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Musical Musings: Holy Week

The Easter Triduum in 17th-century Milan

by James Monti

This article appeared in the March-April 1994 edition of Catholic Heritage magazine, formerly published by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. The magazine is no longer being published.

Holy Week — the Church's annual celebration of the culminating events of our redemption — reaches its climax in the Easter Triduum, which opens with the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday and closes with the triumph of Easter Sunday. Over the course of nearly 2000 years, the dramatic unfolding of Our Lord's passion, death and resurrection has inspired countless expressions of these mysteries in art, music and literature. But nowhere have the events of Holy Week been expressed more profoundly than in the Church's public worship of her Divine Spouse.

Saint Ambrose

It was during the first millennium of Christianity that the Church's universal liturgical tradition branched out into several distinctive forms — among these, the Roman Rite held predominance, as it does today in the West. But the Church also authorized the genesis and preservation of a number of other rites, of equal dignity, rooted in ancient local traditions — not only the entire Eastern body of liturgies, but also several venerable rites in the West. In northern Italy, the Diocese of Milan has maintained just such a rite, the Ambrosian Rite, which is traceable back to the fourth century. The rite derives its name from the city's greatest bishop, the illustrious Church Father, Saint Ambrose (340-397).

Hence, in the Ambrosian celebration of the Easter Triduum, we find a fascinating admixture of very ancient practices together with colorful subsequent additions acquired over many centuries — liturgical practices intended to raise the heart and mind to the contemplation of Christ Crucified. This can best be seen by examining the Ambrosian ceremonies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. By consulting two Milanese missals, one dating from 1560 and the other from 1699, together with a few other sources, we will be able to construct a succinct portrait of these beautiful services as they existed in the 17th century, following the emendations and reforms of yet another renowned bishop of Milan, Saint Charles Borromeo (1538-1584).

[Since the Second Vatican Council, there have been some further changes, and the Vatican and the See of Milan have worked together to produce a new edition of the Ambrosian Missal — promulgated under Pope Paul VI in 1976 — with the intent of retaining the most cherished elements of the Ambrosian tradition that have been so carefully preserved through time by the clergy and people of the city.]

Holy Thursday

In 17th-century Milan, the Ambrosian Rite's commemoration on Holy Thursday would begin with a special Scripture service (a synaxis) that with its simple and primitive structure harkens back to the earliest centuries of the Church. Its readings create a sense of mounting drama as the hour for the Son of Man to be glorified (Jn 12:23) nears. Among these we find a lection from the Book of Wisdom (2:12-3:8) that speaks of the plots of the wicked against the "just one," who troubles their numbed consciences by His teachings:

Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings ... To us he is the censure of our thoughts ... With revilement and torture let us put him to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness ... Let us condemn him to a shameful death. [Wis 2:12,14,19-20]
Another of the readings, from the Book of Daniel (13:1-64), tells of the leveling of false charges in court against the Jewish woman Susanna by two lecherous judges, whose sinful advances she had spurned; Susanna's innocence is subsequently revealed to all present through the intervention of the young prophet Daniel. The application is fairly obvious: For just as Susanna was put on trial and falsely accused for remaining faithful to God's commandments, so will Christ be bound, taken to court and falsely accused for teaching His Father's commandments. This same passage is read at Mass in our own current Roman liturgy on the Monday before Palm Sunday.

There is also a Gospel reading at this morning service: Saint Matthew's poignantly terse account of Judas' meeting with the chief priests (26:14-16), during which he asks the terrible question, "What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?"

As in our Roman Rite, there is in the Ambrosian liturgy a Mass on Holy Thursday commemorating the anniversary of the Last Supper. The epistle is essentially the same — Saint Paul's description of the institution of the Eucharist (I Cor 11:20-34). However, the Gospel is not taken from Saint John but rather from Saint Matthew, and it is annouced as the "Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew." The passage (Mt 26:17-75) covers all of the events that took place during the evening of the first Holy Thursday: from the disciples' preparations for the Last Supper to Our Lord's reclining at table with them; from His agony in Gethsemane to His subsequent arrest and trial before the Sanhedrin, concluding with Peter's three-fold denial of his Master and that disciple's subsequent remorse.

At the end of the Mass, lights and torches are lit for a lavish eucharistic procession. According to the Ambrosian Missal of 1699, there is no Communion on Good Friday. However the Blessed Sacrament is removed from the tabernacle and reserved in a repository, from Holy Thursday until the Easter Vigil, "for the infirm and for representing the burial of the Lord." In a manner very similar to that of the Roman Rite, the Eucharist is carried to the repository by the celebrant under a canopy, preceded by two acolytes swinging smoking thuribles, and the Latin hymn Pange lingua is sung. Afterward, the clergy gather for the ceremonial commemoration of the washing of the feet (known as the Mandatum).

Good Friday

In the Ambrosian Rite on Good Friday, there are two major liturgical services during the day — one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. The morning liturgy features two readings from the prophet Isaiah, and it is in the first of these two lections (Is 49:24 - 50:11) that we find prefigured the abuse to which Our Lord was subjected in the course of the morning trial before Pilate:

I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting [Isaiah 50:6].

