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Dominus Illuminatio Mea

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A Mass of the Transfiguration

It is a curious fact of liturgical history that originally this Second Sunday of Lent had no Mass of its own. The Roman clergy and people were tired from the long night vigil that began on the evening of Ember Saturday and ended at dawn with the Holy Sacrifice. Only when the solemn night vigil was pushed back to Saturday morning did it become necessary to put together a separate Mass for Sunday morning. But what a Mass it is! From beginning to end today’s Mass bathes in the radiant light of the transfigured Christ.

Introit

The Introit is, in many places, the same one sung on August 6th, the summer festival of the Transfiguration: “Of you my heart has spoken: 'Seek His Face.’ It is your Face, O Lord, that I seek; hide not your Face from me” (Ps 26:8-9). The Church sings of what she holds deep in her heart: the desire to gaze upon the Face of Christ. The melody itself rises and lingers over the words vultum tuum, your Face. The Introit ends in a plea, at once humble and confident: “Turn not away your Face from me” (Ps 26:9).

The Way

The Church, in every age and in all her children, is called to fulfill the command addressed to Abram: “Go forth out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and out of thy father’s house, and come into the land which I shall shew thee” (Gen 12:1). The Church knows that so long as the Face of her Lord shines before her she can follow Him even along the way of the cross. He who says, “I am the way” (Jn 14:6), was lifted up on the cross, becoming the signpost pointing to “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9). Relentlessly God calls us out of what is familiar, out of our routines (even our pious ones) into the uncharted vastness of faith, “into the land that He will show us” (Gen 12:1).

Seeing Only Jesus

In the Church’s choice of today’s Introit there is a very practical teaching for our own Lenten journey. We are to focus not on our sins, nor on our weaknesses, nor on the roughness of the path beneath our feet, but on the Face of Christ. The Introit wonderfully anticipates the words of Saint Matthew in the gospel: “And they lifting up their eyes saw no one but only Jesus” (Mt 17:8).

Psalm 26

The psalm that accompanies the Introit describes the fear of one threatened by attackers on all sides. Psalm 26 is the prayer of one thrust into the fray of spiritual combat. And yet, it teaches us to say, even in the midst of the battle: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the protector of my life: of whom shall I be afraid” (Ps 26:1). Again, note the link between the introit and the gospel. “And Jesus came and touched them: and said to them, 'Arise and fear not’” (Mt 17:7). Looking into the eyes of her Saviour, the Church says in the words of the psalmist, “Of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps 26:1).

Ad Gloriam

This Sunday of the Transfiguration follows the Sunday of the Temptation. This too is full of meaning and of practical teaching for us. Saint Paul addresses Timothy with a stern realism: “Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God” (2 Tim 1:8). The beginning of the way of the cross is beset with hardship, with temptations. Holy Father Benedict knew this well. He speaks of all the things that are hard and repugnant in the way to God” (RB 8:8). The return to God is through “the toil of obedience” (RB Pro: 2), the hard listening that changes life. There is no return to God apart from the way of the cross, and there is no other way to glory. The ultimate tragedy is our refusal to follow Christ ad gloriam, to glory (RB Pro: 7).

Eyes Fixed on the Face of Christ

Dame Aemiliana Löhr says that “the essence of temptation is the desire to make short-cuts in the way, to come of one’s own power to glory, and to despise the appointed hours; to go round the cross.” “Man’s part,” she says, “is only to go his way, to be patient, to suffer, and to wait. The final glory is God’s to give at the hour which He alone knows” (The Mass Through the Year, Volume I, p. 171). Today’s liturgy says, “Go your way, but with your eyes fixed on the Face of Christ. Be patient, suffer, and wait, seeking at every moment and in all things His Face.”

Collect

The Collect reminds us that without the sustenance of God’s word we will suffer spiritual malnutrition, grow weak, and falter. This is why the Church has us pray: O God, who commanded us to listen to your Son, the Beloved, deign to feed us inwardly by your word.” The soul who, engaged in spiritual combat, slacks off in the practice of lectio divina or allows herself to become indifferent to it, will become spiritually anemic. The soul “inwardly fed by the Word of God” will enjoy a growing clarity of vision. Seeing more clearly, she will be able to follow Christ more closely. Strengthened inwardly, she will be able to walk more securely, until, as the Collect says, “with the eyes of the heart made pure,” she rejoices at the sight of the glory of God.

Offertory Antiphon

Today, the Offertory Antiphon is the voice of the Church reflecting on everything spoken to her in the Liturgy of the Word. The command of the Father speaking out of the bright cloud calls for a response. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: listen to Him” (Mt 17:5). While the bread and wine are made ready she takes a moment to ponder what has been said to her, and she makes a resolution. What does she resolve to do? “I will meditate on your commands which I love exceedingly; with arms flung wide I will stretch toward your commandments for I love them” (Ps 118:47-48). The antiphon is taken from Psalm 118 wherein every reference to the commandments, the law, the statutes of God become, for the Church, a reference to Christ, the beloved Son. The Church resolves today to “set nothing before the love of Christ” (RB 4:21). She addresses the Father who spoke to her in the Gospel, and moved by the Spirit, makes this bold resolution. The melody itself is full of energy and tenderness. “I will meditate on your Christ whom I love exceedingly; with arms flung wide I will stretch toward Christ for I love Him.” It is this prayer that readies us for the Holy Sacrifice.

Shines Like the Sun

We cannot step into the sacrosanct core of the Mass without encountering the love of Christ, without coming face to face with “the love of God which, being perfect, drives out all fear” (RB Pro: 67). Every fear, every terror “melts like wax before Him” (cf. Ps 67:3) whose “Face shines like the sun” (Mt 17:2). Exposure to the brightness of the Eucharist, -- a brightness veiled beneath the appearances of bread and wine -- is exposure to the love of Christ and to the radiance of His Face.

And Night Shall Be No More

After Holy Communion, made aware of this we will pray to the Father, saying that, “while we are yet on earth He gives us to partake of things of heaven.” What are these things? The book of the Apocalypse tells us what they are: “And they shall see His Face: and His name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more and they shall not need the light of the lamp, nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall enlighten them, and shall reign forever and ever” (Ap 22:4-5).

My Light and My Salvation

With the Face of Christ before us and His light surrounding us we can go forward, even into the dark uncharted territories of faith. “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” (Ps 26:1).

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Thursday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Genesis 17: 3-9
Psalm 104: 4-5, 6-7, 8-9 (R. 8a)
John 8: 51-59

Christ our Priest

On this Thursday of the Fifth Week of Lent, the last Thursday before Holy Week, the Roman Missal gives an Entrance Antiphon drawn not from the Psalms, but from the Letter to the Hebrews. “Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant, that by means of His death, they that are called may receive the promise of eternal inheritance” (Heb 9:15). The mediatorship of Christ, our High Priest fills us with hope: “A fuller hope has been brought into our lives, enabling us to come close to God” (Heb 7:19).

Through Christ and in Christ

The Roman Gradual gives an Introit from the Book of the Prophet Daniel: “Every thing that Thou hast done to us, Thou hast done in true judgment, for we have sinned against Thee, and we have not hearkened to Thy commandments, but give glory to Thy name, O Lord, and deal with us according to the multitude of Thy mercies” (Dan 3: 31, 29, 30, 43, 42). Here again, the mediatorship of Christ is evoked, albeit implicitly: it is through Christ that the name of the Father is glorified, and it is in Christ that the Father deals with us according to multitude of His mercies.

The Father Sees Us Through the Wounds of Christ

Covenant means coming together. Christ, our Priest and Head, offering His Precious Blood on our behalf, “enables us to come close to God” (Heb 7:1919), by bringing us with Him into the presence of the Father. “The sanctuary into which Jesus has entered is not one made by human hands, is not some adumbration of the truth; he has entered heaven itself, where he now appears in God’s sight on our behalf” (Heb 9:24). The Father looks at our faces through the Face of His Beloved Son. The Father looks at our hands, defiled by sin, through His pierced Hands. The Father looks into our hearts, impure and divided, through the Heart of Jesus, opened by the soldier’s lance.

