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Lyrics and Life

 

By Caitlin Ward

01/13/2016

A Hymn for the Feast of Asses (11th Century)

Orientis partibus 
Adventavit Asinus 
Pulcher et fortissimus 
Sarcinis aptissimus. 

Hez, Sire Asnes, car chantez, 
Belle bouche rechignez, 
Vous aurez du foin assez 
Et de l’avoine a plantez.

Translated (by Timothy Crowley)

From the Eastern lands
The Ass is come,
Beautiful and very brave,
Well fitted to bear burdens.

Up! Sir Ass, and sing.
Open your pretty mouth.
Hay will be yours in plenty,
And oats in abundance.

My sister has been researching medieval saints’ days with an eye to start celebrating them in the traditional manner. Recently she alerted me to a long-forgotten and fantastic ecclesiastical feast. Well, we’re not sure just how ecclesiastical it was: fantastic, definitely, and celebrated, certainly, but there’s some historical disagreement about how seriously it was taken. Its significance changed multiple times between its inception sometime in the 6th century and its ultimate condemnation by 15th-century French theologians. How reverently the feast was treated varied greatly from era to era as well, it seems. In the early days, it seems to have been part of a larger morality play involving Jewish prophets and gentile philosophers. Later, it became its own feast, marked on Jan. 14, and it commemorated the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt.

In the end, and likely why it was eventually suppressed, it became attached to the Feast of Fools, a medieval bit of tomfoolery taking place early in January and tied to a lot of apparently very scandalous pre-Christian rituals. Now, what these scandalous rituals are, those pesky French theologians were not particularly interested in detailing, if my cursory research is anything to go by. But my sister’s newly discovered feast was a casualty of this crackdown.

The feast I speak of, if you’re curious, is known as Festum Asinorum. Or, in the vernacular: the Feast of Asses.

I know. Even without the modern double entendre, it’s probably a bit hilarious. A feast for donkeys — a mass said for donkeys, too, and in some places, a donkey was brought to stand at the right of the altar. Historical sources say that it was “possibly a wooden donkey,” which seems to imply that possibly, it was not. And it was standing to the right of the altar.

Yes, ha ha. Live donkeys in church. Before we get carried away in our disdain for our religious forebears, though, let’s remember that we belong to a church that until relatively recently celebrated the Feast of the Circumcision. Because that’s a perfectly normal name for a day, and a perfectly not weird thing to celebrate. Or, at least, we thought so until 1960.

These days, it’s “the commemoration of the conferral of the Most Holy Name of Jesus,” because now we’re thinking that the naming is more important than the circumcision. Perhaps the other was simply a hangover from a stranger time in history, and we’re all far too modern for that nonsense.

But let’s face it, “the Octave Day of the Nativity of the Lord, is the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, and also the commemoration of the conferral of the Most Holy Name of Jesus,” is kind of a mouthful for one day. And you know what? It’s also not as interesting. You start “the Octave Day . . .” to someone, you’ve lost them four words in. You say “the Feast of the Circumcision,” though, and you’ve got an attentive (if incredulous) audience. Of course, we oughtn’t choose the name based solely on how easily we can startle and/or scandalize non-Catholics, but it is an entertaining side effect.

The thing is, in the effort to be far too modern for all this nonsense, I feel as if it’s become all too easy to misplace a fundamental aspect of how we experience and live our faith. Obviously, the less tangible aspects of Catholicism — the prayer, the philosophy, the theology — are fundamental to its expression. But just as much, we are a faith of ritual and sacrament. We are a faith of feast and fasting. We are a faith of corporal acts of mercy. Catholicism, ultimately, is a profoundly physical thing. The expression of our faith is a reflection of our faith: the divine and the human fused in the body of Jesus, and the ethereal and physical fused in the Body of Christ. It’s about the naming of our saviour and the circumcision of a baby.

OK. I realize that using Jan. 1 as my example to belabour this point borders on absurd, if we haven’t crossed over into madness already, but perhaps that’s the point. Once upon a time we were a church that brought live donkeys into the sanctuary. That’s a fantastic thing and I love it. We may never get a full-blown revival of Festum Asinorum, and perhaps we shouldn’t try, but I’ve got half a mind to resurrect some of those old feast days. Neither my sister nor I will try to bring a donkey into the sanctuary this Jan. 14, but rest assured we’ll find a way to mark that day. We will have our feasts.

 

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings