Saturday, July 03, 2010

Divine Do-Overs: The Secret of Recapitulation in the Traditional Calendar

By Michael P. Foley

Followers of the 1962 liturgical calendar may have noticed an odd pattern. There is a reading, theme, event, or saint that appears on a particular day. Then, later in the year, the same reading, theme, event, or saint reemerges, only not quite in the same manner. This can happen with both occasions in the same cycle, either the “Temporal Cycle” (comprising seasons such as Advent, Lent, etc.) or the “Sanctoral Cycle” (the rotation of saints’ feasts). Or, each event can occur in a different cycle.

For example: Palm Sunday, especially with the blessing and procession of palms, celebrates Christ’s Kingship, but there is also a Feast of Christ the King. Holy Thursday celebrates the gift of the Eucharist, but there is also a Feast of Corpus Christi. Good Friday commemorates the blood our Lord shed for us on the Cross as well as His pierced heart, but there is also a Feast of the Precious Blood, a Feast of the Holy Cross,1 and a Feast of the Sacred Heart. September 27 is the Feast of Saints Cosmas and Damien, but we also pray to these saints on Thursday of the Third Week of Lent.2 The Ember Wednesday of Advent focuses on the Annunciation, but there is also a feast for it on March 25.

One would think that since the traditional Missal has an annual cycle of readings (as opposed to the three-year cycle of the new lectionary), there would be a minimum of repetition in order to expose the faithful to as much variety as possible. But instead, we find a startlingly different strategy. What on earth is it?


The answer to that question is the subject of this essay. What we see in the traditional calendar is an ingenious strategy of recapitulation. The concept of recapitulation has been a part of sacred tradition almost from the beginning: St. Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 130) speaks of it,3 and so does St. Augustine, who uses it to describe the patterns in the Bible where certain things are said in such a way that it looks as if they are proceeding in chronological order or in the order of events, whereas the narrative is [really] secretly recalling prior things which had been overlooked.4

Augustine gives as an example the fact that Genesis first mentions the Lord God planting a garden of paradise and then states that He formed out of the ground “all manner of trees, fair to behold, and pleasant to eat of” (2:8-9). The second statement, that God grew trees, “recapitulates” the first by making explicit something that is not in the first statement, namely, the precise manner in which God planted the garden.

A similar dynamic is at play in the Church year. Every event in the life of Christ or in sacred history, as well as every mystery of the Christian faith, is too profound to be comprehended in a single sitting. There are too many facets, too many layers, to be taken in at once by our feeble intellects. Hence the Church often returns to the same thing she had celebrated earlier in the year but from a different perspective. She wishes to experience the mystery in a way in which she might not have been able to before. When the Church meditates on the Annunciation during Ember Wednesday of Advent, her thoughts are dominated by the impending celebration of the Nativity. But when she meditates on the Annunciation during Lady Day (March 25), she is freer to consider other dimensions of this great event: the mystery of the Incarnation, the role of the Holy Spirit, and most importantly, the fiat of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Since several of these recapitulations occur during the summer, let us look at three of them now: Corpus Christi, the Precious Blood, and the Transfiguration.

Corpus Christi

Holy Thursday is essentially the original Feast of Corpus Christi (“Body of Christ”), the celebration of the institution of the Eucharist. Yet as a part of the sacred Triduum, Maundy Thursday is mixed with other considerations: the institution of the priesthood, the call to service dramatized by the washing of the feet, Judas’ betrayal of our Lord, the agony in the garden, etc.

Fittingly, the first person to see the need for an additional feast to honor the Blessed Sacrament is our Lord Himself. In the thirteenth century, a humble sixteen-year-old girl began having dreams of a bright moon marred by a small black spot. After years of seeing this perplexing vision, Jesus Christ appeared to her and revealed its meaning. The moon, He told her, represented the Church calendar, and the black spot the absence of a feast in honor of His Blessed Sacrament. That nun was St. Juliana, Prioress of Mont Cornillon (d. 1258) [pictured above], and the feast she was commissioned by our Lord to promote was that of Corpus Christi.

