1.Trinity Sunday | 2. John the Baptist | 3. Corpus Christi | 4. Assumption Day | 5. Michaelmas | 6. Christ the King | 7. All Saints' & All Souls' Days
1. Trinity Sunday
Though the mystery of the Holy Trinity is the greatest dogma of the Christian faith and the Feast of the Holy Trinity one of the beloved annual feasts of Christianity, there are not many customs or rituals quintessentially associated with this day. It has always been the custom, however, to keep this day with great reverence and solemnity. Festivals after Mass featuring thunderous preachers and thunderous bands aroused their listeners to joyful heights, while Holy Trinity Confraternities (which were once very influential) would sponsor special events and devotions on this their name day.
Superstition also ascribed great powers to the weather on Holy Trinity Sunday, regardless of what it was: "Trinity rain" was considered as healthy as "Trinity sunshine."
2. Feast of St. John the Baptist (June 24)
As mentioned elsewhere, John the Baptist has the honor of being the only other person besides the Blessed Virgin and our Lord whose birthday the Church celebrates with a special feast. No doubt this has something to do with the unique role that John plays in the economy of salvation. As the "Precursor of the Lord" and the greatest of the prophets (Lk. 7.28), John was given the commission of preparing the way for the Son of God. In the Confiteor he is ranked higher than Saints Peter and Paul, and is subordinate only to the Blessed Virgin and St. Michael the Archangel. (Tradition holds that like the prophet Jeremiah, John was consecrated in the womb to be free from all mortal sin.) But there is also something special about his birthday itself: John's conception in the womb of his aged mother Elizabeth was miraculous, as was the Angel Gabriel's prophecy about his mission and name (Lk. 1.5-26, 41-80). Even the birthday's location in the year is profoundly significant: because of the summer solstice, the days begin to grow shorter and shorter after his birthday. The days after Christ's birthday, on the other hand, begin to lengthen. Hence John's statement about Jesus, "He must increase and I must decrease" (Jn. 3.30), is echoed in the cycle of the cosmos. No wonder that in speaking of John, the Archangel Gabriel declares, "many shall rejoice in his birthday" (Lk. 1.14).
St. John Bonfires
Tying into this theme of increasing and decreasing light is the St. John (sin-jen) bonfire traditionally lit on the night before the Feast. The mood surrounding this solemn vigil is merry, since the day was regarded as a sort of summer Christmas. The Roman ritual even includes a special benedictio rogi, or blessing of the bonfire, for the birthday of the Baptist:
Lord God, Father almighty, unfailing Light who is the Source of all light: sanctify this new fire, and grant that after the darkness of this life we may be able to come with pure minds to Thee who art Light unfailing. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Domine Deus, Pater omnipotens, lumen indeficiens, qui es conditor omnium luminum: novum hunc ignem sanctifica, et praesta: ut ad te, qui es lumen indeficiens, puris mentibus post hujus saeculi caliginem pervenire valeamus. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.
The bonfire, incidentally, is an excellent symbol for John, the untamed prophet who lived outside the city both literally and figuratively. It also makes an interesting contrast with the Paschal candal. On Easter vigil, a similarly "wild" fire representing Christ is made outside and is used to light the Paschal candle, which is then carried into the church. Significantly, in the Exultet the deacon praises this candle as the product of a beehive, symbol of a virtuous and harmonious city. The idea seems to be that Christ is also an outsider, though he succeeds through his death and resurrection in bringing the light of truth into the very citadel of darkness. On the other hand, John, who never lived to see Christ's triumph, can only bear witness to the light from the outside.
A Great Leap in the Study of Music
We should also mention the breviary hymn for the Feast of St. John the Baptist: Ut queant laxis. Tradition ascribes the hymn to Paul the Deacon, who purportedly wrote it before having to sing the difficult Exultet on Holy Saturday night. (Paul was suffering from a hoarse throat and, remembering how Zechariah, the father of St. John, was cured from a case of muteness, thought it best to direct his prayers to the Baptist). What makes Ut queant laxis most famous, however, is that it is the source of our musical scale, do, re, mi. An attentive medieval monk noticed that the melody of the hymn ascended precisely one note of the diatonic scale of C at each verse. Taking the first stanza, he decided to name the notes after the first syllable of each verse:
UTqueant laxis REsonare fibris
With the exception of Ut, which was later changed to Do for ease of pronunciation, these syllables became the first six notes of our scale: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La. And this stanza also ended up providing the name of the seventh note, Ti, which was later taken from the last syllable of the penultimate word and the first syllable of the last word of the stanza: "T" from Sancte and "I" from Ioannes. The names for the notes to our basic Western musical octave therefore come from the hymn for today's feast.
