Knights and Emperors in Papal Matins of Christmas

christmas mas
Midnight Mass of the Nativity at Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini in Rome. (Photo courtesy of Selina Fang, Juventutem London)

 

In L’année liturgique, Dom Prosper Guéranger recounts what must have been one of the most sublime ceremonies in Christendom: Papal Matins. The ceremonial calls for a knight to read the fifth lesson and for the Holy Roman Emperor himself to read the seventh, bearing witness to the organic whole that was mediæval society.

The Divine Infant, who is to be born amongst us, is the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace, whose government is upon his shoulders (Isa. ix 6), as we shall sing to-morrow, with the Church. We have already seen how the God of Hosts has honoured this power of Emmanuel, by leading powerful Nations to acknowledge him to lay in the Crib of Bethlehem as the Lord to whom they owed their adoring fealty.

The same recognition of that Babe as the Mighty God is made by the ceremony to which we allude. The Sovereign Pontiff, the Vicar of our Emmanuel, blesses, in his name, a Sword and Helmet, which are to be sent to some Catholic warrior who has deserved well of the Christian world. In a letter addressed to Queen Mary of England and to Philip, her husband, Cardinal Pope gives an explanation of this solemn rite. The sword is sent to some Prince, whom the Vicar of Christ wishes to honour in the name of Jesus, who is King: for the Angel said to Mary: The Lord will give unto him the Throne of David his father (St Luke i 32). It is from him alone that the power of the sword comes (Rom. xiii 3, 4); for God said to Cyrus: I have girded thee (with the sword(Isa. xiv 1, 5); and the Psalmist thus speaks to the Christ of God: Gird thy Sword upon thy thigh, O thou most Mighty! (Ps. xliv 4) And because the Sword should not be drawn save in the cause of justice, it is for that reason that a Sword is blessed on this Night, in the midst of which rises, born unto us, the divine Sun of Justice. On the Helmet, which is both the ornament and protection of the head, there is worked, in pearls, the Dove, which is the emblem of the Holy Ghost; and this to teach him who wears it that it is not from passion or ambition that he must use his sword, but solely under the guidance of the divine Spirit, and from a motive of spreading the Kingdom of Christ.

[… During the second nocturne, after the psalms have been sung] the Book of the Sermons of the Holy Fathers is opened, and a passage is read from one of those magnificent discourses of St Leo the Great, which enraptured the people of Rome in the fifth century.

At Rome, if there be in the Holy City the Knight, who has received the Helmet and Sword, blessed, as we have described, by the Sovereign Pontiff, the fifth Lesson is given to him to sing, because it speaks of the great Battle between Christ and Satan in the glorious mystery of the Incarnation. Whilst the Choir is singing the Responsory O magnum mysterium, the Knight is taken by the Master of Ceremonies to the Pope. Standing before the Holy Father, he draws his sword, thrice sets its point on the ground, thrice brandishes it in the air, and then wipes the blade upon his left arm. He is then taken to the Ambo, or reading-desk, takes off his helmet, and, having vested the Cope over his armour, he sings the Lesson. These ceremonies of our holy Mother, the Church of Rome, were drawn up in days when might was not right, and brute force was made subservient to moral power and principle. The Christian Warrior, cased in his steel armour, was resolved, as indeed he was bound, never to draw his sword save in the cause of Christ, the conqueror of Satan: was there anything strange in his expressing this by a sacred ceremony?

[… After the third nocturne] are read the beginnings of the three Gospels which are said in the three Masses of Christmas Day. To each portion of these Gospels is appended a passage from a Homily by one of the Holy Fathers.

The first of the three is that of St Luke, and the Homily given is that of St Gregory the Great. It relates the publishing of the Emperor Augustus’s edict, commanding a census of the whole world. This seventh Lesson, according to the Ceremonial of the Roman Church, is to be sung by the Emperor, if he happen to be in Rome at the time; and this is done in order to honour the Imperial power, whose decrees were the occasion of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, and so fulfilling the designs of God, which he had revealed to the ancient Prophets. The Emperor is led to the Pope, in the same manner as the Knight who had to sing the fifth lesson; he puts on the Cope; two Cardinal-Deacons gird him with the sword, and go with him to the Ambo. The Lesson being concluded, the Emperor again goes before the Pope, and kisses his foot, as being the Vicar of the Christ whom he has just announced. This ceremony was observed in 1468 by the Emperor Frederic III, before the then Pope, Paul II.