Even before its universal promotion in 1314, Corpus Christi was one of the grandest feasts of the Roman rite. By request of Pope Urban IV, the hymns, Mass propers, and Divine Office were composed or selected by St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), whose teaching on the Real Presence was so profound that the figure of Jesus Christ once descended from a crucifix and declared to him, “Thou hast written well of me, Thomas.” The mastery with which Aquinas weaves together the scriptural, poetic, and theological texts of this feast amply corroborates this judgment.

One of the most conspicuous features of Corpus Christi is the procession after Mass, for which Holy Church grants a plenary indulgence (under the usual conditions) to all those who take part in it. This public profession of the Catholic teaching on the Real Presence, which was solemnly encouraged by the Council of Trent, was traditionally accompanied by ornate pageantry and much celebration. The streets would be elaborately decorated with garlands and images, and the procession would wind through the whole town.

While it is true that the Eucharist is both the Body and Blood of our Lord, and while the Collect for the feast states that we “venerate the sacred mysteries of [both Christ’s] Body and Blood,” the focus of Corpus Christi is predominantly on His Eucharistic Body. The reason for this has not so much to do with the sacrament per se, but the principle of recapitulation. When we consider the Host and the Precious Cup together, we think of the miracle of Transubstantiation, the Real Presence, and the great appropriateness of bread and wine as the matter of the sacrament, of how crushed grains and crushed grapes die to sustain us and rise again as a new creation.

But when we consider the Host rather than the Precious Cup, our minds are drawn to a different set of themes. We think of food for our souls, the Panis angelicus, the great spiritual nourishment prefigured by the manna from heaven and by the multiplication of the loaves. We also think incarnationally: Emmanuel, “God is with us,” was once among us veiled in a body and is now among veiled in the appearances of bread and wine. Finally, we think eschatologically, of how the Host, which makes present the Risen Christ, is a foreshadowing of the glorified bodies the elect will enjoy at the end of time. Hence, the Magnificat antiphon for Vespers on Corpus Christi speaks of the Body of Christ as the “pledge of our future glory.”

Precious Blood

On the other hand, when the Church thinks of the Precious Blood, she does not think primarily in terms of food or drink. For although we consume the Blood of our Lord at Holy Communion (even if we are receiving under the species of bread alone), the mention of His blood by itself invites us to meditate on four other topics.

The first is ablution and aspersion, washing and sprinkling. The flesh of the sacrificial lamb may have been eaten during the feast of Passover, but its blood was sprinkled on the doorposts, thereby averting the Angel of death. Similarly, St. Peter speaks of being sanctified for “the sprinkling of the Blood of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:2), while the Book of Revelation describes the Blood of the Lamb of God as washing the white robes of the saints (7:14; cf. 1:5).

Second, the red Blood that washes white also redeems, buying us back from the slave block of the devil. In the Epistle to the Hebrews we read that “neither by the blood of goats or of calves, but by His own blood [Christ] entered once into the Holies, having obtained eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12).5 One of the earliest epithets for the Savior’s Blood in Church parlance is pretium redemptionis nostrae, the “price of our redemption.”

Third, we remember the Atonement, with its teaching on sin and propitiation. The Blood forcibly reminds us of our shared responsibility in spilling it and God’s mercy in accepting it as our reconciliation with Him. In the Book of Genesis, the blood of Abel “speaks” from the ground (4:10). What does it say? That Cain is guilty. Similarly, the Epistle to the Hebrews states that the Blood of Christ “speaks better” than Abel’s (12:24). What does it say? That we are guilty, but that we are also reconciled. Christ was wounded for our iniquities (Is. 53:5), but it is by these stripes that we are healed (I Pet. 2:24). Hence, God proposes His Son as “a propitiation, through faith in His blood…for the remission of former sins” (Rom. 3:25).

