We are very grateful to a Benedictine monk for sharing with us these wise observations on the importance of celebrating the octave of Pentecost.
When the post-Vatican II Consilium for the reform of the Roman liturgy addressed the question of the temporal cycle, that is to say, the annual celebration of the mysteries of salvation from the Incarnation to the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, their overarching principle (as in all other realms, according to the prescription of Sacrosanctum Concilium) seems to have been “simplification”. This process of simplification would of necessity impose a number of suppressions and shortenings. If the very heart of the liturgical year, Holy Week and Easter, remained fairly intact with regard to the actual calendar, the preparatory and concluding periods of celebration counted two significant casualties, namely, Septuagesima and the octave of Pentecost. Whereas the traditional calendar prepares for Lent by means of the two and a half weeks of Septuagesima, and closes the paschal period with an octave for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the reformers seem to have thought they were obliged to apply to the letter St Augustine’s words, “We celebrate forty days of labour before Easter; with joy however, having received our reward, fifty days after Easter” (Tract 17 on St John; this text is read in the Breviary on Ember Friday in Lent).
|The Descent of the Holy Spirit, from a decorated antiphonary by Lorenzo Monaco
Why the octave of Pentecost? Numerological reasons
There can be no doubt that the numbers forty and fifty are highly symbolic, having deep roots in the Biblical tradition. The Church has always referred to the holy Forty Day Fast and to the Fifty Day Jubilee after Easter. At the same time, for well over a millennium, the forty day fast has been forty-six days (to account for the six Sundays which are included in Lent but are not days of fasting), and has been preceded by a period to prepare us for it, namely Septuagesima, which serves as a sort of warm-up, so that when Ash Wednesday arrives, we are ready for the spiritual combat. The late Canon André Rose, who was a member of Bugnini’s Consilium, complained to this author that the suppression of Septuagesima left us with no option but to “parachute people into Lent” (his expression). His boss, Mgr Martimort apparently insisted that forty days of preparation for Easter is enough. “Forty days and no more!” And from that day forward, an unofficial new liturgical office was created, that of the Lenten paratrooper…
Something similar happened at the other end of the paschal celebration, with the suppression of the octave of Pentecost. Fifty days are given to the celebration of the “magna Dominica” (an expression of St Athanasius referring to the fifty day celebration of Easter). The fifty day jubilee goes all the way back to Mount Sinai, for it was on the fiftieth day after the first Passover and the going out from Egypt that the Law was given to Moses on the mountain. The promulgation of the Old Law has always been seen as a prefiguration of the New. Consequently, on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit is poured forth, the crowning achievement of the paschal mystery, by promulgating the New Law of the Gospel for all nations. The ancient hymn for Pentecost Lauds expressed this admirably with the stanza: “Patrata sunt haec mystice / Paschae peracto tempore / Sacro dierum numero / Quo lege fit remissio — These things were done in type today / When Eastertide had worn away, / The number told which once set free / The captive at the jubilee.”
Pentecost Sunday is the fiftieth day of Easter, but it is also, most significantly, the eighth Sunday of Easter, which means that it opens the eighth week of the paschal celebration. Just as the Resurrection of Our Lord takes place on the eighth day, that is to say, after the sabbath rest, for it is another day which inaugurates a new era, so here, the celebration of Eastertide fittingly closes with an eighth week, symbolizing that the foundation of the Christian Church has taken humanity into a new and definitive era, the prelude to eternity. For if the eighth day symbolizes the new creation, the eighth week is as it were a heavenly week, one in which the faithful soul can delight in advance with the presence of the Holy Spirit, eternal bond between Father and Son. Thus, the sacral nature of the fifty day Easter celebration was never lost in the Church, but its prolongation into an eighth week has given it a still deeper dimension.
There is also a practical consideration which may have contributed to the extension of Pentecost over a whole week. Just as the number of days in Lent was lengthened to forty-six (which is why Lent starts on a Wednesday) so as to provide for forty days of fasting in addition to the Sundays which are not days of fasting, so the fifty celebration of Easter has been lengthened due to the fact that there are six days during Eastertide when it is customary to fast, namely the Rogation days and the Ember Days after Pentecost. If we subtract those six days from the eight full weeks of Eastertide, we find ourselves with exactly fifty day of jubilee celebration.
