Our task this year is to look at the first reading of Holy Mass in the Vetus Ordo, usually from one of the Epistles and most commonly from a Pauline Epistle. For Easter Sunday we have a brief reading – not surprising after the last few super-charged liturgical marathon days – from the Apostle to the Gentile’s First Letter to the Corinthians.
Again, we pick up some context to enrich our full, conscious, and active participation in the raising of the Word by the High Priest to the Father. The Eucharistic part of the Mass is more obviously sacrificial, but the so-called Mass of the Catechumens also has its sacrificial character. The readings surely have their function to teach and to move to action, but they are first and foremost Christ speaking to the Father, raising His Word, Himself, to the Father as High Priest. The readings have a sacrificial nature. This is why in the Vetus Ordo they were and are always read by the priest celebrant at the altar of sacrifice even if they are also sung by the Subdeacon and the Deacon.
Today the Roman Station is at St. Mary Major, the greatest church in Christendom dedicated to the Mother of God. There is an entirely reasonable tradition that when the Lord rose from death in the tomb the first thing that He did in His gloriously transformed body was to visit His Mother. If Mary played her perfect part in the Annunciation, when the Word became flesh, and at the foot of the Cross, where our redemption was finalized, then it is appropriate that she would play an intimate role in the Resurrection, the ultimate defeat of sin and death. As St. Vincent Ferrer points out, in visiting His Mother first, Christ would also fulfill the Commandment to honor His mother. Other saints have posited this first visit and it is reasonable to think this is what took place though there is no attestation to it in Scripture. As Duns Scotus would put it, putting a bookend to the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s destined role in view of Christ’s saving mission: Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit. Hence, after the Vigil at St. John Lateran in the ancient Roman Church, our first post-Resurrection Station is the greatest of all basilicas in honor of Blessed Virgin.
Now for the first reading.
Context. It is pretty clear that Paul is angry. In 1 Cor 5 he addresses a terrible scandal among the Corinthian Christians saying that it is commonly known (hólos akouétai). Someone has committed incest with his father’s wife and the community has done nothing about it. In fact, they seem to rather arrogant about this sin, “puffed up” (pephusioménoi). Paul confirms that he is still with them in spirit when they are assembled, and he still has Christ’s authority. He tells them to expel this man from their community: “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” Indeed, this is the motive for all the Church’s censures, especially excommunication. They are medicinal, intended to bring repentance and reconciliation.
It is in this context that we find our Easter reading!
Brethren: Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor 5:7-8 – RSV)
The image of leaven in the New Testament is complicated. For example, you might be thinking of the parable of the Lord about the Kingdom of Heaven being like leaven which a women added to “three measures” of dough. Every parable has an odd little twist to it that would have gotten the attention of a 1st century listener. First, the Jews thought that leaven was unclean. Therefore, they had to rid their houses of every bit of leaven before Passover. But the Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven? Also, three measures of flour would be over 8 gallons. That’s a lot of bread. The point being, of course, that the Kingdom of God, indeed Christ Himself in their presence, is a mighty transformative force. Just a little can make a huge difference (Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:20–21). Paul is saying something along the same line. One of you is a serious sinner and the scandal of that sin can infect their rest of you. In fact, Paul points out that the people are “glorying” (kaúchema) in their factional strife so much so that they are not attending to the Christian character of their community. He had described them as pephusioménoi “puffed up” from the verb physióo. What does leaven do? It puffs up. The yeast microorganisms eat the sugars and expel gases which causes the dough to inflate.
What is behind the choice of this reading today of all days?
Firstly, the early Church with its strong Jewish connection would have resonated with the image of leaven at this time of the year because of the Passover. As said before, leaven was considered unclean. It had to be removed before the eating of the Pasch, the lamb slain for Passover. Christ is the new Paschal Lamb. Therefore, all leaven should be gone from the house, the person’s soul, into which the Paschal Lamb was to come at baptism and communion. The soul should be pure, without the puffing leaven of sin. Just as Passover was a type or foreshadowing of Christ and His Passion, so were the unleavened loaves a type of Christian baptismal innocence and purity.
Something that must be stressed is that Christ is not the Christian Paschal Lamb on just one day. He is always the Paschal Lamb. The new Passover, the Passover to summarize and give eternal meaning to all previous Passovers, doesn’t happen once a year. It is ongoing. Therefore, our rejection of the leaven of sins and of puffing factions is also to be ongoing, not just once in a while. What do we do when the dough is puffed and raised? We punch it down.
What might this mean for the various factions of the traditionally minded Catholics who are so bent on defending their own trench of truths that they won’t embrace others so as to present a more harmonious and attractive image? At the basis of the Pauline reading on this Easter Sunday is the reality of factions in the community, factions that distract from what is essential and ultimately lead people astray. Paul in this chapter of 1 Corinthians, the larger context of the reading, also must deal with serious sin. “I’m for this guy!” “I’m against those guys!”
Factions and sins and scandals and factions and sins and scandals.
We are always to be azymoi, unleavened.
I wish you and yours a blessed Easter and a fruitful Octave.