There is a whole week dedicated to Adam and Eve in the classical Roman liturgy, and it started yesterday, on Septuagesima Sunday.
This theme isn’t very well known at all, probably because it only appears in the traditional Divine Office recited by priests and religious. The Mass during this period shows no obvious connection with Creation and the Fall—so even a daily Communicant wouldn’t experience it without praying the Office.
Nevertheless, as the Divine Office is in fact the other half of the sacred liturgy, it would be well for us lay Catholics to be aware of how the themes of creation and Adam and Eve are explored this week.
In the traditional liturgy, Matins on Septuagesima Sunday began its nine readings with the incipit: “Here beginneth the book of Genesis“.
This day thus bears the distinction of being the beginning of the Biblical year. Of course, the books of the Old Testament are not read in order of occurrence in the church’s liturgy—they are read in thematic order according to their prophetic application to the liturgical season. Nevertheless, the Matins readings do show a loose Biblical arrangement, from Genesis in January/February to the minor prophets in November.
Septuagesima Sunday marks the beginning of that framework. On that day, the first Nocturn (a set of 3 lessons and responsories in Matins) begins with the following three lessons:
The Office readings of Septuagesima Sunday are thus explicitly dedicated to the Hexaemeron, the six days of creation. They are neatly arranged two to each lesson.
Again, we don’t see this same emphasis in the Mass texts, or for that matter even in the other hours of the Sunday’s Office. Nevertheless, as far as Matins is concerned, it would be entirely appropriate to call Septuagesima “Creation Sunday”.
In fact, throughout the whole following week after Septuagesima, the Matins lessons continue to narrate the story of our first parents and their progeny:
Although the Lessons progress chronologically through Genesis, through the five days of Creation well before Adam and then well into his descendants to Noah, the responsories accompanying each lesson keep returning to Adam.
For example, the very first responsory for the 1st and 2nd days of creation begins: “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth, wherein He made man also, after His own image and likeness“, and the penultimate responsory to Saturday’s lesson on Enoch and Methuselah is: “Behold, Adam is become as One of us, to know good and evil…“
Thus, the sacred liturgy keeps the week’s focus decidedly on Adam, whether it is narrating the very beginning of creation with him in view, or chronicling his descendants with him in hindsight.
All this structure was effectively eliminated in the most recent liturgical reform. Although Genesis 2 appears on the Mass of the First Sunday of Lent in the new Mass, it is read only every third year, and it does not set the tone for an entire of week of Office readings and antiphons as the old liturgy did.
I believe its absence has been felt, consciously or not. And that is perhaps why there have been modern attempts to “reliturgize” the creation narrative. That is not at all a bad idea in itself—after all, the traditional Roman liturgy did it already—but it seems to me it would be better to simply restore that old tradition, instead of reinventing something for the purpose.
In conclusion, it might well be asked–why does Matins choose Septuagesima, out of all other possible Sundays–as “Creation Sunday”? The answer is found in the Easter Vigil: here, for the only time, we finally see the Creation account read at Mass, as the first Prophecy.
However, if we were hoping for some time to meditate on it, we would be quite disappointed. Genesis is only the first of 12 prophecies read during the Easter Vigil, and that’s right at the heart of the busy Paschal Triduum. Our focus is fixed on the dramatic Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord. There can be no question of this apparently tangential reading demanding very much of our attention.
The vigil’s Prophecy, however, can and does serve as a liturgical reminder in the context of the Passion and Resurrection. A reminder of how we got to this point, and why Calvary was needed in the first place.
To ensure that the Paschal mystery has the most impact when we finally arrive there, it is important to have already meditated on Creation and the Fall beforehand. And there is no more appropriate Sunday to do that in, than the one when we first turn our gaze to Calvary.
This week, Matins will show how Adam and Eve fall ignominiously out of Eden. Part of our spiritual preparation this Lent is to bear that ever in mind, and to remember that we fell with them. In that knowledge, we sorrow, we hope, and we patiently endure.
Until Holy Saturday, when Christ will gloriously lift them back to Paradise, and beckon us there as well.
Saints Adam and Eve, pray for us!