Conversely, from a practical perspective, just as, due to the suppression of Septuagesima, the abrupt start of Lent on Ash Wednesday without transition from “ordinary time” feels strange, so does it feel odd, after the jubilant celebration of Pentecost Sunday, to find oneself all of a sudden, and without transition, in “ordinary time”, as if nothing had happened the day before. Like so many other aspects about the reformed liturgy, it sounds logical, it looks neat on paper, concocted as it was in the office of the liturgical bureaucracy. So we have a nice and tidy paschal tide, just as we have a nice and tidy Lent. Forty days of Lent, fifty days of Easter. That’s it.
An important shift in theology
The suppression of the octave, however, would create a number of other problems. So it is when a complex work of art is deemed too ornate, and one tries to simplify it. Can you imagine trying to “simplify” Chartres Cathedral or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? Of necessity, disaster will ensue. In this particular case, the major problem is that in the West, contrary to the Eastern liturgies, the theology of the Holy Spirit which developed in the corpus of liturgical texts is largely concentrated precisely within the octave of Pentecost. To amputate the octave meant to amputate the liturgy of its most considerable pneumatological texts.
The solution decided upon was to replace the octave after Pentecost with a novena of preparation before Pentecost. This novena, which runs from Ascension Thursday to Pentecost (or, sadly, in many places now from Ascension Sunday to Pentecost, thus making it a “seven day novena”…), is officially said to be a time of preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Consequently some of the prayers of the old octave find place there (albeit somewhat mutilated, as we point out below). The change at first sight seemed smooth, and was hailed as an excellent initiative. Now we sing the Veni Creator Spiritus before Pentecost. This seems to make sense. We pray for the Spirit to come before He is actually here, instead of doing so when He is already with us.
This approach neglects, however, one very important point. The change profoundly affects the very concept of what is being celebrated. By celebrating the novena of preparation liturgically—note that the novena always existed in the personal devotion of individuals and religious communities who often take that period as a time of retreat—we now have just a commemoration of the salvific event, as opposed to an ongoing celebration of a grace that continues now. We commemorate what happened in that first century of our era: Jesus came, offered for us His life, rose from the dead, ascended into Heaven and sent the Holy Spirit among us. It is a historical commemoration. But when we reach Pentecost Sunday, the event having been commemorated, there is nothing else to do. The Holy Spirit has been given to the Church. We live with Him. He is our life. We return to the ordinary.
What are we to make of this? In a way it is true. The Holy Spirit has indeed been given to the Church, and God’s gifts are irrevocable. But let’s stop for a moment and consider what might be the underlying theological significance of the older form of the liturgy. The days between Ascension and Pentecost, otherwise known as Ascensiontide (or the octave of the Ascension, as it became known in the post-Tridentine period), are spent contemplating the triumph of the glorified humanity of the Saviour, while at the same time turning our gaze towards the gift of the Paraclete. The Magnificat antiphon O Rex Gloriae, chanted at second Vespers of the Ascension, unites both these aspects, and is sung daily during this period. But when the Spirit is given on Pentecost, we feel the need to spend an entire week thanking Him, rejoicing in His presence, basking in His light, but also begging Him to come in ever renewed ways, and to stay with us forever. Even though it may not appear at first sight, the annual octave of the Holy Spirit ingrains into our minds and hearts the fact that, although the Spirit has been given, we must continually pray that He enlighten us, that He stay with us, that He defend us from all harm and lead us to a blessed eternity.
The Church is indeed always in dire peril until the Lord returns in glory. She has been entrusted with the mystery of salvation, but she knows only too well that among her children there are those who stray from her bosom, get involved in false doctrines, and lose their souls. The Novus Ordo’s abrupt end to Eastertide on the very evening of Pentecost Sunday seems to indicate that, now that we have the Spirit, there is nothing to worry about. But we know this is not true.
The old liturgy on the other hand, as in so many other realms, is a school of humility. We have the Holy Spirit; if we lose Him, it will be no fault of His. This is exactly what the octave of Pentecost helped us to not forget: we can lose Him through our fault if we cease to pray and to ask for His guidance. This can happen to all the members of the Church, including its shepherds. Is it excessive to say that the Church at Vatican II seemed to revel in the auto-celebration of its own glory? That she entered the post-conciliar era with what was probably exaggerated self-confidence, very much as if she relied too heavily on the Gift of the Spirit which she had already received and could not lose? The Church indeed has the Spirit and cannot lose Him, but individual members of the Church, including its pastors, can. There have too many examples of this to even dream of denying it.
