Notes on the Matins readings and responsories for Quinquagesima week

Abraham, Sarah and Hagar
Foster Bible 1897
Source: wikicommons

This week the responsories take us through the stories of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 12 - 26); the Scriptural reading sequence, though, stops on Tuesday at Genesis 14, and doesn't resume again until the Second Sunday of Lent, at Genesis 27.

The weekday Patristic readings

The use of Patristic readings at Matins of three readings instead of Scriptural ones is standard in the modern office for higher class days such as Ash Wednesday.

The use of Patristic sermons on the Gospel of the day instead of Scriptural texts on Lent weekdays, though, was a tenth century innovation that gradually spread, and was eventually entrenched in the post-Tridentine breviaries. 

Oddly though, new responsories were not composed to match the change: instead they mostly continue to reflect the (previous) Scriptural reading sequence from Genesis, this week focusing on the stories of Abraham and Isaac.

A case for returning to the older tradition?

The use of Patristic sermons on Lent weekdays was, perhaps, a logical extension of the continuing clericalisation of the Office, including the addition of collects from the Mass of the day, and the eighth or ninth century move to replace the reading of the New Testament specified by the Rule for the Third Nocturn of Sundays, with Patristic readings on the Sunday Gospel.

But the daily reading of at least Genesis to Exodus in the pre/Lent period seems ancient and near universal at least in the West: St Ambrose's commentaries on Genesis used in the second Nocturn, on Noah, Abraham, Jacob and Joseph are all products of his regime of daily sermons during Lent; and Caesarius of Arles (more or less contemporary to St Benedict) also left a series of sermons  on Genesis for use in this period.

The change to the Office did not, of course, necessarily mean abandonment of the traditional reading cycle: in a monastery, the Scriptural sequence could, at least in theory, be maintained through lectio divina, refectory, and evening readings (though the evidence on whether it actually was maintained this way in places where the Patristic reading were inserted is ambiguous).  The retention of the Genesis 'historia' responsories might perhaps have been regarded as a way of assisting the assimilation of this material even though it was mostly being read outside the Office.

The responsories

Several of the responsories for this week  (Sunday no 3, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9) actually relate more to the readings that would presumably have occurred next week, so I will discuss them in that context.

Instead let me provide you with the texts of some of the responsories most relevant to this week for your consideration.

They highlight Abraham's obedience, and the various promises made to Abraham.

The first tells of his call to leave all and follow the instructions of God:

Sunday no 1: Genesis 12:1-2
. Locútus est / Dóminus ad Abram, dicens: † Egrédere de terra tua, et de cognatióne tua, et veni in terram quam monstrávero tibi: * Et fáciam te in gentem magnam.
℣. Benedícens benedícam tibi, et magnificábo nomen tuum, † erísque benedíctus.
℟. The Lord spake unto Abram, saying: Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and go unto the land that I will show thee, * And I will make of thee a great nation.
℣. I will surely bless thee and make thy name great, and thou shalt be blessed.

The second highlights his priestly role, paralleling a responsory on the same subject in relation to Noah (Gen 8, resp 5 of Sexagesima):

Monday no 1: Genesis 13:8
. Movens / Abram tabernáculum suum, venit et habitávit iuxta convállem Mambre: * Ædificavítque ibi altáre Dómino.
℣. Dixit autem Dóminus ad eum: Leva óculos tuos, et vide: † omnem terram, quam cónspicis tibi dabo, et sémini tuo in sempitérnum.
℟. Abram removed his tent, and came, and dwelt by the vale of Mamre * And built there an altar unto the Lord.
℣. And the Lord said unto him Lift up thine eyes, and look; all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.

Curiously, none of the responsories highlight the important story of Melchisedech, chronicled in Genesis 14, though a responsory on this chapter is used on the (much later) feast of Corpus Christi.

Chapter 15 deals with a vision of Abraham, and God's promise to him of descendants and land:

Wednesday no 2 (Sunday no 10): Genesis 15:1
. Factus est / sermo Dómini ad Abram, dicens: * Noli timére, Abram: † ego protéctor tuus sum, et merces tua magna nimis.
℣. Ego enim sum Dóminus Deus tuus, † qui edúxi te de Ur Chaldæórum.
℟. The word of the Lord came unto Abram, saying * Fear not, Abram I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.
℣. For I am the Lord thy God That brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees.

Chapter 16 deals with the birth of Ismael; chapter 17, the covenant sealed by circumcision, and Isaac.

