Thursday, April 21, 2016

Ascension and Bach: another lost opportunity

J.S. Bach
Another meeting of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, and another missed opportunity to restore Ascension, along with Epiphany and Corpus Christi, to the days they have occupied for umpteen centuries, the days they are celebrated in St Peter's in Rome, and the days they are celebrated even by many non-Catholic Christians. And to the days they are celebrated in the Extroardinary Form of the Roman Rite.

On Sunday 8th May, Oxford Bach Soloists are doing something rather fun: they are singing the two Cantatas written by J.S. Bach for the Sunday after Ascension. Bach wrote masses of cantatas for liturgical use, and they correspond to the liturgical calendar, with references to the readings and proper prayers. He did this for the German Lutherans, and the German Lutherans had essentially the same calendar, the same readings, and even many of the same prayers, as the ancient Latin Missal. The same is true of the Book of Common Prayer, where, with the odd theological tweak, you'll see Cranmer's translations of ancient Latin collects on the very same days as they are used in the Extraordinary Form.

So Bach wrote these particular cantatas for 'Exaudi Sunday': the Sunday 'within the Octave of the Ascension' (in the days Ascension had an octave), whose Introit, the first prayer of the Mass, starts with the words 'Exaudi, Domine, vocem meam': 'Hear, O Lord, my voice!' The Epistle, from 1 Peter 4, is an exhortation to persevere in good works. The Gospel, from John 15, is about how the Holy Ghost at Pentecost will give testimony, with the warning that the Apostles will be ejected from the Synagogues, and those killing them will believe that they are doing a good work before God.

The collection of these texts in one liturgical celebration is, like so much of what inspired Bach, Catholic, for all the theological differences between Lutherans and Catholics in his day. In important ways it is Catholic liturgical spirituality and thinking which form the backdrop to some of his finest work. But these liturgical artefacts are no longer available as a coherent whole to Catholics attending the Ordinary Form. In those vanishingly rare places where Introits are sung in the Ordinary Form, 'Exaudi Domine' is given for the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time, whose relationship with Easter depends on how early or late Easter is. The lections have been exiled from the Sunday cycles altogether.

But in England and Wales, the very concept of the Sunday after Ascension has now been abolished. We are in the embarassing situation of saying to people like the Bach soloists: well, these texts used to be used in Catholic worship; the idea of a Sunday to pause for reflection between the Ascension and Pentecost used to be one we had in the Catholic liturgy; we used to have some continuity with this historical, cultural, and spiritual reality Bach is writing this wonderful music about.

The idea of using these kinds of cultural hooks to engage in some form of subtle evangelisation is associated with Pope Benedict, but it was Pope Francis, in Amoris laetitia, who wrote (208):

Nor should we underestimate the pastoral value of traditional religious practices. To give just one example: I think of Saint Valentine’s Day; in some countries, commercial interests are quicker to see the potential of this celebration than are we in the Church.

As good as his word, every year, on St Valentine's Day, Pope Francis gives a blessing in St Peter's Square for young couples. But wait! When is St Valentine's Day? It does not exist in the 1970 Calendar.

As I have noted on this blog before, Bugnini consciously worked against traditional religious practices, which had found their way into popular culture, because he thought of them as a distraction from the liturgy. In the 1956 reform of Holy Week many traditional practices became impossible, and others were left stranded in the wrong place: an example being the blessing of eggs in Poland, which still happens on the afternoon of the Saturday of Holy Week, even though this is now before the Vigil, and not after it.

The process of the liturgy seeping into culture, creating cultural opportunities for evangelisation, is the work of centuries. Destroying these connections is the work of moments.

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  1. D'accord. A pointless change. Even the BBC recognises Ascension Thursday. But having made the change it's hard to see how the bishops could back on it. Any ideas?

  2. Well a few years ago the Bishops were considering reversing the change:

  3. There was a time in the first half of 20th century, too, when there was a tendency to transfer permanently some major feasts to Sundays. The Roman Antiphonal (1912) has St. John Baptist on the IV Sunday of June. In some places the Epiphany was transferred.

  4. They tried to put the djinn back in the bottle with Friday abstinence