It seems to this author that the post-conciliar period of the Church has been marked by a growing absence of the light of the Holy Spirit and at the same time a growing audacity in pretending that the Church cannot fail. Would not the reduced devotion to the Holy Spirit explain some of the overly bold, if not gravely imprudent, gestures of some recent Popes — though of this God alone is judge — especially in the realm of inter-religious dialogue and ecumenism, as well as in her often excessive efforts to be on good terms with the political powers of the day, to the extent of not having the courage to stand up and defend her rights (as we saw so clearly of late with the closing of churches by mandate of the State, and even the removal of holy water fonts and the banning of Communion on the tongue, due to unverified reports that these practices present a danger of contagion)?
In all this, many of the pastors of the Church seem to have forgotten what their predecessors were very wary of, namely their own frailty. It was because the ancients were fully conscious of this that they wisely avoided going down certain paths that were fraught with grave dangers for the faith, or intervening in matters for which She has no charism of truth, or being overly talkative about the faith, thus multiplying the risk of error in official documents. Many indeed are those who have pointed to what seems to be the vice of loquaciousness on behalf of the Church since Vatican II — it is hard to keep up with all the documents being published! But since, according to Vatican I, the charism of infallibility is limited to a few very rare occurrences, is it too much to speak of the sin of presumption when the Church is constantly intervening in public debates especially on questions for which She has no particular mandate or competence (such as ecology, climate, vaccinations, etc…), and at the same time leaves aside her true role of teaching the nations and preaching Catholic doctrine with clarity for the salvation of souls?
Some gems of the octave
In addition to the importance of the octave itself for the reasons just developed, the eight day celebration of Pentecost also contains a number of gems which the revised liturgy simply lost. Numerous commentators have pointed out the great richness of the Pentecost octave.
The first reason for which the reformers found fault with the Pentecost octave was that it was a sort of double of the Easter octave, complete with its own lengthy vigil Mass. Indeed, following the Edict of Milan, there were so many adults wanting to be baptized that it was not possible to receive them all at Easter, and so did Pentecost become the second great celebration of Baptism (whence the name Whitsunday which refers to the white garments of the neophytes coming out of the baptismal font). It would be erroneous, however, to see in the Pentecost Octave a slavish repetition of Easter. Even though a small number of the chants are resumed from the Easter octave, the great majority are proper to this octave which gives us a summary of the whole of the Christian life. The texts of the various Masses are replete with treasures which manifest the multi-faceted Gifts of the Holy Spirit.
As mentioned earlier, some of the texts of the octave underwent significant mutilations when they were moved to the new novena of preparation . Two examples will suffice. The first is the oration for Ember Friday after Pentecost, in which we pray:
“Da, quaesumus, Ecclesiae tuae, misericors Deus: ut Sancto Spiritu congregata, hostili nullatenus incursione turbetur. (Grant unto Thy Church, we beseech Thee, O merciful God, that being gathered within the fold of the Holy Spirit, she may not be troubled by attack from the foe.)”
In the New Missal this has become:
“Ecclesiae tuae, misericors Deus, concede propitius, ut, Sancto Spiritu congregata, toto sit corde tibi devota, et pura voluntate concordet. (Merciful God, grand we pray to Your Church that united by the Holy Spirit, she may be devoted to You with her whole heart, and united with a pure will.)”
No longer do we acknowledge that, being gathered together by the Holy Spirit, we are still in need of protection from enemies, both invisible and invisible. As elsewhere in the New Missal, all reference to difficulties, obstacles or enemies has vanished. We ask only to be devout and one in unity, which are wonderful things, but there seems to be a latent Pelagianism, with an implicit denial of the effects of original sin, which ultimately risks taking us off our guard. By causing us to forget the real perils we find ourselves in often, we are put at a disadvantage to accomplish those very things which the new oration asks for.
The same logic is applied to the oration for Pentecost Tuesday:
“Adsit nobis, quaesumus, Domine, virtus Spiritus Sancti: quae et corda nostra clementer expurget et ab omnibus tueatur adversis. (Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that the power of the Holy Ghost may abide in us; may it mercifully cleanse our hearts, and defend us from all danger.)”
This has now become:
“Adveniat nobis quaesumus Domine, virtus Spiritus Sancti, qua voluntatem tuam fideli mente retinere, et pia conversatione depromere valeamus. (May the power of the Holy Spirit come to us, O Lord, by which may we be able to retain Your will with a faithful mind, and bring it forth by a holy life.)”
