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A History Of The Mass And Its Ceremonies In The Eastern And Western Church -Rev John O'Brien A.M.

The reading of the Epistle immediately follows the last Collect. To this end, instead of keeping his hands spread out as heretofore, the priest now rests them on the missalstand, while he reads the Epistle in an audible tone. Nor is this change in the position of the hands without a mystic meaning. By it the priest is made aware of the obligation he is under of not only reading the law, but also of doing what it prescribes, the hands being indicative of labor (Romsee, iv. 101).

The particular part of Scripture from which the Epistle is taken, as well as the Apostle’s name to whom it is accredited, both of which form the title, are first read before the text itself; thus, for example, “the reading of the Epistle of blessed Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians,” “to the Hebrews,” “to the Romans,” etc., as the case may be. If the lesson to be read be taken from any one of the three books, viz., Proverbs, the Canticle of Canticles, or Ecclesiasticus, its title is always, “the reading of the Book of Wisdom,” without any further specification, for the reason that these three books were always denominated the “Sapiential Writings” by the ancient Fathers (De Herdt, Sacr. Liturg., ii. No. 63).

The ancient Hebrews—and the practice is yet kept up by the modern Jews—always began the reading of the Law with the forty-fourth verse of the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, viz., “this is the law that Moses set before the children of Israel” (Burder, Relig. Cerm. and Customs, p. 39). Before the Epistles were in circulation, the custom of reading portions of the Old Testament was always observed in the early Church, as can be proved by numberless testimonies. The Acts of the Apostles refer frequently to this practice. But as soon as the Epistles were written the custom of reading the Old Testament gradually died away, and gave place to the custom which is now in vogue. St. Paul strictly ordained that his Epistles should be read in all the churches under his charge. In his Epistle to the Colossians, chapter 4, he writes thus: “And when this Epistle shall have been read with you, cause that it be read also in the Church of the Laodiceans.” And at the end of his first Epistle to the Thessalonians he thus expresses himself: “I charge you by the Lord that this Epistle be read to all the holy brethren.” St. Justin Martyr (second century) informs us that this practice was general in his time (Apol., 2); and Tertullian refers to it also (Apol., c. 39).

In many of the churches of early days it was customary to read first a lesson from the Old Testament, and then an Epistle from the New, in order to show that both the one and the other are entitled to much respect; and that although the new law is much more perfect than the old, still the moral teaching of the latter remains yet in all its vigor. This custom is yet kept up in the Mozarabic and Ambrosian rites; and the Carthusians and Dominicans observe it on Christmas day and its vigil. A vestige of the practice may be seen in our own missal, also, in the Masses of the Quarter Tenses—with this difference, however: that instead of one lesson several are read, in order to show the aspirant for the holy ministry the necessity he is under of becoming thoroughly conversant with the law and the prophets, as well as with what the New Testament contains; for it was during these days that orders were conferred in ancient times, and even according to the present discipline of the Church they are yet set apart for this purpose in the majority of places in Europe (Gavantas, Thesaur. Sacr. Rit., p. 338). The Council of Laodicea, held in the fourth century, and the third Council of Carthage forbade the reading of anything in the Mass which was not taken from Holy Scripture. An exception, however, seems to have been made in some cases, for we see that the letters of the Supreme Pontiffs and the Acts of the Martyrs, also the letters of the bishop of the diocese, used to be read very frequently (Martène, De Antiquis Eccl. Ritibus).

With the ancient Hebrews, the Pentateuch, or Sepher Tora, as they called it, was held in such high estimation that they made it a practice to read as much of it on every Sabbath as would enable them to finish it in the course of a year. For which reason they divided the entire five books into portions called parshizoth, fifty-three or fifty-four in number, corresponding with the entire number of service days, and read one at every service. The Jews of today keep up this custom (Bannister, Temples of the Hebrews, p. 351).

It is universally admitted, we believe, that the series and order of the Epistles read to-day in the Mass were drawn up by St. Jerome at the request of the Sovereign Pontiff Pope Damasus (Cardinal Bona, Rer. Liturg., p. 324). They were first inserted in a book by themselves, called by St. Jerome the Companion, but when plenary missals came into use the Companion was superseded by them, and in this way it lost its individuality.

