Ardagh Chalice
Ardagh Chalice

The Ardagh chalice, now preserved in the National Museum in Dublin, seems, in the glitter and perfection of its workmanship, to crystallise and bring down to earth all the romance of the legends of the Holy Grail. Of silver, set with crystal, garnet, amber, enamel and glass in restrained but almost miraculously delicate designs, the chalice is probably of eighth century date and the most precious European chalice that has survived from before the twelfth century. 

Yet to look at the Ardagh chalice merely as one of the great achievements of Celtic artists in Ireland would be to miss the very point and purpose of its making, which was to be merely the setting for something infinitely more precious, for the wine of the Mass changed at the moment of consecration into the Blood of Christ. The Ardagh chalice is the symbol of the vivid belief of the Celtic Church in the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation, and a pointer to the source of the dynamic energy of the Celtic saints. The surviving fragments of Celtic liturgy leave us in no doubt about the nature of Celtic faith in the Mass. It is a faith perhaps best summed up in the Sancti venite, the ancient hymn in the Antiphonary of Bangor which was sung when the priests received communion. The Sancti venite is an Irish composition and is claimed as the oldest surviving Eucharistic hymn of Western Europe. It puts into words what the Ardagh chalice expresses in the shimmering patterns of Celtic art.

Sancti venite, Christi corpus sumite,
Sanctum bibentes, quo redempti sanguinem.

Salvati Christi corpore et sanguine,
A quo refecti laudes dicamus Deo.

Hoc sacramento corporis et sanguinis
Omnes exuti ab inferni faucibus.

Dator salutis, Christus filius Dei,
Mundum salvavit per crucem et sanguinem.

Pro universis immolatus Dominus
Ipse sacerdos exstitit et hostia.

Lege praeceptum immolari hostias,
Qua adumbrantur divina mysteria.

Lucis indultor et salvator omnium
Praeclaram sanctis largitus est gratiam.

Accedant omnes pura mente creduli,
Sumant aeterman salutis custodiam.

Sanctorum custos, rector quoque,
Dominus, Vitae perennis largitor credentibus.

Caelestem panem dat esurien- tibus,
De fonte vivo praebet sitientibus.

Alpha et omega ipse Christus Dominus

Venit, venturus iudicare homines.

Bangor Abbey 688 AD
Bangor Abbey c. 688AD

Now the monastery of Bangor, set beside the sea on the shores of Belfast Lough and founded by St. Comgall in 559, was no isolated desert cut off from the rest of the world. It was one of the great centres from which men went out on heroic and far-reaching missionary journeys. From Bangor, St. Moluag went to Scotland, settling on the island of Lismore in 562, a year before St. Columcille came to Iona, and later, St. Maelrubha who was to make another great foundation at Applecross (Obar Crosain) in Ross-shire (Siorrachd Rois) in 673. Place-names indicate that both these leaders of missions from Bangor in Ulster travelled widely over Scotland and the Hebrides. Even more important was the great continental missionary effort, headed by St. Columbanus and St Gall, which

Irish Saints on a mission
Irish Saints on a Mission

began in 590, and which also originated from Bangor. So then, the teaching about the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament that is summed up by the Sancti venite and the long series of communion antiphons in the Antiphonary of Bangor, was something that was taken by these intrepid adventurers everywhere that they were able to penetrate. It was something that must have radiated out from the long string of foundations that Columbanus and his monks laid across Europe, a string ending in the famous monasteries of St. Gall and Bobbio. They brought a vivid faith in and a deep devotion to the Mass to a Europe in which such devotion had grown cold or was unknown, and set against the intrigue, vice and strife of the warring sates of the time, Irish and Christian ideals of holiness and of the purity of conscience with which one should approach communion. It is perhaps not accidental that the diocese of Liège, which was the first to establish the feast of Corpus Christi, had been one of the important centres of the Irish missionaries. 