The Blood of Christ

“Shall not the blood of Christ, who offered himself, through the Holy Spirit, as a victim unblemished in God’s sight, purify our consciences, and set them free from lifeless observances, to serve the living God?” (Heb 9:14). The Father, seeing us sprinkled with the Precious Blood of the Lamb, accepts us and, through His Son, draws us to Himself. “But now, you are in Christ Jesus; now, through the Blood of Christ, you have been brought close, you who were once, so far away” (Eph 2:13). This is the meaning of the New Covenant: in the Blood Christ God has come out to us; and we, in the Blood of Christ, have gone out to God. No longer can the Father look upon His Son without seeing us, the members of His Mystical Body. No longer can He look at us without seeing the Bride “clothed in readiness for the Wedding Feast of the Lamb” (Ap 19:7), the Church “for whom Christ gave Himself up, that he might sanctify her” (Eph 5:25-26). The Blood of Christ authorizes us to pray with boldness. Lips sanctified by the Blood of Christ can dare to say, “Abba, Father!”

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I preached this homily in 2007. It makes reference, therefore, to the reformed lectionary. I offer it today for the readers of Vultus Christi who may be hearing these same texts today.

Wednesday of the 5th Week of Lent

Daniel 3:14-20, 24-25, 28
Daniel 3: 29-30, 31, 33, 32, 34 (R. 29b)
John 8:31-42

Freedom

Freedom is one of those words that, as soon as it is pronounced, seems to elevate one's blood pressure. Folks become passionately defensive about their freedom. The question is, "What do we mean by freedom?" In contemporary culture, tragically, the word has been paired with two other words: "to choose." The freedom to choose. Far from referring to the noble freedom of the God's adopted children, delivered out of slavery, to receive the Word of God and, in its light, choose the things that are pleasing to Him, it has come to refer, among other things, to what the proponents of abortion call, "a woman's freedom to choose.'

Choices

The freedom to choose has become a slogan in some circles. It becomes the justification for every manner of self-indulgence, idiosyncracy, sin, perversion, and cruelty. The "free to choose" mentality of the world has infiltrated even the minds of some Catholics. It has spawned the exaggerated cult of options, liturgical and otherwise. There are those who choose from among the teachings of Church, carefully avoiding whatever challenges their sin and unsettles their moral constructs. The criteria are purely subjective: "I will choose what works for me and, if it doesn't work for me, I need not choose it."

Heresy

The Greek word for heretic derives from airesis, meaning choice. Heretics were simply the choosers, those who instead of accepting the faith of the Church in its integrity, chose what pleased them and rejected what displeased them. There is in each of us one who wants always to choose. To choose by one's own lights, or even worse, by one's own tastes, preferences, and needs, is to court spiritual disaster.

In the Light of God

In today's Collect we beg God to enlighten our hearts. The light for which we pray is the splendour of truth. For one who lives in the light of God, every other "light" is darkness.

Merciful God, enlighten the hearts of Thy children,
hallowed by penitence,
and in Thy lovingkindness,
graciously give ear to the suppliant people
upon whom Thou bestowest the spirit of devotion.

Pride

Attachment to one's own "lights" and choices is the earmark of pride. One becomes one's own reference. One stands outside the community of Tradition. One trusts one's own insights and cultivates a systematic suspicion of anything handed on. The person who chooses one thing necessarily rejects a multitude of others. The Evil One is perniciously clever when it comes to twisting good things to his own ends. If you have any doubt about that, re-read C.S. Lewis's, The Screwtape Letters, a book that, belying its amusing literary style, is deadly serious.

The Truth

Today Our Lord tells us what freedom is; He tells us how we can be set free. "If you continue faithful to my word, you are my disciples in earnest; so you will come to know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:31-32). To continue faithful to the Word of Christ is to receive it from the Church as she dispenses it in the Sacred Liturgy day by day. It is to hear it proclaimed in the assembly of the faithful, the Communion of the Saints. It is to receive it from the lips of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and, in our own day, from the lips of the Pope and the bishops teaching in communion with him.

Discipleship

To continue faithful to the Word of Christ is to believe it, staking our lives on what we have heard. It is to repeat what we have heard, holding it, and turning it over ceaselessly in our hearts. It is the Word at work in us that makes us disciples in earnest. Only in a relationship of discipleship -- that is by the free acceptance of the discipline -- the gentle yoke -- of Christ -- can we come to know the truth. It is that truth, acquired not cheaply, but dearly and at a personal cost, that in the end sets us free.

The Hermeneutic of Discontinuity

In his momentous address of December 22, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI warned us of the danger of passing the truth through the filter of what he called "a certain hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture." The Holy Father reviewed the more than forty years gone by since the close of the Second Vatican Council and observed that alongside of its good fruits, there has been no small measure of confusion and discord, inadequacies and mistakes. I give you his own words:

The problems [in the implementation of the Council] arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.
On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture"; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the "hermeneutic of reform", of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

Rootedness in Sacred Tradition

The freedom for which we were created, the freedom we all seek, comes not from any rupture with Tradition, but rather from a rootedness in its incomparably rich humus. Rootedness is very close to humility. The humble person, the humble community has roots going deep into the soil of Tradition. Therefore the humble person, the humble community will bear abundant fruits of holiness.

Passiontide

These days of Passiontide invite us to zeal for the sacred liturgy and generosity in prayer. The fruits of Passiontide are abandonment to the will of God in every infirmity, darkness, and contradiction, simplicity, joy, and a burning love for Jesus in the mysteries of His suffering and death. If you would know freedom, look with love and compunction at Jesus bound to the column and nailed to the wood of the Cross. In Him, we have "salvation, life and resurrection: through Him are we saved and set free" (cf. Gal 6:14).

The Two Annunciations

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The Annunciation of the Lord is being celebrated today on the Monday of Passion Week; Friday will be the Commemoration of the Compassion of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Sorrows. The juxtaposition of the two feasts -- and of the two mysteries -- is extraordinarily rich. In 2005, when Good Friday fell on March 25th, I reflected with the Poor Clares in Barhamsville, Virginia on the intersection of these same two mysteries. Here is the homily I preached:

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“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
'For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?’” (Rom 11:33-34).
“None of the rulers of this age understood this;
for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8).

We find ourselves today at the intersection of two mysteries,
or rather, at the heart of the One Mystery,
indivisible, and yet too rich to be taken in all at once:
Incarnation and Redemption,
Annunciation and Crucifixion,
Conception and Death.

The Western tradition, seeking clarity in distinctions
and respectful of chronos, the ordered time of the universe,
separates, fixing her gaze today on the wood of the Cross,
and promising to return in ten days time
“to a city of Galilee named Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph
of the house of David” (Lk 1:26-27).

The Eastern tradition, spiraling into kairos,
the ever-present immediacy of the God who is, who was, and is to come,
integrates, even liturgically,
the mysteries of the conceiving Virgin
and of the crucified Fruit of her womb.

One might argue as convincingly from one perspective as from the other,
but we are here not to debate but to contemplate.
The mute prostration at the beginning of this solemn liturgy,
-- all of humanity flung down before the face of God in the person of the priest --
was an act of utter and unconditional surrender to the Mystery,
not to the Mystery as we see it,
poor myopic creatures, straining to transcend our limited perceptions,
but to the Mystery as it is
in its cruciform “breadth and length and height and depth” (cf. Eph 3:18),
and in “the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:19).

This is the crucifying and glorious knowledge
of “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8)
by which one is “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19).
This is the awareness that, like a sword, pierced the heart of the Virgin Mother,
“standing by the cross of Jesus” (Jn 19:25).
Even she watched him in the painful spasms of death,
she remembered his first stirrings in her womb,
and somehow sensed obscurely,
“as in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor 13:12),
that he would stir again beneath the shroud.
But for now, she saw the fruit of her womb
become the fruit of the tree

Thirty-three years had passed;
it seemed to her like yesterday.
“Sent by God” (Lk 1:26), that bright, majestic, creature had come to her,
--exquisitely courteous he was, and awful and lovely all at once --
and his greeting still astonished her:
“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you:
blessed are you among women” (Lk 1:28).
She remembered the shock of it,
and how she had “considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (Lk 1:29).
Now his voice came to her again, and how she needed to hear it,
to lean on it, to steady herself against it, to cling to it
even as Abraham, “in hope believing against hope” (Rom 4:18),
had clung to the wild promises made by God to him:
“Fear not, Mary, for you have found grace with God” (Lk 1:30).

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To see what she was seeing --
her Child stretched naked on the wood,
his hands and feet pierced,
his whole body bloodied,
his sweet face beneath a cruel crown of thorns --
to see this and yet believe in the word of the Angel
was to feel the two-edged sword’s sharp blade
“piercing to the division of soul and spirit,
of joints and marrow” (Heb 4:12).
Could this be what Simeon meant:
“And your own soul a sword shall pierce” (Lk 2:35)?