Sunday no 4 [Friday, Saturday] Genesis 17:19, 18:10

. Dixit / Dóminus ad Abram: † Sara uxor tua páriet tibi fílium * Et vocábis nomen eius Isaac.
℣. Revértens véniam ad te témpore isto, vita cómite, † et habébit fílium Sara uxor tua.
℟. And God said to Abraham: Sara thy wife shall bear thee a son, * And thou shalt call his name Isaac.
℣. I will return and come to thee at this time, life accompanying, and Sara thy wife shall have a son

The natural flow of the reading sequence suggests that chapter 18, which deals with the visit of the three angels, could be read on Saturday.

The final Abraham responsory set for Sunday (no 11) actually comes from James 2:23, and provies a nice overall summary of Abraham's importance.  The Cantus database listing comes from various thirteenth and fourteenth century British manuscripts, for the Sarum rite, but Dominique Crochu has noted that it is also attested to for Italy in various Beneventan and Franciscan manuscripts:

. Crédidit / Abram Deo, et reputátum est ei ad iustítiam: * Et ideo amícus Dei factus est.
℣. Fuit autem iustus coram Dómino, et ambulávit in viis eius.
℟. Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. * And therefore he became the friend of God.
℣. For he was righteous in the sight of the Lord, and walked in His ways.

The readings

Quinquagesima Sunday: Genesis 12: 1-19
Monday after Quinquagesima Sunday: Genesis 13:1-16
Tuesday: Genesis 14: 8-20
Wednesday: Homily of St Augustine - Our Lord on the Mountain, Bk II ch 12 [Genesis 15]
Thursday: St Augustine On the Harmony of the Gospels, Book II ch 20 [Genesis 16]
Friday: Homily of St Jerome - On Matthew 5:44-45; 6:1 [Genesis 17]
Saturday: Homily of St Bede - On Mark 2:6 [Genesis 18: 1-15]

Notes on the Matins reading cycle - Sexagesima week

Château du Lude Noé Lude.jpg
Image credit: Martpan

This week the Scriptural readings at Matins tell the story of Noah, covered in chapters 6-11 of Genesis; unusually, the responsories also include one related to the Sunday Gospel, the parable of the sower.

The commentary on the Old Testament readings provided in the breviary for Sunday comes from St Ambrose, but St Augustine's discussion of the subject in his City of God (Book 15, from ch 22) is also well worth a read.

The Noah responsories and the forty days of Lent

The responsories for this week trace the events of the Flood, from God's decision to destroy all life, save that to be saved in the arc, to the making of a new covenant with Noah.

The 'Noah historia' has an intriguing history, for when Archbishop Amalarius of Metz visited Rome in the early ninth century, he found the Noah responsories (and presumably the associated readings) not on Sexagesima Sunday, but taken out of their logical order, on the first Sunday of Lent.

This was possibly a legacy of an earlier time, before Septuagesima and Sexagesima Sundays were introduced, retained because of the appropriateness of the typology to Lent [1].  In particular, the opening responsory (now the third on Sunday) was taken from Genesis 7:

R. Quadragínta / dies et noctes apérti sunt cæli, † et ex omni carne habénte spíritum vitæ ingréssa sunt in arcam: * Et clausit a foris óstium Dóminus.
V. In artículo diéi illíus ingréssus est Noë in arcam, † et fílii eius, et uxor illíus et uxóres filiórum eius.
R. Et clausit a foris óstium Dóminus.
R. Forty days and forty nights were the heavens opened; and there went into the ark two and two of all flesh wherein is the breath of life. * And the Lord shut them in.
V. In the self-same day entered Noah into the ark, and his sons, and his wife, and the wives of his sons.
R. And the Lord shut them in.

The forty days symbolism, it should be noted also runs through the Benedictine Office, for each day, the Rule prescribes a  'pensum' of forty psalms (if you count the Laudate psalms individually).

Another of the responsories (no 8 of Sunday) highlights another piece of number symbolism particularly relevant to the Office, namely the 150 days before the waters started receding (Genesis 8), on which St Benedict's contemporary St Cassiodorus commented:
."..we have observed that through the Lord's generosity the earth was cleansed of its sins after one hundred and fifty days, when the flood covered the earth.  So the spiritual depth of the psalms with their perennial cleansing purifies the hearts of men until Judgment Day; and from this we experience a saving flood which washes clean our minds befouled with sins."
The parable of the sower and its antiphon

The last responsory of Sexagesima Sunday, Cum turba plúrima, is particularly interesting since it seems to be reasonably ancient in origin, yet responsories relating to the Gospel of the day, in this case the parable of the sower, are rarely included in the post-Tridentine Office.  In the (pre-1962) Roman Office it is given a special status as the ninth responsory, replacing the Te Deum.