Antiphonary of Bangor fol. 36 vers. (ref to Abbot Cronan)
Antiphonary of Bangor fol. 36 vers. (ref to Abbot Cronan)

The Bangor Antiphonary’s references to the Mass are confined to the Sancti venite and an extensive and interesting collection of communion antiphons; a feature characteristic of the Celtic rite, and itself an indication of the importance attached to frequent communion. Not till the period of the Stowe Missal, do we possess a complete MS. of the liturgy and ritual of the Mass in Celtic Ireland. The Stowe Missal seems to have originated at Tallaght, a monastery of the Céili Dé reform founded by a certain St. Maelruain (died 792). The Missal was written between 792 and 812. It can be taken that it represents the rite in use over central and southern Ireland at that time, a rite that, whilst it has a general shape corresponding to the present Roman one, shows its own Celtic peculiarities. Celtic liturgy drew on Gallican, Mozarabic and oriental sources and added to them its own native piety and inspiration. So the Celtic Mass it marked by the long series of communion antiphons, and by the very elaborate fraction of the consecrated Host, which cook place before the recitation of the Pater noster, for example: yet the modem Irish Catholic, if he was transported back to the Mass said in the tiny beehive vaulted oratories which still stand amongst the Irish fields, would have no difficulty in following the ceremony.

The Mass was, of course, said in Latin, but included in the Stowe Missal is a tract written in Irish, which, basing its explanation on the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ, explains how the actions and symbols of the Mass tell the whole story of man’s salvation.

The altar, this old Irish tract tells us, is the symbol of persecution and the chalice set on it, the figure of the Church founded upon that persecution. In the Celtic rite, as in other early rites and still in a Dominican Low Mass, the chalice was prepared at the beginning of the Mass. Water was poured in first, symbolising the people who have been “poured” into the Church; then the wine, symbolising Christ’s divinity assuming His Manhood. The “Host, then, super altare, i.e., the turtle dove. This is chanted thereat, to wit, Iesus Christus, Alpha et Omega, hoc est principium et finis. A figure of Christ’s Body which has been set in the linen sheet of Mary’s womb.” 

The chalice seems to have been covered with two veils, and their successive removal had a symbolic meaning. Covered by both veils up to the time of the epistle, the law of nature was symbolised, then up to the gospel the veiled revelation of Christ in the Old Testament, next at the gospel a partial unveiling to symbolise the dearer revelation of the prophecies foretelling the coming of Christ, finally at the offertory a complete unveiling and elevation of the chalice to symbolise the full revelation of the New Testament.

The full revelation. The liturgy swept on to the moment of consecration. “Quando canitur: Accepit Iesus panem, the priest bows himself down thrice to repent of his sins. He offers it (the chalice) to God (and chants Miserere mei Deus), and the people kneel, and here no voice cometh lest it disturb the priest, for this is the right of it, that his mind separate not from God while he chants this lesson. Hence its nomen is periculosa oratio.” 

The words “periculosa oratio” seem to have been written in the margin of the text of the Canon of the Mass to put the priest on his guard at this moment. Heavy penalties were laid down for those who stumbled over the words of consecration.

After the consecration, the priest took three steps away from the altar and three back to it, for this “is the triad in which everyone sins, in word, in thought, in deed” and so separates oneself from Christ.

The tract goes on to say that the priest examining the chalice and the Host is the figure of the insults and buffets to which Christ was subjected, “the Host on the paten is Christ’s Flesh on the tree of the cross,” and the fraction of the host, the breaking of that Body with nails on the cross. The meeting of the broken particles of the Host is the figure of the Resurrection, whilst the dipping of a fragment into the chalice is the symbol of Christ’s Body immersed in His Blood after His wounding on the cross.

The actual breaking of the Host was an elaborate little ceremony in itself. It seems to have been the custom of the Celtic Church that when a simple priest celebrated Mass, another joined him to assist at the fraction, but a bishop always broke the Host alone. The number of particles into which It was divided varied with the different feasts, each number with its own symbolism, and they were then arranged in a cross pattern, from the different sections of which the different classes of communicants — priests, hermits, children, married people and so on — received communion. The symbolism and its meaning is detailed by the Stowe Missal tract, which ends with the dispositions necessary in those receiving communion. They ought to meditate upon the symbols of the Mass, to realise the “portion of the Host which you receive to be as it were a member of Christ from His cross.” Finally, there is the rather Celtic bit of reasoning that it is not right to swallow the Host without tasting it, because one should try to bring savour into God’s mysteries, but equally, the Host must not be allowed to go under the back-teeth because one should not dispute too much over these mysteries and run the risk of heresy thereby. The idea is based on the Mystical Body of Christ, that the Church may be torn apart by heresies as a man tears with his teeth.