3. Feast of Corpus Christi
At the age of sixteen, a humble Belgian girl began having visions of a bright moon marred by a small black spot. After years of seeing this perplexing portent, Jesus Christ appeared to her and revealed its meaning. The moon, He told her, represented the Church calendar, and the black spot the absence of a feast in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. That nun was St. Juliana, Prioress of Mont Cornillon (1258), and the Feast she was commissioned by our Lord to promote was the feast of Corpus Christi.
Even before its universal promotion in 1314, Corpus Christi was one of the grandest feasts of the Roman rite. At the request of Pope Urban IV (d. 1264), the Mass propers and divine office for this day were composed or arranged by St. Thomas Aquinas, whose teaching on the Real Presence was so profound that the figure of Jesus Christ once descended from a crucifix and declared to him, "Thou hast written well of me, Thomas." The mastery with which Aquinas weaves together the scriptural, poetic, and theological texts of this feast amply corroborates this conclusion.
Processions & Pageants
Though Maundy Thursday is in a sense the primary feast of the Blessed Sacrament, Corpus Christi allows the faithful to specially reflect on and give thanks for the Eucharist. Hence there arose a number of observances centered on Eucharistic adoration. The most conspicuous of these is the splendid Corpus Christi procession. This public profession of the Catholic teaching on the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament was solemnly encouraged by the Council of Trent: there is even an indulgence attached to all who participate in it. By the 1600s, the procession on Corpus Christi had become the most famous of the year. Long parades of faithful walk with the Blessed Sacrament (carried in a monstrance by the priest) while church bells peal and bands play. In Latin countries, the streets are blanketed with boughs and flowers, often elaborately woven together. Sometimes a variation on the custom of Stations is employed (see Stational Churches, etc.), where the procession stops at several points for benediction and adoration.
By its very nature, the Corpus Christi procession encouraged pageantry. In addition to the grandeur mentioned above, vivid symbolic reenactments of various teachings became a part of the procession. During the height of baroque piety, people impersonating demons would run along aside the Blessed Sacrament, pantomining their fright and fear of the Real Presence. Others would dress as ancients gods and goddesses to symbolize how even the pagan past must rise and pay homage to Christ. Still others would carry all sorts of representations of sacred history: Moses and the serpent, David and Goliath, the Easter lamb, the Blessed Virgin, etc. But the most popular of all these was the custom of having children dress as angels. Appearing in white (with or without wings), these boys and girls would precede the Blessed Sacrament as symbols of the nine choirs of heavenly hosts who ever adore the Panis Angelicum, the Bread of Angels.
At Holy Trinity German Church, the Corpus Christi procession was the most important of the year. One witness to the procession of 1851 wrote:
The girls, clad in white, with lilies in their hands, groups of symbolic figures, with banner and flags, the boys with staffs and rods, all the associations of the parish with their signs and symbols and burning candles, finally the flower-strewing little children preceding the clergy -- all these made a fantastic impression (from Holy Trinity German Catholic Church of Boston: A Way of Life, Robert J. Sauer (Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing, 1994), p. 49)
Medieval piety is famous, among other things, for its mystery plays, theatrical pieces held after Mass on great feast days that dramatized the lesson or mystery of the day. These effective didactic tools were enormously popular, but perhaps none so much as those held on Corpus Christi. Shakespeare gives an oblique allusion to them when he has Prince Hamlet speak of the Termagant, a violent, overbearing woman in long robes who appeared often in these productions (Hamlet III.ii). Favorite medieval saints, such as George and Margaret, would often be the protagonists, though the details and plot varied from place to place. Perhaps the most famous of these plays are the Autos Sacramentales (Plays of the Sacrament) by Fr. Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1681).
Day of Wreaths
In some places of Europe Corpus Christi is known as the Day of wreaths. Exquisite wreaths of flowers are used in the pageants, either perched on banners, houses, and arches that stretch over the street, or worn by the participants of the procession. The monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament could also be adorned with a bouquet of flowers. After the solemnities these beautiful decorations would be taken home as keepsakes and posted over gardens and fields for blessing and protection.
Special mention must be made of the exquisite hymns written by St. Thomas Aquinas for this feast and their subsequent popularity. Aquinas wrote four: Verbum Supernum Prodiens (for Lauds), Pange Lingua Gloriosi (Vespers), Sacris Solemniis (Matins), and Lauda Sion Salvatoris (Mass sequence). Parts of these, in turn, were used as separate hymns. The famous Tantum ergo Sacramentum used at Benediction is taken from Pange Lingua and O salutaris hostia is taken from Verbum Supernum, while Panis Angelicus is taken from Sacris Solemniis. These hymns have become cherished treasures of Catholic devotion and worship and should be sung with gusto on this great feast.