Apparently, our hearts no long need to be cleansed, nor do we need defense from danger. All enemies have vanished, and this does not help us conquer them, for indeed they are still there.
Penance and fasting
Another significant part of the Pentecost octave are the three Ember Days, which are traditionally days of penance. The reformers seem to have regarded as incompatible the fusing of a joyful celebration with the practice of penance. But something similar happens with the Rogation Days before Ascension and the Ember Days of September, in which several texts remind us to be joyful and celebrate, while others remind us to fast and do penance. How can this be? Let’s say first of all that the Embertides and the Rogation Days, historically speaking, have no connection with the liturgical season in which they are celebrated. They follow the solar cycle and are destined to sanctify the seasons of the year and ask for particular graces, especially to ward off diseases, wars, natural disasters, and all sorts of calamities.
There is, however, a profound sense in which the occurrence of such days in times of rejoicing is most fitting. On one hand we must at all times while still in this valley of tears unite ourselves with the passion of Our Lord and accept to share in His sufferings. But we must also keep in mind that the victory has already been won by the Resurrection. We can and should rejoice in our penance, and we can deny ourselves on our days of mirth. This very concept is captured by St Benedict, who tells his monks, in the midst of their Lenten fast, to look forward to the holy Pascha “with the joy of the Holy Spirit… with joy and spiritual longing” (Rule ch. 49).
Here we see that the richness of the various elements of the ancient liturgical practices are a much more real and down to earth teaching on the reality of our lives. It is precisely such celebrations which form us to live as good Christians. The old liturgy, like the faith itself, is truly an incarnate liturgy which integrates a long experience of man and his real needs, whereas the new liturgy is somewhat disincarnate, as it seems not to take seriously the peril in which man finds himself in a fallen world. Understood from this perspective, we can say that such days as these which do unite joy and penance are perhaps the most significant ones of the liturgical year, since they are the very type of our Christian life, in which we are both configured with Christ crucified, and have the absolute certitude that, if we persevere, we are marching towards the eternal joy and glory of the resurrection. Then one comes to understand how it is possible to put on a joyful face when fasting, as Our Blessed Lord told us we must do in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matt. 6, 17-18). Incidentally, St Thomas says something that will surprise many, namely that fasting on Sundays is quite appropriate, due to the fact that the Lord’s day is a day of spiritual joy, and these are favored by tempering natural ones. The canonical discipline of the Church has clearly stipulated that one should not fast on Sundays, the reason being that it is good to relax the body somewhat and give it a share in the joy of the Resurrection, but the principle enunciated by St Thomas remains, and shows how spiritual joys and bodily penance can go hand in hand.
A final point to be aware of is that the ancient octave of Pentecost is a privileged octave of the first class. This means that no other celebrations have precedence, and even other first class feasts must be transferred after the octave. By contrast, the Novus Ordo novena of preparation has no particular rank other than the other days of Eastertide. What this means in practice is that if there are feasts or even memorials (that is to say, in older terminology, second or third class feasts), these take precedence, and no mention is made of the novena. Because of this rubric, the liturgical novena of preparation is almost never celebrated for the full nine days, and some years it can be interrupted for several days in a row. The great solemnity of the Holy Ghost is thus further downplayed.
Like so many other aspects of the ancient liturgy, it takes time and experience to unpack all the mysteries contained in the Pentecost Octave. In the same way, one cannot just walk through a medieval cathedral and expect to have seen and understood all it has to offer; one must stop to read or hear the explanations; one must spend time there; one must pray there. So it is with the old liturgy. It took centuries to develop the masterpiece. Cutting it up into pieces and pasting some of them back together while integrating hybrid elements taken from elsewhere was a very bad idea which has not benefited the Church.
For those of us privileged to celebrate the full octave of Pentecost, let us pray fervently to the Holy Spirit, that He may continue to act mightily within the Church, and in particular over the hierarchy. As noted above in the oration for Ember Friday after Pentecost, the Spirit is the one who protects the Church from the attacks of the foe. Foes there today, and many, both within and without. May He protect us and give to our shepherds the courage to use both ends of their crosier, the curved top end to pull the sheep and keep them in, the pointed bottom end to ward off the wolves who seek to devour.
Hostem repellas longius,
Pacemque dones protinus.
Ductore sic te praevio,
Vitemus omne noxium. Amen.