Another verse from this reading brings to mind the noontime darkness that enveloped the earth on the first Good Friday, when the sun hid her face upon seeing her Creator on the cross:

I clothe the heavens in mourning, and make sackcloth their vesture [Isaiah 50:3].
The Gospel that follows is a continuation of the account of Our Lord's passion, which is taken, as on Holy Thursday, from Saint Matthew (27:1-56), beginning with the words "When it was morning ..." and continuing with the death of Judas, the trial before Pilate, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the cross and the Crucifixion. The Cathedral of Milan As in the Roman Rite, the moment of Christ's death is reverently set apart by a pause in the Gospel reading, but this is done in the Ambrosian liturgy with considerably more dramatic action. When the words "But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit" (Mt 27:50) have been pronounced, all genuflect as two subdeacons vested in albs go to the altar and strip it of its cloths; the bells now toll as acolytes extinguish all the lights and remove all ornamental objects from the church.

In the subdued light, the deacon proceeds with the concluding verses of the Gospel lection, which speak of nature's convulsion upon the death of the Savior. The liturgy ends abruptly thereafter, as the clergy return to the recitation of a part of the Divine Office.

The second service of the day begins not with Scripture readings but rather with the Veneration of the Cross; the ceremony is largely borrowed from the Roman practice, with the cross borne to the altar in a three-stage procession, at each stop of which the faithful are invited in song to behold the wood of the cross as it is elevated by two subdeacons. At the end of the procession, the cross is set before the altar. The priests then come forward barefoot, two by two, and, genuflecting thrice, venerate it with a kiss. Thereafter, the cross is placed upon the high altar, and a concluding prayer for the veneration is said.

The readings are now begun, which consist of two lections from the book of Daniel (3:1-24) and (3:91-100), followed by the Saint Matthew Gospel account of the entombment of Christ (27:57-61). The service concludes with the ancient series of petitions for the needs of the universal Church and the world that has come to be known throughout the West as the "Solemn Prayers" of Good Friday.

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday arrives. The bells have remained silent since the reading of the Passion on Good Friday. Mass has not been celebrated, nor has Holy Communion been administered in the churches since Holy Thursday; the Blessed Sacrament remains now only in the repository, while the tabernacle at the main altar is empty. But the hour of triumph nears.

As on the preceding two days, Holy Saturday's liturgy begins with a Scripture service. The Old Testament lection (Gen 6:9 - 8:21) relates the events of the Flood, while the Gospel (27:62-66) tells of the anxiety of the chief priests and Pharisees, who on the first Holy Saturday deemed it necessary to seal the tomb of Christ and have a guard posted around it. It seems Our Lord's enemies took greater notice, than did the apostles, of His prophecy that he would rise on the third day — although, of course, they assumed that any claims of such an event would be nothing more than a fabrication by Christ's followers.

The second liturgy of the day is the greatest of the entire Church year — the Easter Vigil, wherein the Church rejoices in the triumph of the risen Christ, who shatters the darkness of sin and death. As in the Roman Rite, the Ambrosian vigil begins in darkness — all the lights are out as the celebrant and other assisting clerics enter. But then as a deacon chants the Exsultet, the Church's ecstatic hymn of exultation for the victory of her Divine Spouse, the paschal candle is lit, together with two other candles; and later, toward the end of this song, all the other lamps and torches are kindled. Six Old Testament readings follow (Gen 1:1 - 2:3), (Gen 22:1-19), (Ex 12:1-11), (Ex 13:18 - 14:8), (Is 54:17 - 55:11), (Is 1:16-19). When these lections are completed, the celebrant blesses the baptismal font and then pours holy oils (the oils used in the administration of the sacraments) into the water crosswise, three separate times, after which the catechumens are baptized. When the baptismal rites are completed, the celebrant, vested in a white cope, goes to the repository and brings the Blessed Sacrament back to the high altar, signaling the beginning of the Mass proper.

It is here that we encounter another ritual unique to the Ambrosian Easter liturgy. After having kissed the altar and incensed it with a thurible, the celebrant steps to one side of the altar (the "epistle side") and proclaims, "Christ the Lord has risen." The choir answers, "Thanks be to God," whereupon the organ and bells are sounded. The celebrant moves to the middle of the altar and a second time announces, "Christ the Lord has risen." Again, the choir replies, "Thanks be to God," while the organ and bells resound. Finally, the celebrant steps to the other side of the altar (the "Gospel side") and proclaims the Resurrection a third time, to which the choir, organ and bells reply once more in kind. Easter has come to Milan.

The ceremonies that we have described are of another time and place — 17th-century Milan. Yet the mysteries celebrated are the very same that we, the children of the Church in 20th-century America, likewise commemorate each year through our participation in the solemn liturgy of Holy Week. Through the liturgy of this sacred season, may we join the innumerable men and women of different lands and ages, past and present, who have journeyed with Our Lord in His passion, in the sure hope that "if we have died with him, we shall also live with him" (II Tim 2:11).

James Monti writes from Irvington NY.

See the CNP Liturgical Planning Pages (Roman Rite) for:

Holy Thursday
Good Friday
The Great Easter Vigil

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