Dom Gueranger, in his Liturgical Year, explained the link between the Gospel and the Old Testament Scriptural reading, and the collect's reference to St Paul:
The earth is deluged by sin and heresy. But the Word of God, the Seed of life, is ever producing a new generation, a race of men, who, like Noah, fear God. It is the Word of God that produces those happy children, of whom the Beloved Disciple speaks, saying: they are born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God [St. John, 1. 13]. Let us endeavour to be of this family; or, if we already be numbered among its members, let us zealously maintain our glorious position. What we have to do, during these days of Septuagesima, is to escape from the Deluge of worldliness, and take shelter in the Ark of salvation; we have to become that good soil, which yields a hundred-fold from the heavenly Seed. Let us flee from the wrath to come, lest we perish with the enemies of God: let us hunger after that Word of God, which converteth and giveth life to souls [Ps. xviii].,,
At Rome, the Station is in the Basilica of Saint Paul outside the walls. It is around the tomb of the Doctor of the Gentiles, - the zealous sower of the divine Seed, - the Father by his preaching, of so many nations, - that the Roman Church assembles her children on this Sunday, whereon she is about to announce to them, how God spared the earth on the condition that it should be peopled with true believers and with faithful adorers of his Name.
Another link between the number of the Sunday (Sexagesima= 60th) and the Gospel is the reference to the sixty-fold (and implicitly thirty-fold) returns mentioned in St Matthew's version of the parable, reflected in the antiphon for Sext (but not Matins, at least in the 1962 version).

The full version of the antiphon runs as follows:
Semen cécidit in terram bonam, et áttulit fructum, áliud centésimum, et áliud sexagésimum (Some seed fell on good ground, and bare fruit, some one hundred-fold, and some sixty-fold).
The traditional interpretation of the different rates as the rewards in heaven for different states of life: depending on the writer, one hundredfold for martyrs or monastics; sixty-fold for monastics or widows; and thirty-fold for married persons.

But in the context of the Sunday, the interpretation was perhaps more meant to indicate the rewards of asceticism?

In any case, I have been unable to find a chant to match the 1962 Matins antiphon text.

The distribution of the Scriptural readings for the week

Sexagesima Sunday: Genesis 5:32, 6:1-15
Monday after Sexagesima Sunday: Genesis 7: 1-5& 10-14&17
Tuesday: Genesis 8:1-4; 5-9; 10-13
Wednesday: Genesis 8:1 -22; 9:1-6
Thursday: Genesis 9:12-29
Friday: Genesis 10:1-6; 11:1-8
Saturday: Genesis 11:10--30


[1] See the discussion of possible chronoogy in Thomas Forrest Kelly, Old-Roman Chant and the Responsories of Noah: New Evidence from Sutri, Early Music History, Vol. 26 (2007), pp. 91-120

Notes on the Matins readings and responsories - overview and Septuagesima week**

Image result for days of creation image hildegard
Scivias, Hildegarde von Bingen
Image source: wikipedia

This Sunday marks the start of a new liturgical season, the pre-Lenten season of Septuagesima, which is also effectively the starting point of the Matins reading cycle, with the reading of Genesis.

This year, I thought I would try and provide a few notes on the Matins reading cycle, including its history and inner logic, and on the associated responsories.

Overview of the reading cycle

The existence of a Matins reading cycle in use in Rome can be traced back to at least the sixth century, and it shares many of the same features as that which survives to this day (in the 1962 Office at least).  The particular arrangement of the Biblical books we use know though, reflects some tweaks made to the cycle, perhaps in the eighth century.[1]

And those 'tweaks' were, I think, designed to give it an inner logic based around two key poles, our Redemption through the the Passion and Resurrection; and the Incarnation and above all showing forth of God in the Epiphany.

The cycle arguably starts, in my view, during Septuagesima and Lent, with preparation for our redemption, for in this period we trace the story of the world from creation, the fall, and the promises made to the Old Testament patriarchs.

During Passiontide the Lamentations of Jeremiah typologically foreshadow the events of Holy Week.

From Easter we read the story of the Church after the Crucifixion, in Acts, the Catholic Epistles and above all Apocalypse which also foreshadows that which is still to come.

After Pentecost, we read the history of the Davidic kingdom, which is a type of the church established by Christ, with its reminders of the travails it will always face in this world.