The Angel had said more:
“And, behold, you shall conceive in your womb,
and shall bring forth a son;
and you shall call his name Jesus” (Lk 1:31).
This too she remembered, and lifting her eyes, she read “the inscription over him
in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew” (Lk 23:38):
“Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (Jn 19:19).
For a moment she thought of her Joseph
she still missed him so -- her friend, her comforter, her rock --
and she remembered what the Angel had said to him as well:
“You shall call his name Jesus,
for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).

“He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High;
and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father;
and he shall reign in the house of Jacob forever.
And of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Lk 1:32-33).
Tell me, O Gabriel, is this bitter abjection his greatness?
Is this cross of execution his throne?
Is this defeat the inauguration of his kingdom?

Just then the thief crucified beside him spoke,
as if in answer to her torment:
“'Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
And Jesus said to him: 'Amen I say to you,
this day you shall be with me in paradise’” (Lk 23:42-43).
For an instant, she turned from the face of her Jesus
to the face of the thief,
and she felt herself a mother to him.
“For those whom God foreknew
he also predestined to be conformed to the image of her Son,
in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren” (cf, Rom 8:29).

With that, her Jesus spoke,
his gentleness like the breeze in the cool of the day,
his authority undiminished by the scourging, the mockery, and the taunts.
Seeing “his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near,
he said to his mother, 'Woman, behold your son!’
Then he said to the disciple, 'Behold your mother!’” (Jn 19:25).

This was a new Annunciation, the second one:
the first, thirty-three years ago by the mouth of the Angel Gabriel;
this second one by the mouth of her Son,
lifted up with bloodied arms spread wide in place of shining wings.
Then, as now and forever, “no word shall be impossible with God” (Lk 1:37).

“Woman, behold your son!” (Jn 19:25).
To this Mary had no answer
apart from the one she had given the Angel then:
“Behold, the handmaid of the Lord;
be it done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
She was to be mother, mother again and again.
Mother to John, to Dismas, to Mary Magdalene, to Peter, and to James,
mother to “the coming generation” and to “a people yet unborn” (Ps 21:30-31).
Mother of the Church.

“Afterwards, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished,
that the scripture might be fulfilled, said: 'I thirst’” (Jn 19:28)
and she knew in herself the torment that is the thirst of God
and tasted in her mouth the bitter vinegar,
and knew too that this new motherhood was given her
in this new annunciation
to quench the thirst of God with the children of her sorrowful heart:
adorers “in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:23).

And as she recalled how at Nazareth the Holy Spirit had come upon her
and the power of Most High had overshadowed her (cf. Lk 1:35),
he said, “'It is consummated,’ and bowing his head,
he gave up his spirit” (Jn 19:30).
She lifted her face to receive the breath of his mouth,
and remembered that the Angel too,
having accomplished that for which he was sent from God left her,
leaving God in her womb.
“And the angel departed from her” (Lk 1:38).

Afterwards they took his body down from the cross.
Strange that another Joseph should be there helping.
A strong and tender man.
And she remembered her Joseph, also strong and tender,
lifting that tiny newborn body in his calloused hands
to place it in the manger.
And she wept.

They placed his lifeless body in her arms.
He seemed so tired, so spent, so in need of his Sabbath rest.
Bits of a lullaby she used to sing to him went through her mind.
“Sleep, my Yeshua, sleep.
Sleep my Yeshua, sleep until you wake.”
She remembered something he had said:
“I will come again and will take you to myself,
that where I am you may be also” (Jn 14:3).
And she repeated something he had prayed:
“Father, glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (Jn 17:1),

They placed him the tomb.
And the stone was rolled across the entrance,
sealing in her heart with his body.

To John she said:
“Come, son, take me home.
'He has torn, that he may heal us;
he has stricken, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
and on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him’ (Hos 6:1-2).”
And John, saying nothing, looked into her eyes,
just as Jesus had earlier in the day,
and like Jesus, he believed her.

I Am the Health of My People

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Thursday of the Third Week of Lent

Station at the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian

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Introit

I am the health of My people, says the Lord,
in whatever trouble they shall cry to me,
I will hear them,
and I will be their Lord forever.

Very often in the liturgy of Lent, the antiphons, readings, and prayers of the Mass are linked to the day's stational church. Today just such a link strikes us in the first word of the Introit: salus, health. The Church goes in procession to the house of the Holy Physicians Cosmas and Damian and, as she crosses the threshold, she sings, or rather repeats for all to hear, what her Lord sings to her: "I am the health of My people, says the Lord, in whatever trouble they shall cry to Me, I will hear them, and I will be their Lord forever." The initial letters of the first four Latin words of today's Introit are an acrostric forming SPES, the Latin word for hope.

Opening the Roman Gradual we see that the Church has chosen the antiphon's accompanying verse from Psalm 77: "Attend, My people, to My law: turn your ears to the word of my mouth" (Ps 77:1).

Dame Aemiliana Löhr, O.S.B. gives a brilliant commentary on today's Introit. Listen to what she says:

Attend, My people, to my law, turn your ears to the word of My mouth’ (Ps 77:1). This gives the grand theme of the Mass; the healthy man, in God’s sense and the Church’s, is the obedient man. The reason for this is very simple, as the Introit expresses it: God is the sole source of life, the 'fountain of life,’ the health and healing of man. He nourishes and protects the life which he has made. He enlivens what has grown slack in battle, He heals what is sick, and He makes this healing an abiding and eternal one by His mysteries. . . . The health and salvation of the man who is knit to God is . . . something in the realm of being, it is God’s own life filling him. Therefore it is something that he cannot give himself; it must be a free gift and the operation of God. The working and the gift take place in the form of the mysterium . . . the liturgy. This is where the health-giving air of God blows. All that a man can do towards restoring his own health is to bring himself into this healing atmosphere and allow it to work upon him. This is what it means to seek salvation beneath His wing. The helpfulness of those Holy Physicians whose house the praying Church visits today at Rome can also consist only in their bringing the sick man into contact with God and His action.

Collect

We humbly implore Your majesty, O Lord,
that, as the days of the festival of our salvation draw closer,
we may, with greater devotion,
advance toward the celebration of the Paschal Mystery.

Although I keenly regret that the 1970 Missal does not keep the ancient Collect of today's Mass, Magnificet, with its allusion to Saints Cosmas and Damian, the new Collect does have the merit of calling Pascha, "the health-bearing festival,"dies salutiferae festivitatis. It asks that we may advance with greater devotion toward the celebration of the Paschal Mystery.

The underlying idea is one of picking up speed, of haste, alacrity, joy. It is very close to what Holy Father Benedict says in Chapter 49 of the Rule: " . . . and so with the joy of spiritual desire, look forward to holy Pascha." The closer we get to the Cross and Resurrection, the more quickly we advance, drawn on by Love. The words of the Bride in the Canticle become the prayer of the Church in this second half of Lent: "Draw me: we will run after Thee in the odour of Thy ointments" (Ct 31:3).

Offertory Antiphon

Though I walk in the midst of troubles
You will give me life, O Lord;
and You will stretch out Your hand against the wrath of My enemies,
and Your right hand shall save me (Ps 137:7).

The Offertory Antiphon is realistic. Even when we are drawn forward by love, we will find ourselves "walking in the midst of troubles." This is to make our confidence in God increase. The liturgy tells us exactly what to say to God when we feel as if the darkness is closing in on us, and the troubles we have to bear are going to crush us: "You will give me life, O Lord; and You will stretch out Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and Your right hand shall save me (Ps 137:7).

Prayer Over the Oblations

So that the gifts of Your people
may be acceptable to You, O Lord,
we beseech You,
cleanse them from the contagion of evil,
and permit not that those to whom You promise
the rewards of Your truth
should cling to false joys.

Again, the 1970 Prayer Over the Oblations does not mention Saints Cosmas and Damian as does the ancient Secret of the day. It speaks, however, of the contagio perversitatis -- the contagion of perversity, the contagion of evil. Sin is contagious. Evil spreads. Sin engenders sin, not only in us, but also around us. One angry brother in a community, one brother holding onto a resentment, one brother nourishing hateful thoughts, one brother being disobedient, poisons the whole environment. He becomes toxic not only to herself but to those around him. The same thing happens in families: "the fathers have eaten unripe grapes," says Scripture, "and the teeth of the children are set on edge." All sin is social. All sin has corporate effects.

But holiness too is contagious. Saints always grow in clusters. The virtue of one calls forth virtue from another. The saints, by helping one another, resist becoming toxic with bitterness and instead breathe forth generosity, charity, peace, and patience.