4. The Feast of the Assumption (August 15th)
Most likely the oldest and certainly the highest annual feast day of Mary, the Feast of the Assumption is held in both east and west as a day of great solemnity. Processions would wind their way either through cities and towns in order to publicly honor Mary or through fields in order to pray for God's blessing upon the harvest. Marian hymns would be sung and statues of the Blessed Virgin carried. In some places there would even be a dramatic representation of the mystery of the assumption. The statue of Mary would be carried through town to an elaborate arch of flowers symbolizing the gate of Heaven. From here another statue, a statue of Christ, would greet "her" and conduct her to the church as a symbol of her entrance into eternal glory. The procession would then conclude with Benediction.
Blessing of Herbs and Fruits
The Church "baptized" an old pre-Christian belief in the great healing power of herbs picked in August by instituting a ritual for the blessing of herbs and fruits on the Feast of the Assumption. Since that time, Christians from both East and West have blessed herbs and fruit on the Feast of the Assumption in the belief that these sacramentals provide protection against harm and danger. But this custom also hearkens back to the Hebrew observance of the harvest, and more importantly, it teaches us something about our Lady's role in the economy of salvation. Eve foolishly used herbs (fig leaves) to hide and aggravate her sin, thereby bringing about a disorder of body and soul (Gen. 3.7). By contrast, Mary, the new Eve whose soul and body are untouched by sin or the decay of death (as we celebrate on this day), foreshadows a healing of our corporeal frailties, a healing represented by herbs. Likewise, fruits are an appropriate symbol for the new Eve because she never ate of the forbidden fruit but brought forth only the fruit of good works and, most importantly, the Fruit of her womb, Jesus Christ. The blessed fruit thus betokens the fruit of a holy and generous life which we are called to enjoy from our Lord through the patronage of His mother.
In any case the solemn blessing of herbs and fruits on this day became so popular that in central Europe August 15 was simply called Our Lady's Herb Day. Usually these blessings would take place before Mass and would involve whatever was brought by the congregation to the church. Afterwards the herbs would be kept for medicinal use while the fruit would be served at dinner (see Foods). The following is one of the special blessings from the Roman ritual that is used for herbs and fruits on Assumption Day :
O God, who by Moses Thy servant didst command the children of Israel to carry their sheaves of new fruits to the priests for a blessing, to take the finest fruits of the orchards, and to make merry before Thee, the Lord their God: Kindly hear our supplications, and pour forth the abundance of Thy blessing upon us and upon these sheaves of new grain, new herbs, and assortment of fruits, which we gratefully present to Thee and which we bless on this feast in Thy name. And grant that men, cattle, sheep, and beasts of burden may find in them a remedy against sickness, pestilence, sores, injuries, spells, the poison of snakes, and the bites of other venomous and nonvenomous creatures. And may they bring protection against diabolical illusions, machinations, and deceptions wherever they are kept or carried, or with whatever arrangement is made of them: that with sheaves of good works and through the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary whose Feast of the Assumption we celebrate, we may deserve to be lifted up to heaven. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy son, who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God unto endless ages. Amen.
The blessing of herbs and fruits has also led to the lovely custom of giving and receiving baskets of fruit on the Feast of the Assumption, a custom which was especially popular in Sicily.
Blessing of Nature
Just as Mary's assumption into heaven signifies her purity of body and soul, so too does it remind us of her freedom from the curses of the Fall, such as having to live by the sweat of one's brow on a land that yields only thorns and thistles (Gen. 3.18,19). It is perhaps for this reason that the Feast or the Octave of the Assumption was a favorite time for blessing the scene of man's labors,
especially those related to the production of food. In western Europe, for example, fields would often be blessed by the parish priest, while in America and Latin countries Assumption Day is traditionally the occasion for blessing the fishing fleets of coastal towns. Also tying into this theme of nature is the German and Austrian
Blessing of the Fleet, a Rhode Island Port, ca. 1950s
time Mary is invoked for assistance or thanked for the autumn harvest of grains. This period lasts from Assumption Day until September 15, the Feast of the Seven custom of Our Lady's Thirty Days (Frauendreissiger), during which Sorrow of the Blessed Virgin. Legend states that nature is particularly benign during this time: snakes do not bite, wild animals do not attack, and food picked within the thirty days is especially wholesome. Finally, parts of England and Ireland observe Our Lady's Health Bathing, where bathing in rivers, lakes, the ocean, or any natural body of water is considered particularly good for one's health.