We then turn to the instructional books, which teach us how to live up to and attain the kingdom, to stay faithful, in the form of the Wisdom literature; and those that provide us with examples to emulate, such as Job, Judith, Esther and Maccabees.

The cycle then turns to preparation for the various epiphanies, including the birth of Christ, in the readings of the Prophets in November and December.

And the cycle ends, it seems to me, with the epistles of St Paul, the doctor to the Gentiles, as a fitting accompaniment to a season in which we celebrate God being made visible to all nations, and are instructed in the mission to convert them.

The season of Septuagesima

In St Benedict's Rule, Septuagesima is not mentioned - instead the key feature of the season, suppression of the Alleluia, started with Lent (RB 15).

In this St Benedict seems not to have been following the Roman pattern of his day, since Quinquagesima at least is attested to for Rome for the first half of the sixth century [2], and Septuagesima itself was probably a creation of St Gregory the Great.

The pre-Lent season, though, was gradually introduced in Rome and elsewhere, and by around c625 the Pope of the day, Honorius had to order 'that the monks should leave off the Alleluia in Septuagesima' (see the Liber Pontificalis).

One of the aims of the new season may have been to allow the reading of the first seven books of the Bible, traditionally assigned to Lent, to be given more time.  If so, however, this benefit was relatively short-lived!

Genesis to Judges?

The reading of the first books of the Bible during Lent, and then the last books of the Bible (Catholic Epistles an Revelation) during Eastertide seems to have been a fairly ancient pattern, but it is one that has been gradually eroded.

The oldest surviving lectionary for Rome, Ordo XIV, which probably dates from the first half of the seventh century but describes sixth century practices, specified that from the week before Lent up to the week before Easter, the first seven books of the Bible should be read, that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges.

By the early ninth century though, Amalarius of Metz  (in his Liber de ordine Antiphonarii) attests that Septuagesima Sunday itself was devoted to an elaborate ceremony of burying the alleluia (abolished in the elventh century), and the responsories of the day were festooned with them.  Instead the reading of Genesis started the following Sunday, Sexagesima.

Not all Roman basilicas may have followed this pattern, however, and Ordo XIII, for example, which may date from around the same time period, started the Genesis responsories on Septuagesima as we do today.

Either way, the surviving sets of responsories to accompany the period up to Holy Week, which probably date from the eighth century reorganisation of the psalter attested to in Ordo XIII [3], suggest a much more limited reading pattern, since they relate only to Genesis and Exodus, covering Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Moses.

And in the tenth century, the Scriptural readings for Lent started to be replaced, in many places, by Patristic readings on the Gospel of the day, a pattern adopted in the post-Tridentine Roman and Benedictine Offices.  But we will come back to this in due course!

The readings and responsories for Septuagesima week

In the 1962 Benedictine Office (and it predecessor breviaries) the Scriptural readings this week are from Genesis 1 - 5:

Septuagesima Sunday: Genesis 1:1-26
Monday after Septuagesima Sunday: Genesis 1:27-31; 2: 1-10
Tuesday: Genesis 2:1-24
Wednesday: Genesis 3:1-20
Thursday: Genesis 4:1-16
Friday: Genesis 4:17-26; 5:1-5
Saturday: Genesis 5:15-31

The responsories cover the same ground, and seek to draw our particular attention to four key events:
  • the seven days of creation (responsories 2&4);
  • the creation of man and woman (responsories 1, 3, 6 &7);
  • the story of Adam and the Fall (responsories 5, 8, 9, 10, 12 & responsory 1 of Monday); and
  • the murder of Abel (responsory 11).


[1] The eighth century date was convincingly proposed by Brad Maiani, in Readings and Responsories: The Eighth-Century Night Office Lectionary and the Responsoria Prolixa, The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Spring, 1998), pp. 254-282.  the key changes were to cut back the time allocated to Kings and Chronicles; consolidate the reading of the prophets to November and December; and introduce the reading of the Pauline Epistles during Epiphanytide.

[2] The  edition of the Liber Pontificalis written in the sixth century mentions it in relation to Popes Telesphorus and Vigilius.

[3] See Maiani, op cit, as well as  Constant J. Mews (2011) Gregory the Great, the Rule of Benedict and Roman liturgy: the evolution of a legend, Journal of Medieval History, 37:2, 125-144;  and Thomas Forrest Kelly, Old-Roman Chant and the Responsories of Noah: New Evidence from Sutri, Early Music History, Vol. 26 (2007), pp. 91-120.