The Leabhar Breac, the Speckled Book, is a compilation made from older sources at the end of the 14 c., or the beginning of the 15 c. In it, is another version of this Irish tract on the Mass, which adds to the symbolism of the Stowe Missal tract in saying that the church building which shelters both altar and congregation is the figure “of that human divine shelter, of which is said ‘sub umbra alarum tuarum protege me’.” It goes on to stress first of all the reality of the offering of the Body and Blood of Christ on the altar and then to refer to the Virgin birth and Mary. “The body which was born of the Virgin Mary, without any stain, without destruction of her virginity, without opening of the womb, without presence of man, and which was crucified by the unbelieving Jews out of spite and envy, and which arose after three days from death, and sits upon the right hand of God the Father in heaven, in glory and in dignity before the angels in heaven. It is the body the same as it is in this great glory, which the righteous consume off God’s table, that is, off the holy altar. For this body is the rich viaticum of the faithful, who journey through the paths of pilgrimage and repentance of this world to the heavenly fatherland. This is the seed of the resurrection in the life eternal to the righteous.” 

In some Irish churches, Mass seems to have been celebrated every day, in others only upon Sundays and feast days. It normally took place early in the morning. The general practice seems to have been frequent communion and this was usually but not always received under both species. The necessity to receive communion in order to keep the soul alive and in health is even stressed by a ruling in the Celtic penitentials, that a penance should not be imposed which would keep the penitent away from communion for too long to his soul’s hurt by “fasting from its medicine.” The same idea is expressed in another way in the Irish Law tracts, showing the importance of the Mass to the country’s welfare. The tracts list certain essentials which could not be done without and which therefore could not be distrained on for debts. They include a milch cow and a plough ox, and the requisites for celebrating Mass.

St. Columbanus laid down that, before going to receive communion, one should make a careful examination of conscience and confession, for the altar is a tribunal and the body of Christ on it will judge those who approach it unworthily. It is not enough, Columbanus wrote, to be free from the capital sins, it is also necessary to “abstain from and wash away the indeterminate vices and fevers of the sick soul before the conjunction of true peace and the covenant of eternal salvation.” He ordered his monks to make three prostrations as they approached the altar to receive communion. 

Further evidence of Irish reverence for the Mass and the consecrated species comes from the Penitentials to which reference has already been made. The Celtic Church insisted on frequent confession and drew up handbooks listing sins and the appropriate penances to be imposed. Irish missionaries scattered these little books broadcast over Europe and they seem to have a good deal to do with the way in which Catholic indulgences came to develop later on, following out the careful tariffs of sins which were laid down in them and their various possible commutations. The 7 c., Penitential of Cummean has an exhaustive section “Of questions concerning the Host,” which deals with all possible situations and mishaps. Priests often seem to have carried It about in highly decorated and jewelled chrismals, not merely when taking It to the sick but on their ordinary missionary journeys. Special penances were laid down for anyone who lost the chrismal, and if a person broke into a place where one was kept, it was not only necessary to make sevenfold restitution but to do hard penance on a pilgrimage out of Ireland for five years.

The Stowe Missal includes the order for the visitation of the sick and their reception of communion: so vital was the reception of viaticum before death, that the legends of the Irish saints include miracles in which a saint raises a man to life in order that he may be able to receive communion before he does finally die.

The Blessed Sacrament seems to have been normally kept reserved in the Celtic churches, and it has been suggested that the model of Solomon’s temple which was stolen from Clonmacnoise was used as a tabernacle. It had been given to Clonmacnoise by Maelseachlainn, an Irish prince who died in 1010, and its making had cost “a hide from every holding in Meath.” The Rule of Ailbe gives one indication of the reverence for the reserved Sacrament which must be shown: —

“A genuflection thrice, earnestly, after going in past the altar-rail, without frivolity and without excitement, going into the presence of the king of the angels.”