These awesome themes and more are explored on the Feast of the Most Precious Blood (July 1). The feast began in Spain in the sixteenth century and was promoted by St. Gaspar del Bufalo (d. 1837), founder of the Missionaries of the Most Precious Blood. When Pope Pius IX was exiled from Rome, one of his companions, Don Giovanni Merlini, third superior general of the Missionaries, suggested that he vow to extend the feast to the entire Church if he regained possession of the Papal States. But the Pope decided instead to extend the feast immediately to all Christendom on June 30, 1849. That same day, the French drove out the Italian nationalists who had captured Rome. Since June 30 was a Saturday before the first Sunday of July, Pius IX decreed on August 10 of that year that every first Sunday of July would be dedicated to the Most Precious Blood (this was later changed to July 1).6

In 1934, to commemorate the nineteenth centenary of our Lord’s death, Pope Pius XI raised the feast to the rank of a double of the first class (according to the pre-1960 system). The feast was also extolled shortly before Vatican II by Pope John XXIII in an excellent apostolic letter entitled, “On Promoting Devotion to the Most Precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”7 While purists laboring under the error of what Pope Pius XII called archeologism (the presumption that older means better) might sniff at this “recent” feast, John XXIII saw in it traces of God’s ongoing love for His Church. “The Church’s wonderful advances in liturgical piety match the progress of faith itself in penetrating divine truth,” he writes. “Within this development it is most heart-warming to observe how often in recent centuries this Holy See has openly approved and furthered” this devotion.8

Of course, our Lord’s Blood was considered earlier on Good Friday, but our hearts on that day were filled with such sorrow that it was difficult for us to appreciate Its magnificence. It is therefore appropriate that we recapitulate the theme, under a more triumphant banner. After noting that the Church has already celebrated Good Friday and Corpus Christi, Dom GuĂ©ranger asks, “How is it…that holy Church is now inviting all Christians to hail, in a particular manner, the stream of life ever gushing from the sacred fount?” His answer: “What else can this mean, but that the preceding solemnities have by no means exhausted the mystery?”9

The Transfiguration

Another feast that it is fitting to celebrate after the Triduum and Corpus Christi is that of the Transfiguration on August 6. As Pope Benedict XVI notes in his encyclical Sacramentum Caritatis, the Transubstantiation of bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood is not only a profound miracle in its own right, but it “introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of ‘nuclear fission’” that sets off a chain reaction which will ultimately culminate in the “transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all.”10 And one of the first hints of this cosmic transfiguration at the end of time is the personal transfiguration of our Lord, when His face shone as the sun and His garments became white as snow (cf. Matt. 17:2).

The Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Lent is also of the Transfiguration. According to tradition, our Lord deigned to be transfigured before three Apostles — Peter, James, and John — in order to fortify them for the brutal and demoralizing spectacle of His forthcoming crucifixion11 (note that it is these same three Apostles that He wanted with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane). The Transfiguration was meant to give the Apostles a foretaste of the Resurrection in order to help them overcome the trauma of the Crucifixion. By the same logic, the Church wisely anticipates the glory of Easter during the penitential season of Lent by calling to mind the Transfiguration, as if to give the faithful a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel.

But Lent is not the time to savor the glory of Easter, and there is so much more to glean from the Transfiguration than a means of steeling one’s courage. How appropriate, then, that the Church recapitulates the event during the more jubilant Time after Pentecost. It is there that she can ruminate on at least three other aspects of this mystery:

First, as with Corpus Christ, she can consider our future glory. One of the Breviary hymns for the feast speaks of the event as a “sign of perennial glory.”12 As Peter the Venerable teaches, the Resurrection is already prefigured in the Transfiguration; and the Resurrection, needless to say, is a “sneak peek” at the amazing, luminous, space-and-time-defying bodies the elect will acquire on the Last Day.13

Second, she can reflect on the relationship between the two Testaments. When Jesus is transfigured, Moses and Elijah, representatives of the two main branches of the Old Testament (the Law and Prophets), accompany Him. The triptych of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus therefore represents the sum of biblical history. But eventually, Moses and Elijah disappear and only Jesus remains. The High Priest of the new Covenant is in continuity with the Old but is also greater than it.

