore for the last time on this day, and which was removed from them at Vespers. This rite is attested in an Ambrosian Ordo written by a priest named Beroldus ca. 1140, and in another of the following century. The former says, “Two of the younger priests (from the lesser of the two cathedral chapters) must uncover the heads of the children, while standing at the doors of the church of St John, saying, ‘May the Lord bless you from Zion, and may you see the good things of Jerusalem all the days of your life.’ ” (Ps. 127, 5)
The oldest Ambrosian lectionaries, both of the 10th century, attest to various Gospel readings from St John on this day: chapter 6, 1-14 (the multiplication of the loaves); 21, 1-14, the appearance of Christ to the disciples at the lake of Tiberias; and 13, 4-15, the washing of the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. The last of these, a shorter version of the Roman Gospel for the Mass of Holy Thursday (verses 1-15) is the one now used. However, the writings of St Ambrose named above tell us that in the later 4th century, it was read at the Easter vigil instead, in connection with the custom by which, after the catechumens had been baptized and anointed, the archbishop would wash their feet. This is a very ancient tradition known throughout northern Italy, and also found in the rite of Aquileia. (cf. St Chromatius of Aquileia, Sermon 15)
Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples, 1548-49, by the Venetian painter Jacopo Robusti (1518-94), more commonly known by the nickname Tintoretto. This painting, which is now in the Prado Museum in Madrid, is one of the artist’s six version of this subject; the companion piece of the Last Supper still hangs in its original location, the choir of the church of San Marcuola in Venice. The paintings are quite large, 7½ feet tall by 17½ wide.
St Ambrose describes the rite as follows in the De Mysteriis (6, 31):
“You went up from the font; remember the Gospel reading. For our Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospel washed the feet of His disciples. When He came to Simon Peter, Peter said, ‘Thou shalt never wash my feet. He did not perceive the mystery, and therefore he refused the ministry, for he thought that the humility of the servant would be injured, if he patiently allowed the Lord to minister to him. And the Lord answered him, ‘If I wash not thy feet, thou wilt have no part with Me.’ ”
In the parallel passage of the De Sacramentis (3, 1; 4-7), he defends the legitimacy of the Ambrosian tradition in its discrepancy from Rome in the use of this passage.
“You came up out of the font. What followed? You heard the lesson. The high priest was girt up; for though the priests also did this, nevertheless, the ministry is begun by the high priest. The high priest, I say, was girt up, and washed your feet. What is this mystery? Doubtless you heard that when the Lord had washed the feet of the other disciples, He came to Peter, and Peter said to him, ‘Dost Thou wash my feet?’ That is, dost Thou, the Lord, wash the feet of a servant? Dost Thou, the spotless, wash my feet? Dost thou, the maker of the heavens, wash my feet? You have this in another place also: He came to John, and John said to him, ‘I have need to be baptized by Thee, and comest Thou to me?’ (Matt. 3, 14) I am a sinner, and dost thou come to me a sinner, that Thou mayest as it were lay down Thy sins, who hast done no sin? See all justice, see the humility, see the grace, see the sanctification: ‘Unless I wash thy feet, he saith, thou wilt have no part with me.’
We are not unaware that the Roman Church has not this custom. In all things we follow her model and form; however, she has not this custom of washing the feet. See then, perhaps she has refused it on account of the numbers. (i.e. the large numbers of people being baptized.) There are some, however, who say and try to urge that this ought to be done, not as part of the sacrament, not at baptism, not at the regeneration, but only as we should wash the feet of a guest. One is a matter of humility, the other of sanctification. Hear, then, that it is a sacrament and a means of sanctification: ‘Unless I wash thy feet, thou wilt have no part with me.’ Therefore I say this, not to reprove others, but to recommend my own usages. In all things I desire to follow the Roman Church, yet we too are men of good sense, and what other places have done well to retain, we too do well to maintain.
It is the Apostle Peter himself that we follow, to his devotion do we cling. What does the Roman Church answer to this? Certainly we hold the Apostle Peter himself to be the author of our claim, he who was priest of the Roman Church. Peter himself says, ‘Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.’ See his faith. His first refusal was an act of humility; the offer that followed was an act of faith and devotion.
Because he had said ‘my hands and my head’, the Lord answered him, ‘He that hath washed needeth not to wash again, save to wash his feet only. Why is this? Because in baptism all guilt is washed away. Guilt therefore vanishes, but because Adam was tripped up by the devil, and poison was poured over his feet, therefore you wash your feet; so that at the very point where the serpent made his attack, a stronger help of sanctification may be applied, and thus he may not be able to trip you up afterwards. Therefore do you wash your feet, to wash off the serpent’s poison. It is a help towards humility also, that in a sacrament we should not shrink from that which we scorn in an act of service.”
This custom is clearly attested in the Middle Ages. An Ambrosian Manual of the 10th or 11th century prescribes that after the ceremonies of baptism during the Easter vigil, “then the archbishop must wash the infants’ feet.” Likewise Beroldus: “And then the archbishop washes the feet of the aforementioned three children, wipes them with a cloth, and kisses them.”
This Gospel is not, however, attested on the Easter vigil in any surviving Ambrosian liturgical manuscript, and appears to have been moved to its present position on Low Saturday sometime in that part of the early Middle Ages from which no evidence of the rite exists. Whatever the reason for removing it from the Easter vigil, its placement on Low Saturday may perhaps be explained as follows. Given its historical importance, it could not be deleted altogether from the liturgy, but placing it on Holy Thursday, in imitation of the Roman custom, would have jarred too much with the already established Ambrosian practice, by which the latter day is more focused on the Passion. It was therefore moved to a day which emphasized its historical connection to the baptismal rites, since the purpose of the Masses “for the baptized” was precisely to explain these rites to the neophytes in greater depth.
The Transitorium of this Mass (the equivalent of the Roman Communio) is taken from this Gospel; the text is similar to the second antiphon that accompanies the ceremony of the mandatum in the Roman Rite. In the Rite of Benevento, it was used as the Introit of Holy Thursday.
“Postquam surrexit Dominus de Cœna, misit aquam in pelvim, cœpit lavare pedes discipulorum suorum. Hallelujah. Si ego dominus et magister vester lavi pedes vestros. Hallelujah. Quanto magis vos debetis alter alterius pedes lavare. Hallelujah. – After the Lord rose up from the supper, He put water in a basin, and began to wash the feet of His disciples, alleluja. If I, your Lord and master, have washed your feet, alleluja, how much more must ye wash one anothers’ feet, alleluia!”


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