The liturgy remains soberly realistic: and so we ask in the Prayer Over the Offerings that we be cleansed from the contagio perversitatis -- the contagion of perversity. This means that each of us carries within the contagious germ of evil. The Most Holy Eucharist is given us to remove that contagious germ lest the whole Body become sick.

Communion Antiphon

You have ordered that we should keep Your commandments
with the greatest care.
May my ways be guided
so that I may keep Your righteousness (Ps 118:4-5).

The Communion Antiphon, a true processional, hearkens back to the Collect with its image of advancing toward the Paschal solemnity. We pray to be guided in our ways so as to keep the righteousness of the Lord, that is, holiness, with the greatest care.

The ways of holiness, though they be many, all converge into the one royal way of the Via Crucis. "Enter by the narrow gate," says the Lord, "for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Mt 7:13-14). By receiving the Sacred Body and Precious Blood of Christ, one passes through the narrow gate. The way is not something exterior to ourselves; it is Christ who said, "I am the Way" (Jn 14:6), living out the mysteries of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection within us. "Christ in you," says Saint Paul: "the hope of glory" (Col 1:27).

Postcommunion

Lift up by your gracious help, O Lord,
those whom you have refreshed by your sacraments,
that we may lay hold of the effect of your salvation
by these mysteries and by the way we live.

After Holy Communion we pray to be "lifted up." Those who follow Christ in the way of the Cross will fall beneath its weight. They will fall because of weakness, fatigue, and the weight of crushing sorrows. Not every fall is sin. There are falls permitted by God in order to make us grow in confidence. "My soul cleaves to the dust," says the psalmist; "revive me according to Thy word" (Ps 118:25).

Prayer Over the People

Trusting in your mercy,
we implore your clemency, O Lord,
so that, as we hold what we are from you,
we may by your grace become what you would have us be
and be able to do the good things you will.

The Prayer Over the People insists on the mercy and of clemency of God. Its petition is that we, by grace, may become what God would have us be and be able to do the good things He wills. One of my favourite personal prayers in some way echoes today's Prayer Over the People. It is a petition of the French Augustinian mystic, Mother Yvonne-Aimée of Malestroit.

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Très Sainte Trinité,
faites en moi ce que vous voulez trouver
afin de tirer de mon néant
tout l’amour et toute la gloire que vous aviez en vue
quand vous m’avez créé.

Most Holy Trinity,
do in me whatsoever you want to find in me,
so as to draw out of my nothingness
all the love and all the glory which you had in view
when you created me.

To become by grace what God would have us be: is not that what every life is about?

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Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-18
Psalm 50:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14, 15
2 Corinthians 5:20 -- 6:2
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Compunction

Ash Wednesday addresses the heart. Ashes are sprinkled on our heads, but Lent is lived in the heart. God wants pierced hearts. God looks for the broken heart. "Even now," says the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments" (Jl 2:12-13). Paradoxically, in order to give God one's whole heart, it must first be pierced and broken. This is what we mean when we speak of compunction and contrition.

The traditional Lenten disciplines -- fasting and abstinence, almsgiving, silence, keeping vigil, and increasing the time devoted to lectio divina each day -- are not ends in themselves. They are the tried and true means by which one arrives at having a pierced and broken heart, at some measure of compunction and contrition.

Joyful Fasting

1. Fasting and abstinence help to crack the heart's stony shell; hunger makes one vulnerable. But here is the catch: Our Lord would have us fast as if we were feasting. One of the fruits of fasting is spiritual joy. Fasting cleanses and refines the palate of the soul, making it possible to "taste and see that the Lord is sweet" (Ps 33:9). "When you fast do not look dismal . . . anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Mt 6:16-17). The fasting pleasing to Our Lord makes the face cheerful and lifts up the heart.

Fasting (going without eating) and abstinence (not eating certain foods) need not be enormous feats of ascetical prowess. One's fasting and abstinence should always be proportionate to one's health and state in life. The value of fasting and abstinence is that they allow us to feel a certain emptiness. They put us in touch with our real hunger: the hunger that only God can satisfy.

Ultimately all fasting and abstinence have a Eucharistic finality. "He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst" (Jn 6:35), says the Lord. Fasting is doing what it is supposed to do when it sends us hungering and thirsting to the Word of God and to the Holy Mysteries of the Altar.

Eia, Mater, Fons Amoris

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Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent
Commemoration of the Sorrowful Compassion of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Virgin of Sorrows is the Portress of the Holy Mysteries, the Keeper of the Door of Christ's Pierced Heart, the Mother of our Joy. The last edition of the Missale Romanum, published in 2002, contains two modifications, discreet touches that will leave in the Missal of Paul VI the unmistakable imprint of the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II.

The first of these concerns the Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent, the Friday before Palm Sunday. The 2002 edition of the Missal restores the Commemoration of the Compassion of the Virgin Mary formerly celebrated on the Friday of Passion Week, and offers for the Fifth Friday of Lent the following collect:

O God, who during this time
graciously grant to your Church
devoutly to imitate blessed Mary
in contemplation of the Passion of Christ,
grant us, we pray,
through the intercession of the same Virgin,
to cling each day more firmly to your Only-Begotten Son,
and to come at length to the fullness of his grace.


The second touch is in a rubric concerning the chants during the Good Friday adoratio crucis: it suggests that after the traditional chants given in the Missal and the Graduale Romanum the Stabat Mater also be sung in commemoration of the Blessed Virgin’s sorrowful compassion. In this way, a thirteenth century text, presumed to be of Franciscan origin -- it is attributed to Jacopone da Todi --takes it place alongside the ancient antiphon Crucem tuam, the Improperia, and the hymn to the Cross of Venantius Fortunatus.

The Stabat Mater is strong medicine for those who, being of a more abstract or cerebral disposition, would approach the Passion of Christ without getting bloodied, without being set ablaze, without feeling a melting in their breast.

Who Is On Your "E" List?

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Saturday of the First Week of Lent

Deuteronomy 26:16-19
Psalm 118: 1-2, 4-5, 7-8
Matthew 5:43-48

The Spirit of Compunction

If yesterday's Gospel pierced your heart with sorrow for the sin of anger, it is likely that today's Gospel will open a fresh wound. At the Prayer Over the People on Ash Wednesday we asked God for the spirit of compunction, for the grace of a Word-pierced heart. Do you remember the prayer? It is a threshold text, one of great importance for the rest of Lent:

Upon those who bow themselves before your majesty, O Lord, graciously pour out the spirit of compunction, that, by your mercy, they may win the rewards promised to those who repent.

Wound Thou This Heart of Mine

We asked God to pierce our hearts through with the "two-edged sword of His Word" (Heb 4:11), not once, but again and again. Lent is all about becoming vulnerable; it is about approaching the Word of God with none of the protective gear we so cleverly devise against it. It is about saying to God, "Wound Thou this heart of mine; wound it again and again until by the wounding of Thy Word I am healed"

Pray For Those Who Persecute You

Today the command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us pierces our hearts. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven" (Mt 5:43-45). People ordinarily pass over this command of the Lord, saying, "I am not the sort of person to have enemies."

Enemies

An enemy is one who feels hatred for or fosters harmful designs against another. An enemy is one who lives in a state of enmity. Enmity is a feeling or condition of hostility, ill will, animosity, antipathy, or antagonism. Jesus does not address our being enemies in today's passage; He focuses instead on how we are to respond to those who hold us in enmity, those who have hostile feelings towards us.

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Friday of the First Week of Lent

Ezekiel 18:21-28
Psalm 129:1-2, 3-4, 5-7a, 7bc-8
Matthew 5:20-26

Anger

Today Our Lord addresses the sin of anger. "I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment" (Mt 5:22). The law of the Gospel is more exacting by far than the law of old which said, "Whoever kills shall be liable to judgment" (Mt 5:21). Jesus uncovers the root of the killer's sin: anger. Anger goes by any number of names: among them are resentment, rage, exasperation, bile, spleen, belligerence, and wrath.

Unidentified and Unconfessed

The sin of anger often goes unidentified and unconfessed because it lies below the surface like a great fault-line or like the seething entrails of a volcano. We delude ourselves into thinking that we have no sin because the sin has not surfaced. "I haven't thrown a pot, a pan, a book, or a brick. I haven't kicked, or shoved anyone. I haven't let go with any hugely inappropriate words or slammed any doors."

An Invisible Killer

Reasoning thus, we conclude that the sin of anger has no hold over us. Jesus would have us understand, however, that the anger locked up inside us is in every way as poisonous as the anger we let out. One must not think that because one has kept a lid on the boiling cauldron of one's anger, one is without sin. Hidden anger, or the anger we think we succeed in keeping hidden, is as sinful as the anger that comes out in harsh words and hurtful actions. Hidden anger is an invisible killer. That is why, for Our Lord, the angry man falls under the same judgment as the murderer.

Anger Voids Every Virtue

The sin of anger voids every virtue in the sight of God. It is an ugly splotch spoiling even our good deeds. Abba Agathon says that, "a man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God." The struggle against the sin of anger is long and hard. Abba Ammonas said, "I have spent fourteen years in Scetis asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger."

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

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Esther C:12, 14-16, 23-25
Psalm 137: 1-2ab, 2cde-3, 7c-8
Matthew 7:7-12

Women of Lent

Yesterday the queen of Sheba, today Queen Esther: the liturgy directs our gaze to these women of the Bible, that we might recognize in them the mystery of the Church, and in the Church see ourselves. The editors of the First Reading omitted, for whatever reason, the highly significant second verse of the fourteenth chapter of Esther:

She took off her splendid apparel and put on the garments of distress and mourning, and instead of costly perfumes she covered her head with ashes and dung, and she utterly humbled her body, and every part that she loved to adorn she covered with her tangled hair (Vg Est 4: 17).

Having given this description of Esther, the text goes on to say, "and she prayed to the Lord God of Israel" (Est 14:3).

Esther: Icon of the Lenten Church

Esther comes to us today as an icon of the Lenten Church, the penitent Church, the praying Church. We see her "prostrate upon the ground, together with her handmaids" (Vg Est 4: 17p), praying "from morning until evening"(Vg Est 4:17p): a community of women in prayer. We are reminded too of that other icon of the Lenten Church, venerated in the East as one of the patrons of Great Lent, Saint Mary of Egypt. She, like Esther, took off her splendid apparel, put on the garments of distress and mourning, utterly humbled her body, and prayed. In Esther, we see a prototype of the Church, the "utterly humbled" Body of Christ, the Bride forever associated to His priesthood of mediation. In Saint Mary of Egypt, we see an antetype, a reflection of the great feminine archetype going back to Eve and perfected in the mystery of the Church.

The Bride of Christ

In knowing herself, a woman comes to know the mystery of the Church; and in knowing and reverencing the mystery of the Church, the Body and Bride of Christ, a woman comes to know and reverence her true self. It is the gift and office of man to receive woman in the mystery of her otherness even as Christ receives and honours His bride the Church.

It is in the recognition and reception of woman -- among them, Eve, Esther, the Virgin Mother Mary, and Saint Mary of Egypt -- that man and, in particular, the priest, discovers himself as one called to a sacrificial love for the Church, to holiness, and to the life of repentance and prayer. This is why the liturgical calendar shines with the memory of so many holy women. Each of them says in her own voice, "Whosoever sees me sees the Church." This is why Esther is given us today. She is an icon of the Lenten Church, praying in a body that is "utterly humbled."

The Disruptive Grace of Lent

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Wednesday of the First Week of Lent

Jonah 3:1-10
Psalm 50;3-4, 12-13, 18-19
Luke 11:29-32

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I can't resist adding a word about this portrait of Saint Mary of Egypt by Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera, also known as Lo Spagnoletto. Ribera came to Naples in search of Caravaggio in 1609, but Caravaggio had just died. Ribera's Mary of Egypt is emaciated and hollow-cheeked. Her once voluptuous body is wrinkled and weatherbeaten. She stands in prayer against the landscape of her conversion: the desert. There is even a certain resemblance between the saint and the skull on the ledge in front of her. The broken loaf of bread is a symbol of the Word of God, recalling the saying of Our Lord in the desert: "Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God" (Mt 4:4).

Indolence

Lent is supposed to be unsettling. Lent is supposed to disrupt our routines. Lent is about entering into another rhythm of life, a rhythm different from the one by which we ordinarily organize our lives. The unwillingness to be disturbed, to make a change, even a very little one, in what has become customary reveals an underlying resistance to the grace of conversion.

Newman speaks of indolence. Indolence is a state of sluggishness; it is the habit of seeking to avoid exertion. The indolent person says, "I am quite comfortable with things as they are, thank you. I have neither the desire nor the need to change my routines, to displace myself, or to do anything differently from the way I have always done it." Indolence is incompatible with Lent.

Alacrity

The opposite of indolence is alacrity -- a very Benedictine virtue -- an eager willingness to get up and get moving. The dictionary defines alacrity as a "cheerful readiness, promptness, or willingness." When Saint Benedict treats of Lenten penances in Chapter Forty-Nine of the Rule, he says that they are to be offered "spontaneously in the joy of the Holy Spirit." There is in this something of the quickfooted and swift obedience of Chapter Five of the Rule, an obedience that brooks no delays.

Sackcloth and Ashes

In today's gospel Our Lord gives us two examples of alacrity in penitence: that of the Ninevites and that of the Queen of Sheba. The Ninevites wasted no time in responding to Jonah's preaching. He had gone but a day's journey into the city, preaching repentance, when the people of Nineveh believed God. "They proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them" (Jon 4:5).

Jonah's message completely disrupted things as they were. Word of it reached the ears of the king. "He arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes" (Jon 4:6). A dramatic departure from routine! The king proclaimed a fast affecting not only the people of the city, but even their beasts, their herds, and their flocks. The Ninevites are to put on sackcloth, but so too are their beasts. The image of a sheep, a goat, or a cow wearing sackcloth is almost too amusing; clearly it signifies a departure from business as usual. The extraordinary thing is that this public penitence is done with alacrity, in prompt obedience to Jonah's preaching. Nothing is said of a town meeting to discuss and decide what response might be appropriate. Jonah's message is pressing and it is urgent that the people of Nineveh waste no time in talk, lest the judgment of God overtake them.

Lent and Lectio Divina

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Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

Isaiah 55:10-11
Psalm 33:4-5, 6-7, 16-17, 18-19
Matthew 6:7-15

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Lectio and Oratio

Today's Mass invites us to focus on two practices necessary to the Christian life at all times, but utterly crucial during Lent: in the First Reading, lectio, and in the Gospel, oratio. In Isaiah God speaks of his descending Word, the same Word proclaimed from the ambo and heard in our solitary lectio divina. In the Gospel our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word Himself, gives us words for prayer to the Father: the very form of our common and solitary oratio.

Pope Benedict XVI on Lectio Divina

When Pope Benedict XVI addressed the young Catholics of the world in view of the World Youth Day 2006, he them to the practice of lectio divina. He even explained it for them in his letter. This is what he said:

My dear young friends, I urge you to become familiar with the Bible, and to have it at hand so that it can be your compass pointing out the road to follow. By reading it, you will learn to know Christ. Note what Saint Jerome said in this regard: "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ" (PL 24,17; cf Dei Verbum, 25). A time-honoured way to study and savour the word of God is lectio divina which constitutes a real and veritable spiritual journey marked out in stages. After the lectio, which consists of reading and rereading a passage from Sacred Scripture and taking in the main elements, we proceed to meditatio. This is a moment of interior reflection in which the soul turns to God and tries to understand what his word is saying to us today. Then comes oratio in which we linger to talk with God directly. Finally we come to contemplatio. This helps us to keep our hearts attentive to the presence of Christ whose word is "a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts" (2 Pet 1:19). Reading, study and meditation of the Word should then flow into a life of consistent fidelity to Christ and his teachings.

Saint Benedict

Pope Benedict XVI and Saint Benedict are, so to speak, on the same page. For Saint Benedict, Lent is the season of lectio divina par excellence. He goes so far as to rearrange the daily timetable, changing the ordered routine of things, so as to provide more time for lectio divina during Lent (cf. RB 48:14). Lent requires a change in routine; there is a healthy sense in which Lent should be upsetting. It is a time to stop doing things as we have always done them and to quicken to a more bracing rhythm of life.

Distribution of Lenten Books

The distribution of Lenten books prescribed by the Rule (RB 48:15) is a kind of Lenten sacrament. In the old monastic ceremonials each monk received his Lenten book from the hand of the abbot, kissing the book to signify not only his joy in being trusted with a precious book from the library, but also his willingness to hear the Word and be converted.

Via Crucis

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Under the Sign of the Cross

On this second day of Lent, Our Lord sets before us the whole mystery of His Passion, Cross, and Resurrection. Lent opens under the sign of the Cross; the Lenten pilgrimage is the Via Crucis, the way of the Cross. "The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised"; (Lk 9:22).

The Cross leads straight into the promised land. To choose the Cross is to choose life:

I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendents may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying His voice, and cleaving to Him; for that means life to you and length of days (Dt 30:20).