St. John
St. John

The King of the angels, and the miracle of Christianity is that men, men who still sin against Him, may yet be His friends. Even the saints sin at times — one of John Cassian’s desert friends pointed out that otherwise they could hardly truthfully pray “Forgive us our trespasses.” This is the appalling intimacy of the Mass, God Himself stoopingmonk at work down to men, circled by legions of angels. There is an instruction on the Sacraments in the Leabhar Breac, which brings this idea clearly, and exhorting people to go to Mass says “Woe indeed to a heart, if great necessity does not hinder him from it, that comes not to the church at the hour of performing this oblation to meet Jesus Christ and the family (muintir) of heaven, to bewail his sins and to (obtain) mercy for them, and to ask help for his soul.”

Now the word in the Irish that is used for the family of heaven is muintir (family, relative, people, folk, tribe), the same word that was used to indicate the family of monks around their abbot. It is something intimate, a group bound closely and familiarly together; a Celtic tribute to the reality of the fact that Christians on earth are indeed the fellow citizens of the saints. 

“Corpus Domini accepimus, et sanguine ejus potati sumus, ab omni malo non timebimus, quia Dominus nobiscum est.”

They had taken the Body of the Lord and drunk His Blood and now they need be afraid of no evil for the Lord was with them.

Set around the Mass, like the carvings that decorate the high crosses or the jewels on the Ardagh chalice, is the Divine Office. The Mass, Christ, is the source of the power of Christian prayer, prayer which ought, like a Celtic lōrīca (literally: armour or breastplate — protection prayer) to circle the whole day in a pattern of praise and thanksgiving and intercession and petition.

The Divine Office as we now know it has a long history. Its origins go back to the Old Testament, ‘Seven times a day I praise You’ says Psalm 119:164, which was the special favourite psalm of the Celtic Church, and Psalm 55:18 mentions prayer at dusk, dawn, and noon. There was a regular series of services through the day in the Jewish synagogues, which the Christians used, at the very beginning, to attend; and they naturally carried over this idea into the new Christian liturgy that was coming into being. The desert monks took the idea further and a regular series of “hours” came into existence, to begin with varying in content from place to place but eventually becoming uniform for the whole Church.

The basis of the Divine Office is scripture, in particular the psalms which make up the bulk of it, and a series of lessons from the Bible together with prayers and hymns. The Celtic saints had a very deep devotion to the psalms and often added the daily recitation of the Three Fifties (the 150 psalms) as a private devotion in addition to the singing of the canonical hours. This Hebrew psalmic poetry is for all times and all places; once you begin to get to know it, it comes back like a melody, fitting in with unexpected scenes and places, David’s verse insinuating itself into an Irish landscape as though it had been written specially for this land that he had never seen. St. Augustine pointed out how the meaning of the psalms would come home to anyone who began to try and live up to their teaching, and this poetry will not stale with repetition, rather sudden new meanings and vistas open out on each recitation.

From the late-eleventh century I found a beautiful poem by a monk from northern Ireland who in the southern monastery of Lismore came upon a worn out copy of the Psalter from which he had learned his psalms at the early age of seven. He lovingly addresses his Psalter so: — 

Your counsel is ever there to hand, we choose it, following you in everything: love of your word is the best of loves, our gentle conversation with the King … Seeking the presence of elusive God wandering we stray, but the way is found, following the mighty melodies that with you throughout the pathways of the world resound.”

The Celtic Church loved to penetrate the meaning of the psalms, not content with the surface, the literal and historical sense, but reaching out after the spiritual senses, applying to Christ and to the life of every Christian. The Celtic Church knew and used most of the Latin commentaries of the Fathers on the psalms. A fragment of an Old Irish commentary, dating from around 850, has survived, it details the different senses in which scripture is to be understood: it gives a rather attractive description of the Book of Psalms to begin with:—

“This book is one and is manifold, to wit, the form of one book without, and many psalms within, like some city which one wall surrounds without and many buildings within. In such wise is the Psalter, to wit, the form of one book without and many psalms within, like some glorious building with many shrines, with various treasure houses with special keys to open each one of them. There is however a special key before each psalm, to wit, its title.”

Then too in the mysterious economy of God, these psalms were written by divine inspiration, and the man who sings and prays them is praising God with poetry that came direct from Him.

