The Liturgical Year
Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B.
The Cycle of holy mother Church brings before us to-day, the Lion, who, together with the Man, the Ox and the Eagle, stands before the Throne of God.(Ez. 1:10) It was on this day, that Mark ascended from earth to heaven, radiant with his triple aureola of Evangelist, Apostle, and Martyr.
As the preaching made to Israel had its four great representatives,—Isaias, Jeremias, Ezechiel, and Daniel; so, likewise, would God have the New Covenant to be embodied in the four Gospels, which were to make known to the world the Life and teachings of his divine Son. The Holy Fathers tell us, that the Gospels are like the four streams which watered the Garden of pleasure,(Gen. 2:10) and that this Garden was a figure of the future Church. The first of the Evangelists,— the first to register the actions and words of our Redeemer,—is Matthew, whose star will rise in September; the second is Mark, whose brightness gladdens us to-day; the third is Luke, whose rays will shine upon us in October; the fourth is John, whom we have already seen in Bethlehem, at the Crib of our Emmanuel.
Mark was the beloved disciple of Peter; he was the brilliant satellite of the Sun of the Church. He wrote bis Gospel at Rome, under the eyes of the Prince of the Apostles. The Church was already in possession of the history given by Matthew; but the Faithful of Rome wished their own Apostle to narrate what he had witnessed. Peter refused to write it himself, but he bade his disciple take up his pen, and the Holy Ghost guided the hand of the new Evangelist. Mark follows the account given by Matthew; he abridges it, and yet he occasionally adds a word, or an incident, which plainly prove to us that Peter, who had seen and heard all, was his living and venerated authority. One would have almost expected, that the new Evangelist would pass over in silence the history of his master’s fall, or, at least, have said as little as possible about it; but no,—the Gospel written by Mark is more detailed on Peter’s denial than is that of Matthew; and as we read it, we cannot help feeling, that the tears, elicited by Jesus’ look, when in the house of Caiphas, were flowing down the Apostle’s cheeks, as he described the sad event. Mark’s work being finished, Peter examined it and gave it his sanction; the several Churches joyfully received this second account of the mysteries of the world’s redemption, and the name of Mark was made known throughout the whole earth.
Matthew begins his Gospel with the human genealogy of the Son of God, and has thus realized the prophetic type of the Man; Mark fulfils that of the Lion, for he commences with the preaching of John the Baptist, whose office as precursor of the Messias, had been foretold by Isaias, where he spoke of the Voice of one crying in the wilderness,—as the Lion that makes the desert echo with his roar.
Mark having written his Gospel, was next to labour as an Apostle. Peter sent him, first, to Aquileia, where he founded an important Church: but this was not enough for an Evangelist. When the time designed by God came, and Egypt,—the source of countless errors,—was to receive the truth, and the haughty and noisy Alexandria was to be raised to the dignity of the second Church of Christendom,—the second See of Peter,—Mark was sent by his master to effect this great work. By his preaching, the word of salvation took root, grew up, and produced fruit in that most infidel of nations; and the authority of Peter was thus marked, though in different degrees, in the three great Cities of the Empire: Rome, Alexandria and Antioch.
St. Mark may be called the first founder of the Monastic life, by his instituting, in Alexandria itself, what were called the Therapeutes. To him, also, may be justly attributed, the origin of that celebrated Christian school, of Alexandria, which was so flourishing, even in the 2nd Century.
But glorious as were these works of Peter’s disciple,—the Evangelist and Apostle Mark was also to receive the dignity of Martyr. The success of his preaching excited against him the fury of the idolaters. They were keeping a feast in honour of Serapis; and this gave them an opportunity which they were not likely to lose. They seized Mark, treated him most cruelly, and cast him into prison. It was there that our Risen Lord appeared to him, during the night, and addressed him in these words, which afterwards formed the Arms of the Republic of Venice: “Peace be to thee, Mark, my Evangelist!” To which the disciple answered: “Lord “—for such were his feelings of delight and gratitude, that he could say but that one word, as it was with Magdalene, when she saw Jesus on the morning of the Resurrection. On the following day, Mark was put to death by the pagans. He had fulfilled his mission on earth, and heaven opened to receive the Lion, who was to occupy near the throne of the Ancient of days the place allotted to him, as shown to the Prophet of Patmos, in his sublime vision.(Apoc. 4)
In the 9th Century, the West was enriched with the Relics of St. Mark. They were taken to Venice; and, under the protection of the sacred Lion, there began for that City a long period of glory. Faith in so great a Patron achieved wonders; and from the midst of islets and lagoons there sprang into existence a City of beauty and power. Byzantine Art raised up the imposing and gorgeous Church, which was the palladium of the Queen of the Seas ; and the new Republic stamped its coinage with the Lion of St. Mark. Happy would it have been for Venice, had she persevered in her loyalty to Rome, and in the ancient severity of her morals!
Saint Mark’s Procession
This day is honoured in the Liturgy by what is called Saint Mark’s Procession. The term, however, is not a correct one, inasmuch as a Procession was a privilege peculiar to the 25th of April previously to the institution of our Evangelist’s feast, which, even so late as the 6th Century, had no fixed day in the Roman Church. The real name of this Procession is, The Greater Litanies. The word Litany means Supplication, and is applied to the religious rite of singing certain chants whilst proceeding from place to place, and this in order to propitiate heaven. The two Greek words Kyne eleison (Lord have mercy on us) were also called Litany, as likewise were the invocations which were afterwards added to that cry for Mercy, and which now form a Liturgical prayer used by the Church on certain solemn occasions.
The Greater Litanies, (or Processions,) are so called to distinguish them from the Minor Litanies, that is, Processions of less importance as far as the solemnity and concourse of the Faithful were concerned. We gather from an expression of St. Gregory the Great, that it was an ancient custom in the Roman Church to celebrate, once each year, a Greater Litany, at which all the Clergy and people assisted. This holy Pontiff chose the 25th of April as the fixed day for this Procession, and appointed the Basilica of St. Peter as the Station.
Several writers on the Liturgy have erroneously confounded this institution with the Processions prescribed by St. Gregory for times of public calamity. It existed long before his time, and all that he had to do with it was the fixing it to the 25th of April. It is quite independent of the Feast of St. Mark, which was instituted at a much later period. If the 25th of April occur during Easter Week, the Procession takes place on that day, (unless it be Easter Sunday,) but the Feast of the Evangelist is not kept till after the Octave.
The question naturally presents itself,—why did St. Gregory choose the 20th of April for a Procession and Station, in which everything reminds us of compunction and penance, and which would seem so out of keeping with the joyous Season of Easter? The first to give a satisfactory answer to this difficulty, was Canon Moretti, a learned Liturgiologist of last century. In a dissertation of great erudition, he proves that in the 5th, and probably even in the 4th, century, the 25th of April was observed at Pome as a day of great solemnity. The Faithful went, on that day, to the Basilica of St. Peter, in order to celebrate the anniversary of the first entrance of the Prince of the Apostles into Rome, upon which he thus conferred the inalienable privilege of being the Capital of Christendom. It is from that day that we count the twenty-five years, two months and some days that St. Peter reigned as Bishop of Rome. The Sacramentary of St. Leo gives us the Mass of this Solemnity, which afterwards ceased to be kept. St. Gregory, to whom we are mainly indebted for the arrangement of the Roman Liturgy, was anxious to perpetuate the memory of a day, which gave to Rome her grandest glory. He, therefore, ordained that the Church of St. Peter should be the Station of the Great Litany, which was always to be celebrated on that auspicious day. The 25th of April comes so frequently during the Octave of Easter, that it could not be kept as a Feast, properly so called, in honour of St. Peter’s entrance into Rome ; St. Gregory, therefore, adopted the only means left of commemorating the great event.
But there was a striking contrast resulting from this institution, of which the holy Pontiff was fully aware, but which he could not avoid:—it was the contrast between the joys of Paschal Time, and the penitential sentiments wherewith the Faithful should assist at the Procession and Station of the Great Litany. Laden as we are with the manifold graces of this holy Season, and elated with our Paschal joys, —we must sober our gladness by reflecting on the motives which led the Church to cast this hour of shadow over our Easter sunshine. After all, we are sinners, with much to be sorry for, and much to fear; we have to avert those scourges which are due to the crimes of mankind ; we have, by humbling ourselves and invoking the intercession of the Mother of God and the Saints, to obtain the health of our bodies, and the preservation of the fruits of the earth; we have to offer atonement to Divine justice for our own and the world’s pride, sinful indulgences, and insubordination. Let us enter into ourselves, and humbly confess that our own share in exciting God’s indignation is great; and our poor prayers, united with those of our holy Mother the Church, will obtain mercy for the guilty, and for ourselves who are of the number.
A day, then, like this, of reparation to God’s offended Majesty, would naturally suggest the necessity of joining some exterior penance to the interior disi positions of contrition which filled the hearts of Christians. Abstinence from flesh meat has always been observed, on this day, at Rome; and when the Roman Liturgy was established in France, by Pepin and Charlemagne, the Great Litany of the 25th of April was, of course, celebrated, and the Abstinence kept, by the Faithful of that country. A Council of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 836, enjoined the additional obligation of resting from servile work on this day : the same enactment is found in the Capitularia of Charles the Bald. As regards Fasting,—properly so called,— being contrary to the spirit of Paschal Time, it would seem never to have been observed on this day, at least not generally. Amalarius, who lived in the 9 th Century, asserts that it was not then practised even in Rome.