At High Mass the Epistle is chanted by the subdeacon in a loud tone of voice, with only one modulation at the conclusion. It is chanted facing the altar and not the congregation, as is the case when the Gospel is chanted, because the latter, being the words of our Lord, is entitled to more respect, and, besides, it is principally designed for the instruction of the people. The custom of sitting down during the reading of the Epistle is very ancient, being evidently derived from the synagogue and early Christians (Romsee, iv. p. 103). According to Durandus, the Epistle is read before the Gospel on account of its symbolizing the mission of St. John the Baptist, who was the precursor of our Lord (Rationale, p. 183).

Deo Gratias.—At the conclusion of the Epistle the server answers, “Deo gratias”—“Thanks be to God”—as an evidence of the gratitude we owe to our Creator for the spiritual nourishment of his sacred words. According to the Mozarabic Rite, this response is made as soon as the title of the Epistle is announced.

In ancient times the expression “Deo gratias” was in very common use among the faithful. It was, in fact, one of their principal forms of salutation whenever they met, as we learn from St. Augustine, who also tells us that the impious Donatists endeavored to turn it into ridicule. When the proconsul Galerius Maximus read out the decree, “Thasius Cyprianus shall die by the sword,” the saintly bishop received the sentence by exclaiming, “Deo gratias!”

Epistle in the Eastern Church.—The practice of reading the Epistle in the Mass is also observed by all the Oriental churches, as their liturgies show us. The Copts at this place read five different portions of the Sacred Writings, each of which, in accordance with Oriental usage, they denominate the Apostle. These five portions are taken respectively from the Epistles of St. Paul, the Catholic Epistles, the Acts of the Apostles, the Psalter, and the Evangels (Renaudot, Liturg. Orient., i. 186). Their canons are so strict in this matter that, were a priest to omit any of these designedly, he would subject himself to excommunication; and as the ancient Coptic, or that in which their service is carried on, is entirely unknown among the people, after the Epistle has been read in that tongue, it is again read in Arabic, the language of the day in those parts. All through the East the Apostle—as they call the Epistle—is listened to and read with a very great amount of respect.

The Ambo.—Whenever there was Solemn High Mass, which was the case nearly always in the early Church, the Epistle used to be chanted, not in the sanctuary as now, but from an elevated lectern or pulpit known as the Ambo, from the Greek ἀναβαίνω—anabaino, I ascend—placed generally in the nave of the church. In some places there were as many as three appurtenances of this kind: one for the reading of the Epistle, another for the reading of the Gospel, and the third for the Prophecies. Specimens of these may yet be seen in that ancient church at Rome known as St. Clement’s. Though many churches possessed two of these amboes, one set apart for the chanting of the Epistle, the other for the chanting of the Gospel, still the general rule was to make one ambo serve for both these purposes; and we find but one employed in the great church of Holy Wisdom at Constantinople, which all regarded as the most perfect temple of worship then in existence.

Material of which the Amboes were made.—The material as well as the workmanship of the amboes varied, of course, according to the means of the church. Some were plain and made wholly of wood, while others were formed of the costliest materials. That in the Church of Holy Wisdom was constructed of pure alabaster, and enriched with columns of silver and gold sparkling with gems (Neale, Holy Eastern Church, i. 203). The celebrated ambo of the ancient Cathedral of Durham, in England, was made of solid brass, and so beautifully finished was it that persons came from afar to see it. It is described in the Ancient Monuments of Durham as having a gilt pelican, feeding its young with blood from its breast. These annals describe it as the “goodlyest letteron of brass that was in all the countrye” (Church of Our Fathers, vol. iii. 191). (The reference in the figure of the pelican is to a vision had by St. Gertrude, where our Divine Lord appeared to her in the form of this bird with his Precious Blood flowing from his Sacred Heart for the nourishment of mankind. The pelican is said to open its breast with its bill when all other means of feeding its young fail, and keep them from utter starvation by administering its life-blood for their food.) Many of the ancient amboes had curious figures engraved and constructed upon them. In some the Archangel St. Michael with the last trumpet could be seen; in others a huge eagle with its eyes turned aloft, to signify the sublimity of the Word of God. This was generally the device used in the Gospel ambo.

But the ambo was not exclusively used for the Epistle and Gospel. Sermons were preached from it sometimes, and in the churches of Egypt it was thence that the announcement regarding the time of Easter and the other movable feasts was made. The ambo was also the place where the diptychs were read; and at Constantinople it was there that the emperors were generally crowned (Neale, Holy Eastern Church, i. 205).

Although these ancient appurtenances have long been discontinued, traces of them may yet be seen in some of the European churches, particularly in those of Rome. At Lyons, too, not only are amboes seen, but the old custom of chanting the Epistle and Gospel from them is still strictly observed.








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