There is no evidence to indicate that the same number of “Hours” were celebrated uniformly all over Ireland. An Irish note in a Trinity College MS. gives the primitive Eastern office and does not mention Prime, which is included in the Antiphonary of Bangor. Compline seems to date, at the earliest, from the IX century. There were Irish names for the canonical hours-Prime was antert (ante tertiam), before Terce, which was Tert, then came Sest (Sext) and None, called médon lai (mid-day). From the Latin Verspertina came the Irish fescer or espartain, at midnight was midnoct or iarmérge, and at dawn maten or gairm an choilig (cockcrow). The longest was this last, dawn office and its length varied with that of the night. St. Columbanus gives details of the way in which he, for his monks in Europe, and presumably Bangor in Ireland from which he came, arranged this office. For Saturday and Sunday, from November 1 to March 25, he had 75 Psalms and 25 antiphons, one antiphon to a set of three psalms. Then, from March 25 to June 24, as the nights shortened, a group of three psalms and an antiphon were dropped each week, so reducing the number eventually to 36 psalms and 12 antiphons. The process was reversed as the nights grew longer again. For the rest of the week, Columbanus had 24 psalms in summer and 36 in winter, but there is no evidence to indicate whether or not he had a sliding scale between this maximum and minimum too.

Just as the Church’s liturgy with its cycle of feasts recapitulates and relives the life of Christ through the year, so a mystical meaning was attached to the times of the canonical hours. The Irish MS. mentioned above explains:—

“Why is celebration made at these hours rather than at other hours? Not hard to say. Terce, because it was then Christ was given up by Pontius Pilate, and therein grace came upon the Apostles. Sext, for then Adam sinned and then Christ was placed upon the cross. None, for then He yielded up His spirit. Vespers and Sext, the same course of evil therein, for offering used to made in them according to the law. Nocturns, however, for then the elements were created. Matins, for then Peter denied, and used to shed tears of blood then always, and then Christ was beaten in the house of Caiaphas.”

If the symbolism seems a little far-fetched, the prayers for the canonical hours in the Antiphonary of Bangor put the matter in a different light, and set the symbols in proper perspective and make them a matter of moment and urgency for ourselves.  The Holy Spirit came down on the Apostles at the third hour; we can ask for its grace too:—

“Tibi subnexis precibus Christo Domino supplicamus, qui in hora tertia Diei Spiritum Sanctum Apostolis orantibus emisisti, ejusdem gratiae participationem nobis poscentibus jubeas concedi. Qui regnas.”

The Antiphonary of Bangor, in addition to these prayers in prose, has a series of rhymed couplets for the different hours. At Sext, the crucifixion is recalled:—

Tuis parce supplicibus 
Sexta hora orantibus 
Qui fuisti pro omnibus 
Christi in cruce positus.

None was also the hour at which the centurion Cornelius had been visited by the angel. Just as Cornelius’ prayers had been heard, so too we can beg audience for ours: —

Exaudi preces omnium 
Nona hora orantium 
In qua Christe Cornelium
Visitasti per angelum.

At midnight, we cry out again to Christ, recalling His power which loosed Peter from his chains: —

Jesu clementer visita 
Nocte orantes media 
Qua divina potentia 
Petri solvisiti vincula.

At Matins, as the eastern sky begins to lighten, we can ask for the coming of the Sun of Righteousness, for the light of Christ, to us: —

Deus Qui pulsis tenebris 
Diei lucem tribuis,
Adventum veri luminis
Tuis effunde famulis.

Another prayer for Matins, this time in prose, uses staccato invocations to Christ, hope and health, life and spirit, help in tribulation, defender of our souls: —

“Tu es spes et salus. Tu es vita et virtus. Tu es adjutor in tribulationibus. Tu es defensor animarum nostrarum, Deus Israel in omnibus. Qui regnas.”

For Prime, the Antiphonary includes a beautiful collect which dedicates the whole day to God, asking Him to be our protector throughout the whole day, helper, leader, light of our hearts. It asks Him to take care of our thoughts and words and deeds, so that we shall be able to please him and carry out His will and walk in the road for all our lifetime.

“Esto nobis protector in ista die; Domine sancte. Pater omnipotens, Aeterne Deus et miserator et misericors, et auxiliator, et dux nobis et inluminator cordium nostrorum. Custodi Domine cogitationes, sermones, opera, ut possimus placere in conspectu tuo Domine, et perficere voluntatem tuam, et ambulare in via recta toto nostrae vitae tempore.”