5. Michaelmas (September 29th)
The anniversary of the dedication of St. Michael the Archangel's basilica outside of Rome by Pope Boniface II in 530 A.D. affords the Church the opportunity to honor one of its most significant saints. Tradition holds that Michael is the heavenly spirit who cast Satan and his minions into Hell after their revolt from God. As the "Governor of Heaven" (Praepositus Paradisi), he is ranked only below the Mother of God in the Confiteor. The Roman church also identifies him as the angel whom St. John saw in heaven standing near the altar of God and offering the prayers of the saints like an odor of sweetness (see the offertory blessing of incense at a High Mass). He is also singled out in the Requiem Mass as the banner-bearer who leads the departed to purgatory and heaven (see offertory prayers). Finally, Michael's victory over the devil's army renders him not only the patron saint of souls, but of Christian soldiers. All of this leads to the conclusion that Michael is one of our most potent allies and helps us see why the Roman rite has traditionally venerated him with such affection and respect.
Consequently, Michaelmas (pronounced "mikk-el-mes") was one of the great public holidays and religious feasts of early and medieval Europe. Saint Michael's parades, Michael's fairs, Michael's Plays, etc. would in many places constitute the climax of autumn harvest celebrations. Michaelmas also coincided with the "quarter days" in Northern Europe, one of the four times in the year when free men would sit in court, make laws, and pay rents. It was also a good day for enjoying wine (see Foods page).
6. The Feast of Christ the King (last Sunday of October)
Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1929 as a solemn affirmation of our Lord's kingship over every human society. Pius saw the proliferation of secularism, particularly in government, as one of the greatest heresies of our time, a heresy that leads not only to an atrophy of faith but to a decay of civilization. Pius' intention in combatting this pernicious error is aptly summed up in the stanzas of the Vespers hymn for today, Te saeculorum Principem:
May heads of nations fear Thy name
And spread Thy honor through their lands,
Our nation's laws, our arts proclaim
The beauty of Thy just commands.
Let kings the crown and sceptre hold
As pledge of Thy supremacy;
And Thou all lands, all tribes enfold
In one fair realm of charity.
The Feast of Christ the King is therefore an important holyday that bears poignantly on our contemporary political world (it is also, as we mentioned elsewhere, a significant part of this eschatological time of year.) The chief practice Pius XI wished to be observed on this day was making an Act of Dedication of the Human Race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a prayer which can be found in old editions of the Raccolta and in the current Enchiridion of indulgences (the Church continues to grant a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, for the devout recitation of this prayer on the Feast).
However, because the feast is less than a hundred years old, no other distinctive customs or rituals have yet accrued to its observance. This leaves a vacuum into which we can offer only the most unauthoritative suggestions. In our opinion, for example, wreath customs similar to those from the Feast of Corpus Christi would be a good way of observing the day, as a wreath betokens the supreme symbol of kingship, the crown. Likewise, a lamb dinner would hearken to the vision given in today's Introit (there is even a blessing for lamb from the Roman ritual that could be used). In any case, the Feast should be used as an occasion for solemnly affirming Christ as the King of our heart and of our country.
7. All Saints' Day & All Souls' Days (November 1st & 2nd)
Praying for the Dead
In the Roman liturgical books, the celebration of All Saints' Day ends in the afternoon. When it is time for evening Vespers, the office for the Dead is recited in preparation for All Souls' Day. Those who do not use the breviary have followed the same pattern as well. Beginning at sunset on All Saints' Day, families gather in one room, extinguish all lights except the blessed candle that had been saved since Candlemas Day, and pray for the souls of their departed loved ones. In Brittany a group of men would actually go from farm to farm at night, shouting: "Christians awake; pray to God for the souls of the dead, and say the Pater and Ave for them." The household would reply "Amen" and rise in prayer.
Visiting the Dead
The laudable custom of visiting the dead may begin as early as the afternoon of All Saints' Day and may continue as late as the following week, but the most popular time is during All Souls' Day itself. Families travel, often at great distance and in their best apparel, to visit the graves of friends and relatives, lighting candles, bringing flowers, and kneeling there in prayer. Processions can be conducted where the priest leads the congregation in litanies for the dead and blesses the graves with holy water. Often times these graves are decorated and groomed the week before, so that when the day of commemoration comes, everything is suitably prepared.
The Day of the Dead is also a traditional time for penance and charity. Giving food to the poor, for example, is a popular corporal work of mercy on All Souls' Day (see Foods page).
The "Octave" of the Dead
The Church has never instituted an octave for All Souls' Day (though prior to 1955 it had one for All Saints' Day). Nevertheless, popular piety has extended all of the afore-mentioned customs over an eight day period. The Church has encouraged this in at least one way: it grants a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, to anyone who visits cemeteries from November 1 to 8.
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