During the Procession, the Litany of the Saints is sung, followed by several Versicles and Prayers. The Mass of the Station is celebrated in the Lenten Rite, that is, without the Gloria in excelsis, and in purple Vestments. We have inserted the Litany of the Saints in the following volume, for the Rogation Days.
We take this opportunity of protesting against the negligence of Christians on this subject. Even persons who have the reputation of being spiritual, think nothing of being absent from the Litanies said on St. Mark’s and the Rogation Days. One would have thought, that when the Holy See took from these Days the obligation of Abstinence, the Faithful would be so much the more earnest to join in the duty still left,—the duty of Prayer. The people’s presence at the Litanies is taken for granted: and it is simply absurd, that a religious rite of public reparation should be one from which almost all should keep away. We suppose that these Christians will acknowledge the importance of the petitions made in the Litanies ; but God is not obliged to hear them in favour of such as ought to make them and yet do not. This is one of the many instances which might be brought forward of the strange delusions into which private and isolated devotion are apt to degenerate. When St. Charles JBorromeo first took possession of his See of Milan, he found this negligence among his people, and that they left the Clergy to go through the Litanies of the 25th of April by themselves. He assisted at them himself, and walked bare-footed in the Procession. The people soon followed the sainted Pastor’s example.
Let us return to the holy Evangelist, and listen to the Churches of the East and West speaking his praise. We will begin with a Hymn composed, in the 9th Century, by St. Paulinus, one of St. Mark’s successors as Bishop of Aquileia.
Already throughout the whole earth there brightly gleams the Light, which shines from the Fathers Throne :— the Light which is the fount and source and splendour of the golden light:—the Light that never fails, beautifies heaven, and expels darkness from the world.
Blessed Mark, the Evangelical teacher, received into his heart a lovely ray of this sparkling sacred Light. He became as a Lamp reflecting that great Light, and putting to flight the gloom of this world by his brilliant flame.
He was one of the seven fair pillars, and one of the seven golden candlesticks, whose brightness shines as a star throughout the universe. He was one of the foundations that support the lofty structure of the Church.
He was one of the favoured living creatures seen of old by the holy Prophet Ezechiel, and by John, the Disciple that leaned on Jesus’ breast. Mark was prefigured under the type of a Lion, whose wild roar is heard in the Wilderness.
He was sent by blessed Peter to Aquileia, that city of ancient fame. There he sowed the seed of the divine Word, and, with joy, garnered into heaven a hundredfold of fruit.
There he speedily raised a Christian Church. He gave it solidity of unshaken faith by building it on that faultless Rock, against which the billows, and storms, and floods, vent their rage in vain.
The soldier of Christ returned, wearing a wreath of fair lilies, with palm and laurel and roses: and thus crowned, he joyfully entered Rome, led thither by Christ.
This done, he sets out for Alexandria, and, filled with the Holy Ghost, traverses the ever fertile land of Egypt, preaching that the Only Begotten Son of the Father Almighty had come into the world for the world’s salvation.
A cruel mob, enraged against the soldier of Christ, prepared various torments for him: he was bound with chains, pierced with arrows, and, after his holy flesh was torn by scourges, he was thrust into a dismal dungeon.
Mark was the first that taught Alexandria to know the true God. He there built a Church, which he dedicated to Christ, consecrated by the shedding of his own blood, and fortified by the solidity of holy faith.
Glory, praise and empire be to the Father! To thee, O Jesus, who reignest in heaven above, and to the Holy Ghost, be honour and power! To the undivided Trinity be adoration paid for endless ages! Amen.
The Greek Church celebrates the memory of the holy Evangelist, in the Menaea: we extract the following stanzas.
Die XXV Aprilis
Let us, O ye Faithful, worthily honour the sacred writer, the great patron of Egypt. Let us thus celebrate his praise: O Mark, filled with heavenly wisdom, lead us, by thy teaching and prayers, to the life where tempests rage not: lead us, for thou art an Apostle.
Thou wast the companion of the Vessel of Election in his travels, and, with him, thou didst traverse Macedonia. Coming, afterwards, to Rome, thou wast Peter’s willing interpreter: and after bravely fighting God’s battles, thou didst rest in Egypt.
By thy Gospel, refreshing as purest snow, thou gavest life to souls that were parched with thirst. Therefore does Alexandria unite with us, this day, in solemnly celebrating thy feast, 0 holy Mark, and in venerating thy relics.
Most blessed Mark! thou drankest of the torrent of delight. As a most rich river of peace, gushing from Paradise, thou wateredst the face of the earth with the streams of thy evangelical preaching, and sprinkledst the deep-rooted trees of the Church with divine teaching.
Most praiseworthy Mark! heretofore Moses drove the Egyptians into the depths of the sea: but thou, wise servant of the Lord, didst draw them forth from the sea of error, by the divine power of Him who once dwelt in that land, and, with a high arm, destroyed the works of their hands.