Agápe

Not only does Our Lord show us the mystery; He invites us to follow Him into it. "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Lk 9:23). Just because one is suffering -- physically, emotionally, or spiritually -- does not mean that one is following Christ along the way of the Cross. Suffering alone is of no value. One who follows Christ along the way of the Cross sees Him infuse agápe, sacrificial love into every moment of His Passion. It is this and nothing else that gives suffering value; it ennobles it, making it precious in the sight of God and redemptive for the world. Agápe, self-giving sacrificial love, draws all the virtues after it: humility, obedience, silence, patience, meekness, fortitude, and mercy. Agápe is the love that pierces the heart with sorrow for sin and inflames it with the desire to make reparation.

The Cross Taken to Heart

How does the Way of the Cross described in today's Gospel pass from the sacred page into one's heart so as to find expression in one's life? What we commonly call devotion to the Passion is simply a way of taking to heart the mystery of the Cross. One expresses in life the things that one has taken to heart. The Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross (or Stations of the Cross) is precisely this: a way of taking to heart the mystery of suffering infused with sacrificial love by which Christ saves us, heals us, and unites us to His work of redemption.

In Voluntate Tua

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Guercino's (1591–1666) Crowning With Thorns depicts two attitudes toward the Suffering Christ. On the one hand we see a soldier clad in armour. With a gloved hand he forces the crown of thorns into the sacred head of Christ. His armour and gloves protect him from any direct contact with the Body of Christ. On the other hand, we see a self–righteous spectator; he holds himself at certain distance from Christ and, like the soldier, protects himself from direct contact with the Body of Christ. He holds Our Lord's scarlet cloak of derision with one hand: signifying his approval of the cruel Passion of the Lamb.

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Introit

This morning's Mass opens with Psalm 21, the very psalm that, in Saint Matthew's Gospel, Our Lord intones from the Cross: "And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, 'Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani?' that is, 'My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?'"(Mt 27:46). Today's Introit is a solemn entry into the prayer of the suffering Christ to the Father. It is Christ who prays:

O Lord, remove not Thy help to a distance from Me;
look towards My defence.
Save Me from the lion's mouth;
and My lowness from the horns of the unicorn (Ps 21:20, 22).

One cannot sing, or hear, or meditate today's Introit without recalling what is written in the Letter to the Hebrews concerning the prayer of Christ: "In the days of His flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to Him who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard for His godly fear" (Heb 5:7). The sacred liturgy during these days of Passiontide and Holy Week gives us the "prayers and supplications, the loud cries and tears" of Christ our Head and our High Priest. In a unique way, these prayers and supplications, these loud cries and tears of His, have passed into the chant of the Church, which interprets them for us. One need only sing the soaring, pleading aspice (see GR, p. 133) of this morning's Introit to experience this.

The verse of the Introit takes up the heart–rending cry:

O God, my God, look upon me:
why hast thou forsaken me?
Far from my salvation are the words of my sins" (Ps 21:2).

How are we to understand such a prayer in the mouth of Our Lord. Jesus crucified is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (Jn 1:29). The immaculate Lamb calls our sins His sins; He has taken them upon Himself. They have been driven into His hands and His feet; they have become a crown of thorns wounding His sacred head. "God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending His own Son in the likeness of flesh and [as an offering] for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh" (Rom 8:3). Saint Paul goes so far as to say, "For our sake He made Him to be sin Who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21).

Ecce Agnus Dei

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For Sidney

Some time ago, a remarkable young man named Sidney wrote me from Brazil to ask for a blessed Agnus Dei. I promised him that I would post something about the Agnus Dei here. It is fitting to do so as we prepare to enter Holy Week and, through the glory of the Paschal rites, the mystery of the immolated Lamb.

An Agnus Dei, so called from the image of the Lamb of God impressed on the face of it, is made of virgin wax, balsam, and chrism, blessed according to the form prescribed by the Roman Ritual.

An old Irish prayerbook (Dublin 1860) gives a prayer to be said daily by those who wear an Agnus Dei. Following the impulse given by this prayer, one who wears an Agnus Dei is compelled to “follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Ap 14:4) in a spirit of Eucharistic victimhood, that is, of sacrificial love and oblation.

Prayer of One Who Wears an Agnus Dei

O my Lord Jesus Christ,
the true Lamb who takes away the sins of the world;
by Thy mercy which is infinite, pardon my inquities,
and by Thy Sacred Passion, preserve me this day
from all sin and evil.

I carry about me this holy Agnus Dei in Thy honour,
as a preservative against my own weakness,
and as an incentive to the practice of that meekness, humility, and innocence
which Thou hast taught us.

I offer myself up to Thee as an entire oblation,
and in memory of that Sacrifice of Love
which Thou didst offer for me on the Cross,
and in satisfaction for my sins.
Accept this oblation, I beseech Thee, O my God,
and may it be acceptable to Thee
in the odour of sweetness. Amen.

A Paschal Sacramental

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This peculiarly Roman sacramental, goes back at least as far as the ninth century. Amalarius and the Pseudo–Alcuin refer to it. The blessing of the Agnus Dei medallions used to take place at the Lateran Basilica on Holy Saturday. The archdeacon vested in a dalmatic would receive from the Pope a silver phial containing Sacred Chrism. He would pour the Sacred Chrism into a cauldron of liquid wax. The Agnus Dei medallions would be made from this blessed wax and distributed on the Sunday In Albis after the singing of the Agnus Dei at the Papal Mass.

The Cistercian Privilege

The oldest extant Agnus Dei medallions date from the pontificates of John XXIII (1316–34) and Gregory IX (1227–41). Later on, the Roman Pontiffs reserved the blessing of the medallions to themselves, and assigned the privilege of preparing them to the Benedictine–Cistercian monks of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.

At the Banquet of the Lamb

The sixteenth century rite for the blessing of the Agnus Dei medallions makes use of holy water, chrism, and balsam. It was the custom for the Supreme Pontiff to bless the medallions in the first year of his pontificate during the Octave of Holy Pascha, and to bless them every seven years thereafter. The ceremony consisted of three orations addressed to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Thus would he bless the medallions themselves and the water mixed with chrism and balsam into which they would be plunged. When the medallions were removed from the water the Paschaltide Vespers hymn, Ad Cenam Agni Providi would be sung. The same blessing was repeated as often as necessary according to need, and also on special solemnities or anniversaries. Every element of the confection and blessing of the Agnus Dei contributes to its mystical significance.

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Recover the Agnus Dei

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the Agnus Dei was one of those treasured sacramentals that fell into disuse. It is, I think, time to restore the solemn blessing of the Agnus Dei and recover the use of so precious a sacramental. The Church stands in need of “friends of the Lamb,” and of Eucharistic victim souls who will follow the Lamb in purity, in humility, in silence, and in the oblation of themselves.

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Recently a dear friend here in Rome gave me a booklet by Dr. Philip Boyce, O.C.D., Bishop of Raphoe, Ireland, entitled At Prayer with John Henry Newman. The booklet is available from the International Centre of Newman Friends. The Carmelite bishop calls prayer "the texture of Newman's life." He presents some of Newman's own magnificent prayers. All his life the famous Oxford convert sought to pray in spirit and in truth. When I pray using Cardinal Newman' words, I savour in them the same humility and confidence that I have tasted in the prayers of Saint Aelred, William of St–Thierry, and Saint Claude La Colombière.

I was struck in this prayer by the petition, "soothe me with the beauty of Thy countenance":

O mighty God, strengthen me with Thy strength,
console me with Thy everlasting peace,
soothe me with the beauty of the Thy countenance;
enlighten me with Thy uncreated brightness;
purify me with the fragrance of Thy ineffable holiness.
Bathe me in Thyself, and give me to drink,
as far as mortal man may ask, of the rivers of grace which flow
from the Father and the Son,
the grace of Thy consubstantial, co–eternal Love.

And I find this one very close in spirit to Claude La Colombière's Act of Confidence:

O my God, my whole life has been a course of mercies and blessings shown to one who has been most unworthy of them.
I require no faith, for I have a long experience,
as to Thy providence towards me.
Year after year Thou hast carried me on —
removed dangers from my path —
recovered me, recruited me, refreshed me,
borne with me, directed me, sustained me.
O forsake me not when my strength faileth me.
And Thou never wilt forsake me.
I may securely repose upon Thee.
Sinner as I am, nevertheless, while I am true to Thee,
Thou wilt still and to the end,
be superabundantly true to me.