(Translation by Dom Laurence Shepherd, OSB)

L’Enfant divin qui va naître est le Dieu fort, le Prince de la Paix ; il porte la marque de la royauté sur son épaule, comme nous le chanterons demain avec l’Eglise. Pour honorer cette puissance de l’Emmanuel, déjà, ainsi que nous l’avons vu, le Seigneur des armées a amené aux pieds de la Crèche les deux grands chefs de la nation franque, Clovis et Charlemagne ; et voici que le Pontife suprême, le Vicaire de l’Emmanuel, bénit en son nom, dans cette nuit même, une épée et un casque destinés à quelque guerrier catholique dont le bras victorieux a bien mérité de la république chrétienne. Cette épée, dit le grand Cardinal Polus expliquant ce rite dans une lettre célèbre adressée à Philippe II et à la reine Marie, son épouse, est remise à un prince que le Vicaire du Christ veut honorer, au nom du Christ lui-même qui est Roi ; car l’Ange dit à Marie : Dieu lui donnera le trône de David son père. C’est de lui seul que vient la puissance du glaive; car Dieu dit à Cyrus : Je t’ai ceint de l’épée; et le Psalmiste dit au Christ : Ceignez-vous du glaive, ô prince très vaillant ! Mais le glaive ne doit se tirer que pour la justice; et c’est pour cela qu’on le bénit en cette nuit, au milieu de laquelle se lève le divin Soleil de justice. Sur le casque, ornement et protection de la tête, est représentée par un travail de perles l’image de l’Esprit-Saint, afin que le prince connaisse que ce n’est point d’après le mouvement de ses passions, ni pour son ambition, qu’il doit faire usage du glaive, mais uniquement dans la sagesse du divin Esprit et pour étendre le royaume du Christ sur la terre.

[…] A Rome, si le chevalier auquel ont été destinés le casque et l’épée, qui ont été bénits avant les Matines par le Souverain Pontife, se trouve présent, c’est lui-même qui doit lire la cinquième Leçon, parce qu’il y est parlé du grand combat du Christ contre le démon, dans le glorieux mystère de l’Incarnation. Pendant le chant du Répons O Magnum mysterium, les maîtres des cérémonies le conduisent aux pieds du Pape, en présence duquel il tire son épée, en touche trois fois la terre avec la pointe, la brandit trois fois d’une façon martiale, et enfin l’essuie sur son bras gauche. Il est ensuite conduit au pupitre, ôte son casque, se revêt du pluvial par-dessus son armure, et lit enfin la Leçon. Telles sont les dispositions du Cérémonial de la sainte Eglise Romaine, dressé à une époque où la force matérielle aimait à s’incliner devant l’idée morale, où le chevalier bardé de fer attestait qu’il voulait marcher à la suite du Christ, vainqueur de Satan.

[…] On lit ensuite successivement le commencement des divers textes du saint Evangile qui seront lus plus tard en entier, à chacune des trois Messes par lesquelles l’Eglise honore la Naissance du Sauveur. Les saints Docteurs commentent ces sublimes mystères dans leurs Homélies.

Le premier texte, qui est de saint Luc, est expliqué par saint Grégoire le Grand. Il rapporte l’édit de l’empereur Auguste pour le dénombrement de l’empire romain. Cette septième Leçon, suivant le Cérémonial de la sainte Eglise Romaine, doit être lue par l’Empereur lui-même, s’il se  trouve  à Rome,  afin d’honorer la puissance impériale dont les décrets, appelant à Bethléhem Marie et Joseph, procurèrent l’accomplissement des volontés du Très-Haut, manifestées par les Prophètes. L’Empereur est conduit devant le Pape, comme le chevalier qui a chanté la cinquième Leçon; on le revêt du pluvial; deux Cardinaux-Diacres lui ceignent l’épée et l’accompagnent au pupitre. La Leçon étant lue, l’Empereur se présente de nouveau devant le Pontife et lui baise le pied, comme au Vicaire  du Christ qu’il vient d’annoncer. Ce cérémonial fut encore observé, en 1468, par l’Empereur Frédéric III, en présence du Pape Paul II.

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