14 January 2012

14 January - St. Hilary; Feast of the Ass

Weather: Saint Hilary's Day is traditionally the coldest day of the year.

Well, it is definitely the coldest so far!
At Poitiers, in France, the birthday of St. Hilary, bishop and confessor of the Catholic faith, which he courageously defended, and for which he was banished four years to Phrygia, where, among other miracles, he raised a man from the dead.  Pius IX declared him Doctor of the Church.

Ordination of St. Hilary  (Source)
In the traditional calendar, today is the feast of Saint Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers (13 January in the new calendar, which was originally the Octave of Epiphany).  He was declared a Doctor of the Church for his role in combating Arianism in the 4th century.

From Chambers' Book of Days: "The council of Arles, held in 353, had condemned Athanasius and others, who were opponents of the Arian doctrine; and Hilarius, in the council of Beziers, held in 356, defended Athanasius, in opposition to Saturninus, bishop of Arles.  He was in consequence deposed from his bishopric by the Arians, and banished by Constantius to Phrygia."

"There he remained about four years, occupied in composing his principal work, On the Trinity, in twelve books.  Hilarius… wrote a work On Synods addressed to the bishops of Gaul and Britain, in which he gives an account of the various creeds adopted in the Eastern church subsequent to the council of Nice; and he addressed three books to the Emperor Constantius, of whose religious opinions he was always an energetic and fearless opponent."

"He continued, indeed, from the time when he became a bishop till the termination of his life in 368, to be zealously engaged in the Trinitarian controversy; and the final triumph of the Nicene creed over the Arian may be attributed in a great degree to his energetic exertions. After the death of Constantius, in 361, he was restored to his bishopric, and returned to Poitiers, where he died."

Before the Council of Trent, marriages were forbidden between the onset of Advent (around the end of November) and Hilary's Day.  Marriages could be solemnized between now and Septuagesima (the Sunday approximately 70 days from Easter), and then again after the Octave day of Easter.   

This is another day on which to toast the apple trees (see January 5th); Hard Cider is apropros. 

In the Middle Ages, today was celebrated under the name "The Feast of the Ass", originally a commemoration of the Flight into Egypt by the Holy Family, and as with many such feasts, filled with plays and pageants which explained the scriptures to a mostly illiterate populace.

Again, from Chambers' Book of Days: "But the advantages resulting from this mode of instruction were counterbalanced by the numerous ridiculous ceremonies which they originated.  Of these probably none exceeded in grossness of absurdity the Festival of the Ass, as annually performed on the 14th of January." 

"The escape of the Holy Family into Egypt was represented by a beautiful girl holding a child at her breast, and seated on an ass, splendidly decorated with trappings of gold-embroidered cloth. After having been led in solemn procession through the streets of the city in which the celebration was held, the ass, with its burden, was taken into the principal church, and placed near the high altar, while the various religious services were performed." 

"In place, however, of the usual responses, the people on this occasion imitated the braying of an ass; and, at the conclusion of the service, the priest, instead of the usual benediction, brayed three times, and was answered by a general hee-hawing from the voices of the whole congregation. A hymn, as ridiculous as the ceremony, was sung by a double choir, the people joining in the chorus, and imitating the braying of an ass. Ducange has preserved this burlesque composition, a curious medley of French and mediæval Latin, which may be translated thus:

From the country of the East,
Came this strong and handsome beast:
This able ass, beyond compare,
Heavy loads and packs to bear.
     Now, seignior ass, a noble bray,
     Thy beauteous mouth at large display;
     Abundant food our hay-lofts yield,
     And oats abundant load the field.
     Hee-haw! He-haw! He-haw!

True it is, his pace is slow,
Till he feels the quickening blow;
Till he feel the urging goad,
On his hinder part bestowed.

     Now, seignior ass, etc.

There are several more stanzas praising the ass, but having nothing to do with its service to the Holy Family.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article "Feast of Asses" says that at the end of Mass "...apparently without awakening the least consciousness of its impropriety, the following direction was observed:

In fine Missæ sacerdos, versus ad populum, vice 'Ita, Missæ Est', ter hinhannabit: populus vero, vice 'Deo Gratias', ter respondebit, 'Hinham, hinham, hinham.'

"At the end of Mass, the priest, having turned to the people, in lieu of saying the 'Ite, Missa est', will bray thrice; the people instead of replying 'Deo Gratias' say, 'Hinhau, hinhau, hinhau.'"

[and then what?  "The Lord be with you"... "And with your Ass"]
[no, better not.]