The booklet's sections on intercessory prayer, on Newman's love for the Roman Breviary, and on his devotion to the Rosary are enlightening and inspiring. In conclusion, Dr. Boyce explains the three kinds of divine presence in which Newman's prayer unfolded: the presence of the indwelling Trinity, the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and the presence of Christ in Sacred Scripture.

The Bishop of Raphoe describes Newman's life of prayer as "a persevering effort in the weakness and darkness of our human condition." One recognizes there the experience of the author of Lead, Kindly Light.

Today being the liturgical commemoration of the Compassion of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I decided to turn once again to Cardinal Newman for his Litany of the Seven Dolours. Newman was fond of litanies. I am too. They address a persistent need of the heart for a prayer that is rich in images, yet simple and rythmed by repetition. Unlike the excessively didactic and heavy preces given for Lauds and Vespers in the current Liturgia Horarum, litanies in their classic form allow "heart to speak to heart," and foster the actuosa participatio recommended by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. Here then, is John Henry Newman's Litany of the Seven Dolours.

Liberator Meus

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O blessed Passion of Christ!
We contemplate Thee bound to the column of Thy cruel scourging
and praise Thee with sorrowing love because
by the ropes that bound Thee, we are set free.

Holy Mass begins today with the words: Liberator meus (Ps 17:48). The same phrase is repeated in the verse of the Introit: Diligam te Domine, fortitudo mea: Dominus firmamentum meum, et refugium meum, et liberator meus (Ps 17:3). The Offertory Antiphon ends with an impassioned plea: libera me, Domine (Ps 58:2). The Communion Antiphon is a song of praise; it sings of the freedom that comes to the soul eucharistically united to Christ in His Passion: Et circuibo altare tuum, Domine (Ps 25:6-7).

The Proper Chants of today's Mass are, in fact, a meditatio and an oratio on the words of Our Lord in the Gospel: "If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed" (Jn 8:36). One sees, from this example, the importance of the Proper of the Mass. When, as so often happens, the chants of the Proper are replaced by other texts, the theological and spiritual architecture of the liturgy is dismantled.

Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Numbers 21: 4–9
Psalm 101: 1–2, 5–17, 18–20 (R. 1)
John 8: 21–30

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The Serpent and the Cross

Today the Church gives us a passage from the Book of Numbers that, from earliest times, the liturgy and the Fathers have associated with the mystery of the Cross. This same provided Father Luc de Wouters, O.S.B. with the title of his biography of the foundress of the Congregation of the Benedictines of Jesus Crucified, Mother Marie des Douleurs Wrotnowska: Le Serpent et la Croix, The Serpent and the Cross.

The Bite of the Serpent

Father Luc writes: “The episode of the bronze serpent recounted in the Book of Numbers seems to us extremely significant. It projects onto the mystery of the redemptive Cross a light, the importance of which we do not sufficiently grasp.” He writes that Mother Marie des Douleurs encountered the Cross, as we all do, in her own sin. For her, as for all of us, sin was the bite of the fiery serpent. It was, nonetheless, upon this cross, the cross of her own brokenness, weakness, and sin identified with the Cross of Jesus, that she was united with the Saviour, l’Homme des douleurs. The cross of her disfiguration by sin and weakness, assimilated to the Cross of the “Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Is 53:3), became the Cross of her transfiguration by grace.

The Mystery of Iniquity

Father Luc, with no little eloquence, emphasizes that the Cross is the last word of the Incarnation. We are certain of meeting the Cross at every moment of our existence. Whenever we find darkness all about us, the darkness of our own sins and of the sins of the world, the Cross shines like a saving beacon. Personal sin causes an intimate anguish that only the Cross can alleviate. Consciousness of the evil that inhabits us, and of the evil that stalks the world, brings with it a terrible anguish. Our Lord’s agony in Gethsemani was the manifestation of the anguish of His Heart in the face of the mystery of iniquity.

Wounds Uncovered

It is easy to become hypnotized by the shadow of evil cast by the serpent. How many souls, instead of lifting their gaze to the Crucified, turn in on themselves, see their sin, and sink in the quicksand of despair. Sin, our own sin and the sin of others, exercises a morbid fascination on us. The remedy is to look upon “Him who they have pierced” (Jn 19:37), and to believe in the love of Jesus Crucified. The remedy is to expose our wounds, however purulent and shameful they may be, to the wounds of the Crucified, for “by his wounds we are healed” (1 P 2: 24). One of the prayers before Mass in the Roman Missal has us say: “To thee, Lord, I uncover my wounds; to thee I lay bare my shame. My sins, I know, are many and grievous; they fill me with fear, but my hope is in thy countless mercies.”

Lazare, veni foras!

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Caravaggio's Resurrection of Lazarus depicts a dead man stunned by his sudden return to life. The head of Christ is the very one Caravaggio painted in his Calling of Saint Matthew, but here it is reversed.

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Fifth Sunday of Lent
Note: The "A" cycle of readings may be used in Years B and C.

Ezekiel 37:12-14
Psalm 129: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
Romans 8:8-11
John 11:1-45


The Divine and Mystic Gospel

Over the past three Sundays of Lent, the Church has opened for us the Gospel of Saint John, the divine and mystic Gospel, the Gospel that, on every page, shines with the brightness of Christ’s divinity. The Lenten series of Johannine gospels are directed, first of all, to the catechumens, men and women in the last stages of preparation for the mysteries of initiation that will be celebrated in the night of Pascha. The same Gospels are addressed to the penitents, men and women who, having fallen, seek to rise again, washed in the pure water of the Spirit, and infused anew with the life-giving Blood of the Lamb. The Lenten liturgy is profitable to us only insofar as we identify inwardly with the catechumens and penitents, only insofar as we walk with them towards the mysteries of regeneration and reconciliation that ever flow from the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.

Water

On the Third Sunday of Lent we heard the promise of living water made by Christ to the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:14). Each of us is the Samaritan woman; to each of us is disclosed the mystery of the thirst of Christ and to each of us is promised the “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14).

Light

On the Fourth Sunday of Lent we witnessed the drama of the man born blind to whom Christ gave sight, light, and new life (Jn 9:11). Each of us is that man born blind; to each of us is promised and given the gladsome light of Christ.

Life

Today, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent we follow a very human Christ, a tender and weeping Christ, to the tomb of one greatly loved (Jn 11:34-35). It is four days since the burial of Lazarus; already his body has begun to stink. Each of us is that stinking corpse, bound tightly in the shroud, and belonging already to the darkness of the netherworld.

Divine Promises

Listen with the catechumen’s eager ears to the glorious promises of Ezekiel’s prophecy! “Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And you will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ez 37:12-14). These promises, fulfilled once in the resurrection of Lazarus, are fulfilled again and again in the life of the Church, and principally in the night of Resurrection, in the great baptismal Vigil that Saint Augustine calls the “mother of all vigils.”

Three things are promised, three things are given to every Lazarus of every age and of every place: the resurrection from the grave, the experience of the Risen Christ, Lord of Life and Victor over death, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. What was promised by the mouth of the prophet is fulfilled in Christ. What is fulfilled in Christ the Head is actualized again and again for the members of His Body in the mysteries (sacraments) of the Church. So often as Lazarus is baptized, chrismated, nourished with the Body and Blood of Christ, reconciled and healed there is even now triumph over the grave and the return from corruption, there is even now the experience of Christ the Lord of Life in the face of death, there is even now the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit whose sweet fragrance dispels forever the sickening stench of the tomb.

Ungodly Men Reasoned Unsoundly

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Friday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Wisdom 2:1a, 12–22
Psalm 33: 16–17, 18–19, 20 and 22 (R. 18a)
John 7: 1–2, 10, 25–30

Darkness

There is a Caravaggian darkness about today’s liturgy. One senses that the plots of the wicked are closing in around Our Lord. You may recall the long, dramatic responsory from the Holy Week liturgy that begins, Collegerunt, “The priests and pharisees assembled in council and said, ‘What shall we do?’”

He Is Inconvenient to Us

The First Reading exposes their secret thoughts and, in some way, presents us with the psychology of sin. “Ungodly men reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, ‘Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us, and opposes our actions’” (Wis 2: 1a, 12). Look closely at the text. The ungodly, that is, those who do not “meditate the law of the Lord day and night” (Ps 1:2), those who make themselves the measure of all things, those who are their own reference, necessarily reason unsoundly. Left to itself, without the light of divine grace, human reason veers into the darkness.

Sick Reasoning

The conscience itself can be perverted by repeated compromises with sin. There are those who would extinguish the light of Natural Law; there are those who would contest the revealed Law of God. The result is a sick conscience. Unsound reasoning means unhealthy reasoning or, put more bluntly, sick reasoning. “Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hope for the wages of holiness, nor discern the prize for blameless souls” (Wis 2:21-22).