O saintly Mark! thou pen of a wise scrivener that writeth swiftly! thou didst write admirably of the Incarnation of Christ, and gloriously proclaimedst the words of eternal life: in that same may there be written the names of them that celebrate and honour thy blessed memory. Pray to the Lord that this may be.
O praiseworthy Mark! thy Gospel went preaching Christ throughout the whole earth, enlightening it, as a sun, with the rays of faith, whereas before it was covered with the darkness of idolatry. Pray now to God, that he grant peace and abundant mercy unto our souls.
O Mark, Apostle and Messenger of God! thou preachedst the Gospel to the land, where the folly of impiety once reigned : thou dispelledst the darkness of the Egyptians by the light of thy words. Pray now to God, that he grant us peace and abundant mercy.
Disciple and adopted son of Peter, the master of wisdom, —thou, O most praiseworthy Mark, wast made the interpreter of the mysteries of Christ, and co-heir with him in glory.
Thy sound went forth into all the earth, and, as David sang in his prophecy, the power of thy words, reaching wonderfully unto the ends of the earth, brought lis the tidings of salvation and regeneration.
O most holy Mark! thou pouredst forth the sweetness of piety by thy words, for as the mountain of God bright on all sides with light, thou wast admirably resplendent with the grace of the divine Sun.
O blessed Apostle! thou wast a fountain springing from the house of the Lord, giving to thirsting souls the abundant waters of the Holy Ghost, and teaching them to change their barrenness for good works.
Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, admirably initiated thee into the knowledge he possessed, that thou mightest write the holy Gospel, and become a minister of grace; for thou hast made the light of the knowledge of God to beam upon us.
With the grace of the Holy Ghost received from on high, thou, O Apostle and most praiseworthy Mark, didst destroy the sophisms of human eloquence; as a fisherman, thou castedst the net, by preaching the holy Gospel, and didst draw all nations unto the Lord.
Thou wast the worthy disciple of the Prince of the Apostles; by uniting with him in his declaring Christ to be the Son of God, thou didst confirm on the Rock of truth them that were tossed about by error. O Confirm me too upon this Rock, O thou wise Apostle! Guide thou the feet of my soul, that, being delivered from the snares of the enemy, I may without hindrance praise thee: for thou gavest light to all men by thy teaching of the holy Gospel.
Thou, O Mark, art the mystic Lion, which, with the Man, the Ox and the Eagle, art yoked to the chariot whereon the King of lyings pursues his triumphant course through the earth. Ezechiel, the Prophet of the Ancient Testament, and John, the Prophet of the New Law, saw thee standing nigh the Throne of Jehovah. How magnificent is thy glory! Thou art the historian of the Word made Flesh, and thou publishest to all generations his claims to the love and adoration of mankind. The Church reveres thy writings, and bids us receive them as inspired by the Holy Ghost.
It was thou that, on the glad Day of Easter, announcedst to us the Resurrection of our Lord: pray for us, O holy Evangelist, that this divine Mystery may work its effects within us; and that our hearts, like thine own, may be firm in their love of our Risen Jesus, that so we may faithfully follow him in that New Life, which he gave us by his Resurrection. Ask him to give us his Peace, as he did to his Apostles when he showed himself to them in the Cenacle, and as he did to thyself when he appeared to thee in thy prison.
Thou wast the beloved disciple of Peter; Rome was honoured by thy presence: pray for the successor of Peter, thy master; pray for the Church of Rome, against which the wildest storm is now venting its fury. Pray to the Lion of the Tribe of Juda: he seems to sleep; and yet we know that he has but to show himself, and the victory is gained.
Apostle of Egypt! what has become of thy flourishing Church of Alexandria, Peter’s second See, the hallowed scene of thy Martyrdom? Its very ruins have perished. The scorching blast of heresy made Egypt a waste, and God, in his anger, let loose upon her the torrent of Mahometanism. Twelve centuries have passed since then, and she is still a slave to error and tyranny:—is it to be thus with her till the coming of the Judge? May we not hope that the great movement now preparing may be the dawn of her conversion? Pray, we beseech thee, for the countries thou didst so zealously evangelize, but whose deserts are now the image of her loss of Faith.
And can Venice be forgotten by thee, O thou her dearest Patron? Her glory is fallen, it may be for ever; but her people still call themselves thine, as did the Venetians of old. Let her not swerve from the Faith; bless her with prosperity; obtain for her that she may be purified by her trials, and return to the God who has chastised her in his justice. A nation that is loyal to the Church must prosper: let, then, Venice return to her former fidelity to Rome, and reject the evil counsels that are now proposed to her; and who knows but that the Sovereign Ruler of the world, being appeased by thy powerful intercession, may make thy Venice what she was before she rebelled against the Holy See, and tarnished the glories she won at Lepanto!