Low Sunday: Quasimodo geniti infantes

We have been celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord for the period of the Octave. We’ve stopped the liturgical clock so that we can rest in the mystery, so that we can contemplate it from different angles, especially in the Office and in the Mass formulas each day. We passed through the preparatory seasons of Lent, Passiontide and the Sacred Triduum to enter into the weeks of Easter joy.

At the end of the Octave, in the ancient Roman Church, the newly-baptized would remove their white baptismal gowns which would be deposited at the cathedral. Thus, the Saturday of the Octave is called “in albis” and the Sunday, which is technically outside the Octave and the beginning of the Easter season, is “in albis depositis.” Hitherto they were known as the “infantes… infants” in the Faith. In fact, the first chant of Sunday’s Mass, in Introit, is from 1 Peter 2:2-3 in the Vetus Latina version that pre-dates the Vulgate of St. Jerome. In the translation I’ll include the verse immediately before, because it is relevant to our work today:

Quasimodo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus.  … [So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander.] Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.

St. Jerome rendered that first part as “Sicut modo geniti infantes…”. In any event, the first Sunday after Easter is nicknamed, among many other nicknames, also Quasimodo Sunday. This gave rise as well to the naming of the hunchbacked child left at Notre-Dame de Paris in the book by Victor Hugo, little Quasimodo was found on this Sunday by Archdeacon Frollo.

Another nickname is “Low Sunday.” This is because with the Vespers of Saturday, the Easter Octave closed. Therefore, this Sunday is, again, an “ordinary” Sunday in the Easter Season, without, for example, the characteristic Sequence Victimae paschali laudes, sung daily during the last week.

That’s our over-arching liturgical context.

Our task is to consider the first reading for Holy Mass according the Vetus Ordo. Very often we have a selection from a letter of St. Paul. This time we turn to the 1st Letter of John. This letter, along with several other letters in the New Testament, have as a main purpose to combat the slithering of Gnosticism into the early Christian communities. The term Gnosticism derives from the Greek word for “knowledge,” especially a kind of “secret” knowledge, notions and theories that replaced supernatural faith in Christ. Chief among its slippery and varying tenets were dualism (that matter, hence the human body, is evil and is opposed to the spirit), illumination (along the line of secret teachings) and rejection of the Incarnation (which pretty much blows all of Christian belief away). The matter/spirit dualism of the Gnostics resulted in a degradation of observance of laws and moral behavior. If matter is bad and inferior and it doesn’t really “matter” so much in comparison to the spirit, then what difference is there if we choose to do various things with our bodies? After all, they aren’t really “us.” We have this same reasoning today with those who think they can do anything with their bodies, as if they are merely a car our “ghost” rides around in. Some strains of Gnosticism infected early Christians, such that, for example, some – called Docetists (from the Greek word for “to seem, appear”) – believed that Christ only seemed to be human but was rather a spirit playing a role. In any event, 1st John combats Gnosticism. Overall, the writer offers ways to test whether or not their communion is in genuine love of God and true fellowship with each other.

In the pericope, cutting of Scripture, chosen for this Sunday, we have a couple of interesting features.  First, in v. 5:4 we have the only use of the world “faith… pístis.” Another feature is that our reading includes the famous “Johannine Comma” in v. 8. It seems that in one manuscript tradition there was a marginal comment, “gloss,” about the Trinity that came to be interpolated into the main text. Manuscripts and translations of the Bible from the medieval era to about the 18th century include it while more modern versions do not. That said, we have been reading 1 John 5:4-10 for many centuries in the context of sacred liturgical worship. The idea that it contains a medieval gloss is not all that important. The extended use of our version in the Mass constitutes its own theological locus, or starting point. So, what is the “comma” part of the pericope?   Let’s see the whole thing in the Douay and the RSV. I’ll underscore the comma.

Douay:

Dearly beloved, Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory, which overcometh the world, our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God? This is He that came by water and blood, Jesus Christ: not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit which testifieth that Christ is the truth. And there are three who give testimony in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that give testimony on earth: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three are one. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater: for this is the testimony of God, which is greater, because He hath testified of His Son. He that believeth in the Son of God hath the testimony of God in himself.

RSV:

For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?  This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth. There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has borne witness to his Son. He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself.

About the word “faith” in v. 4, you will have directly noted that it is equated with “victory that is/ has been victorious over the world.” In Greek we have an aorist active participle, “ἡ νίκη ἡ νικήσασα τὸν κόσμον.” You recognize νίκη – níke – victory more because of the famous statue in the Louvre of Winged Victory rather than the shoes. An aorist participle describes a simple fact, whereas a present or perfect participle describes action in progress or an existing result. So this sort of victory, which is our faith, is in a sense beyond time. St. Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians 6:16 makes much the same point with his armor of God passage, includes, “the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.” Again, St. Paul says, in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”

The reference to the blood of Christ is part of the writer’s battle against Gnostic tendencies. Christ was not and is not a phantasm, only the appearance of a human man. He had and has a real Body from which His Blood was separated both on the altar of the Last Supper and on the altar of the Cross in one continuous raising of His propitiatory praise Sacrifice to the Father.

About verse 8, where we read about “the three.” Because the Johannine Comma is lacking in the ancient Greek manuscripts, we look at the Latin, and find “et hi tres unum sunt. Et tres sunt, qui testimónium dant in terra: Spíritus, et aqua, et sanguis: et hi tres unum sunt.” Many of you will right away have twigged to the fact that they are all masculine, and not neuter (tria). Spiritus and sanguis are both masculine and aqua is feminine, while Greek pneúma, hydor and haíma… spirit, water, blood, are all neuters. St. Augustine thought that this use of the masculine personalized the earthly witnesses, giving them a male voice, testifying to Christ’s humanity, again a move against Gnosticism.

Above, when citing the text for the Introit, I included the previous verse, “So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2:1). Last week, for Easter Sunday, the first reading had us putting away “leaven.” Remember? “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: 8). There is a thematic connection between the two Sundays not just in the matter of celebration of the Resurrection, but also in the way we must treat each other. There are moral implications which give proof to the “victory which has overcome the world.”

I’ll wrap this up by simply citing the very last verse of 1 John 5, v. 21, as salutary and saving advice:

Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

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