The collects for Vespers include this short but very beautiful prayer, m which is suggested a kind of exchange between earth and heaven, our prayers rising up to God and His blessings coming down upon us.

“Vespertina oratio nostra ascendat ad aures divinae majestatis tuae, et descendat benedictio tua Domine super nos, quemadmodum speravimus in te. Qui regnas.”

The Antiphonary of Bangor includes a collection of hymns which were also included in the Divine Office.  The “Gloria in Excelsis” was to be sung at vespers and at Matins, this last is its original place, for it was to begin with a dawn hymn and only later was inserted into the liturgy of the Mass. The “Te Deum” was sung on Sundays at Bangor. But there were also metrical hymns and the Irish seem to have quickly taken to their composition. Hymn writing in the West is supposed to have been begun by St. Hilary of Poitiers (†366). He had been in exile in the East and had there realised their propaganda value, the heretic Arius had composed songs that ordinary men could sing — and propagate his heresy thereby. But St. Ambrose of Milan (†397) was the first to write really popular hymns, Hilary’s seem to have been a little too theological in content. Ambrose too is said to have introduced antiphonal singing by two choirs to the West, it also had come from the East and is thought to have originated at Antioch.

Considering Irish devotion to St. Martin and the latter’s connection with St. Hilary, it is not surprising to find one of the Antiphonary of Bangor’s hymns attributed to the latter. Whether there is any truth in the attribution is another matter, the hymn is a simple little piece telling the story of the life of Christ. The Rule of Ailbe says that it used to be sung when the bell was rang for the canonical hours, and indeed to recall the principal facts of the Incarnation is as good a way as any to prepare for prayer. 

Skellig Michael on a cold wet morning…

The Bangor hymns for Holy Communion and in honour of the martyrs have already been mentioned, another seems to be intended for the blessing of the Paschal candle, if it was not used daily when the lamps were lit in the evening. One of the most attractive is that for the midnight office. It brings out very clearly the vivid sense of symbolism that the Celtic monks had and how they realised that the events of the Old Testament foreshadowed those of the New. The setting is easy to imagine, the surf growling to itself on the strand at Bangor, or perhaps the still glitter of moonlight upon the Shannon at Clonmacnoise, or the wind screaming over the stone built beehive roofs of one of the island hermitages. It is dark and the night is mysterious and silent. So the hymn recalls the striking down of the first born of Egypt, all but the Jews who were protected by the blood of the paschal lamb. We too, Christians, are protected by the Blood of Christ, the real Paschal Lamb that the Passover one prefigured, from all danger. In the dark we keep vigil, like the wise virgins, and then recalling Paul and Silas in prison, the metaphor changes to that of the prison of this world in which we lie bound by sin and cry out for the help of God.

The Divine Office of the Celtic Church was not just a matter of singing and praying. The whole man took part in the work and there were numerous genuflections and prostrations. The Rule of Ailbe gives an indication of these: —

“A hundred genuflections for him at the Beati (Psalm 119) at the beginning of the day before his questions, thrice fifty (psalms) dearer than (other) works, with a hundred genuflections every hour of vespers.

“A hundred genuflections every matin are due in the church of a believer from the feast of John whom they adore unto the solemn pasch of abstinence.”

From the “Rule of the Grey Monks” comes the picture of the Celtic monks making his way out to the church on a dark night when the wind has a nip in it and the sea is breaking angrily along the coast.

monk at work“To go to iamérge, great labour; the wind stings my two ears; were it not dread of the blessed Lord, though sweet the bell, I would not go to it.”

“Fear of the blessed Lord.” It is easy to think of the Divine Office, of any church service, as something a little unreal, out of touch with the main work of the world outside. Yet, in fact, it is the opposite, the psalms and hymns and prayers are an approach to ultimate reality, to the source of all being, to Truth itself. These praises are a foretaste of the shout of joy of heaven, these prayers the essential link in our getting what we need to live here and now. For the Celtic saints, the Mass and the Divine Office were die great actions of the day, the source of power on which everything else depended and from which every other activity took its origin and direction.