Third, she can speculate on the “social” dimension of the transfiguration. What does it mean to say with the Pope that the world will be “transfigured”? What does it mean to have human living transfigured by the Catholic call to action,14 under the social kingship of our transfigured Lord? How should our lives, our social interactions, and our politics be transfigured in light of the “nuclear fission” of Christ’s Eucharistic Body? Interestingly, the date of the feast was chosen for a socio-political reason, to commemorate the Christian victory over the Turks at the Battle of Belgrade in July 1456, news of which reached the Pope’s ears on August 6.15

Why It Matters

Recapitulation in the calendar is valuable for at least two reasons. First, it “gets” us. That is, recapitulation ideally suits the way we grow in wisdom and love. It knows that physiologically we are monogastric, but mentally we are ruminants: we are creatures who, to borrow a colorful image from St. Augustine, need to call things up from the stomach of our mind in order to chew on them more. Recapitulation presupposes that because we see now through a glass darkly and know only in part, we need to circle around the same object several times, like a spy plane gathering intelligence. Returning to the same thing but in a new light deepens our experience and knowledge of that thing.

Second, it “gets” mystery. Recapitulation is not just a concession to the littleness of our minds, it is an acknowledgement of the greatness of the sacred. Realities such as those narrated in Scripture or defined by Catholic dogma or even instantiated in the life of a saint are too august to be captured by a single snapshot. They need to be revisited again and again from different camera angles. This is why there are different accounts of the Mosaic Law in the Old Testament and why there are four different Gospels rather than one “definitive” biography of our Lord. And it is why the traditional calendar recapitulates seemingly “redundant” elements.


There are instances of recapitulation in the 1970 calendar as well, but not as many. The Feast of Corpus Christi was changed to the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ; and John XXIII’s beloved Feast of the Precious Blood was suppressed, leaving no day on which Christ’s Blood is exclusively adored. The three-year cycle of Biblical readings eliminates, two-thirds of the time, several of the pairings necessary for recapitulation, as does the fact that the new lectionary is not influenced by the station days, over 50% of which were cut from the new calendar.

Such a situation should increase our gratitude for the plentiful “divine do-overs” that we enjoy in the usus antiquior. The concept of recapitulation hearkens to the charming poetics of sacred Scripture and the classical theology of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. But more than that, recapitulation affords us the opportunity to delve more deeply into the mysteries of our Faith, mysteries which we, God willing, shall one day behold with utter clarity. In this sense, the recapitulations of the year can help bring us just that much closer to the beatific vision.

Image credits
  1. The Vision of Saint Juliana of Mont Cornillon, by Philippe de Champaigne (1602–1674), courtesy of
  2. The Transfiguration, by Pietro Perugino, courtesy of
  1. And in the calendar before 1962, there were two feasts for the Cross: one on May 3 (dropped in 1960) and one on September 14. [back]

  2. We do so because the stational church for that day is Santi Cosma e Damiano. [back]

  3. Irenaeus uses it for Christ's summing up and redeeming all human experience (cf. Apostolic Preaching, 6). [back]

  4. On Christian Doctrine 3.36.52, translation mine. [back]

  5. See Ulrich F. Mueller, "Feast of the Most Precious Blood," in Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 12 (NY: The Encyclopedia Press, 1913), p. 373. [back]

  6. June 30, 1960. [back]

  7. "On Promoting Devotion to the Most Precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ." [back]

  8. "On Promoting Devotion to the Most Precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ." [back]

  9. Dom Prosper Guéranger, The Liturgical Year, vol. 12, trans. Dom Laurence Shepherd (Great Falls, Montana: Bonaventure Publications, 2000), p. 386. [back]

  10. Sacramentum Caritatis, 11. [back]

  11. See Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III.45.1. [back]

  12. The hymn is Quicumque Christum quaeritis, and the verse is Signum perennis gloriae. [back]

  13. Those bodies will possess the four gifts of impassibility, agility, subtlety, and clarity. [back]

  14. See Bernard J.F. Lonergan, S.J. Insight (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), PP. 742-43. [back]

  15. As Pope Calixtus III later wrote: "if this fortress [at Belgrade] had been lost, the very existence of the entire Christian republic would have been in danger" (Letter to a Burgundian Bishop, [back]

Michael P. Foley, an associate professor of Patristics at Baylor University, is author of Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?: The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and Wedding Rites: A Complete Guide to Traditional Vows, Music, Ceremonies, Blessings, and Interfaith Services(Eerdmans, 2008). Dr. Foley's article, "Divine Do-Overs: The Secred of Recapitulation in the Traditional Calendar," Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition Vol. 19, No. 2 (Spring 2010), pp. 46-49, is reproduced here by kind permission of Latin Mass, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060, and the author.