The Light of the Word

Sick reasoning is the consequence of pride and disobedience. One can recover from sick reasoning by exposing oneself to the light of the Word of God in the communion of the Church, and by following Christ along the path of humble obedience, along the way of the Cross. Saint Paul, in First Corinthians, addresses this very thing. “We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:7-8).

Judgment

In the Gospel, Our Lord openly professes his identity and mission: “You know me, and you know where I come from? But I have not come of my own accord; he who sent me is true, and him you do not know. I know him, for I come from him, and he sent me” (Jn 7:28-29). A blinding light flashes in the words of Jesus; the light of his divinity, the brightness of his life with the Father. It is this light that makes the gathering shadows appear all the darker. “For judgment I came into this world,” he says, “that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (Jn 9:30).

Precatus Est Moyses

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Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 105:19-20, 21-22, 23
John 5:31-47

Moses

Today’s liturgy is all about Moses. Moses in the first reading, Moses in the psalm, and Moses in the gospel. Moses has been with us — a companion on our Lenten journey — since the Second Sunday of Lent when we saw him on the holy mountain in conversation with Elijah and the transfigured Christ.

And the People Rose Up to Play

While, during the Exodus, Moses was absent, hidden with God for forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai, the people grew restless and impatient. They turned to Aaron and said, “Up, make us gods which shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him” (Ex 32:1). Aaron, in an attempt to quiet the people, gave in to their murmurings. You all know the story of the molten calf. I am always struck by what happens after the presentation of the golden calf to the people. Aaron proposes a feast, a party really, to distract the people and keep them happy. In few words, the text conjures up quite a scene. “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play” (Ex 32:6).

Holding One’s Ground Before God

This is where today’s First Reading begins. God sends Moses down to break up the party. “Go down at once to your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved” (Ex 32:7). Moses’ obedience is very unbenedictine. He does not, “with the quick feet of obedience, follow by action the voice of him who gives the order” (RB V:8). He does not immediately run down the mountain into the madness of the crowd. He holds his ground before God, and has recourse to prayer.

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The Prayer of Moses

Moses’ compelling prayer became one of the most poignant Offertory Antiphons of the Mass: Precatus est Moyses in conspectu Domini Dei sui. “And Moses besought the Lord his God” (Ex 32:11). Listen to a recording of the piece or sing it through for yourself if you have time today. Do it as lectio divina. All the intensity of Moses’ prayer passes into the melody. Listening to it, one has the impression of being right there next to Moses, face to face with God on Mount Sinai. In the prayer of Moses one hears already the accents of the prayer of Jesus crucified to the Father: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).

Standing in the Breach

God offered to consume the people, to annihilate them utterly, and to give Moses a fresh start. The Responsorial Psalm evoked the scene for us: “For this he said he would destroy them, but Moses, the man he had chosen, stood in the breach before him, to turn back his anger from destruction” (Ps 105:23). “Let me alone, says God, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation” (Ex 32:10). Quite a proposal! To be free of all the headaches caused by a stiff-necked, murmuring, fickle people, and to start all over again! But Moses cannot accept it. He refuses God’s offer.

Gazing on Christ's Open Heart

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Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Ezechiel 47:1-9, 12
Psalm 45:2-3, 5-6, 8-9
John 5:1-16

All You That Thirst

Today’s texts are just waiting to be developed into a pre-baptismal catechesis. “All you that thirst, come to the waters: and you that have no money come, and drink with joy” (cf. Is 55:1). The Entrance Antiphon is addressed to all who thirst; there is nothing to purchase. The waters flow freely. The last phrase of the antiphon — “drink with joy” — is not found in the biblical text. It is the Church’s word, making clear for us here and now, the prophecy of Isaiah.

Flowing Waters

The Responsorial Psalm sings of the river that irrigates the Church, the new Jerusalem: “The city of God enriched with flowing waters, is the chosen sanctuary of the Most High” (Ps 45:5). The Communion Antiphon praises Christ the Shepherd who, in the Eucharist, “leads us by refreshing waters” (cf. Ps 22:1-2). In the Gospel we see the waters of Bethesda, a bath of healing stirred by an Angel of the Lord. All around the pool of Bethesda lie the diseased, the blind, the lame, and the disabled seeking to recover from the infirmities that oppress them. Bethesda is an image of the baptismal pool of regeneration, the bath from which in a few weeks the catechumens will emerge clean, healed, and altogether new.

Vidi Aquam

The centerpiece of today’s Mass is the reading from the prophet Ezekiel. The title printed in red above the text in the lectionary is most unusual. It reads: “I saw water flowing from the temple, and all who were touched by it were saved.” It adds, “See Roman Missal.” Where in the Roman Missal are we to look? Go to the antiphons sung at the Rite of Sprinkling with Holy Water: the Asperges me, taken from Psalm 50, and used outside of Paschaltide; and the Vidi aquam, taken from Ezekiel 47, and sung at the Paschal Vigil and on the Sundays of Paschaltide.

Look for a moment at the text of the Vidi aquam. The prophet Ezekiel, in a mystical rapture, sees the Temple as the wellspring of an immense river irrigating the whole country and making stagnant waters fresh. The Temple is the abode of the Glory of God (Ez 43:1-12). It is the source of a river, teeming with fish, and on both sides of its banks grow fruit bearing trees because the water for them flows from the sanctuary.

The glorious body of the of the crucified and risen Christ is the new and indestructible temple of which he himself said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19). At the death of Christ, the veil of the Temple was “torn in two from top to bottom” (Mt 27:51); Saint John, by recounting how the side of Jesus was pierced by the soldier’s lance, translates the same mystery. Out of the pierced heart of Jesus flows blood and water (Jn 19:34), recalling the water from the rock struck by the rod of Moses in the desert (Num 20:2-13), the fountains of salvation prophesied by Isaiah (Is 12:3), and the great river of Ezekiel’s vision.

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The Solemn Stational Mass of the Fourth Sunday of Lent
will be celebrated in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
this evening, 18 March 2007, at 18:30.
Procession with the Litany of the Saints.
Ordinary and Proper of the Mass in Gregorian Chant.

"This Basilica is so called, because Saint Helena, not only brought the True Cross there, but earth from Mount Calvary on which the Chapel or the Altar there is built—thus if there be a centre of the Church, we shall be there, when we are on earth from Jerusalem in the midst of Rome."

John Henry Newman, Ascension Day 1847

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Mothering Sunday

The Church is our Mother; we were born of her womb in Baptism. She is our Mother because, as the Introit sings, she “suckles us abundantly with the breasts of her consolations” (Is 66:11). She is our Mother because she cares for us in our weaknesses, welcomes us home after every journey, and never fails to provide for us a table laden with good things.

Tea and Sweet Cake

In England, Laetare Sunday is called “Mothering Sunday” — a reference to the Introit that, while it disappeared with the abolition of the Roman Missal and the coming of the Book of Common Prayer, remained deeply anchored in the sensibility of the faithful. In the nineteenth century, it became customary on “Mothering Sunday” for employers to give servants a day off to go home and visit their mothers. A special sweet cake, called the “mothering cake” was brought along to add a festive note to teatime. Today, “Mothering Sunday” has become the British answer to the secular American “Mother’s Day.” Few realize that it originates in the Introit of Laetare Sunday.

The Golden Rose

There is another custom associated with Laetare Sunday: the blessing of the Golden Rose. It was the custom, at least from the time of Pope Leo IX (1049–1054), for the Pope to bless a rose fashioned out of gold on Laetare Sunday. We still have the text of a sermon preached by Pope Innocent III at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme on the meaning of the Golden Rose. It is a symbol of spiritual joy, a portent of the sweet fragrance of life that will rise like incense from the empty tomb on Easter.

More recently the Pope has presented the Golden Rose blessed on Laetare Sunday to the Virgin Mary, choosing to her honour in this way one of her shrines. Czestochowa, Lourdes, Loretto, and Guadalupe have received the Golden Rose. The prayer used by the Pope to bless the Golden Rose explains its significance:

O God! by Whose word and power all things have been created,
by Whose will all things are directed,
we humbly beseech Thy Majesty, Who art the joy and gladness of all the faithful,
that Thou wouldst deign in Thy fatherly love to bless and sanctify this rose,
most delightful in fragrance and appearance,
which we this day carry in sign of spiritual joy,
in order that the people consecrated by Thee
and delivered from the yoke of Babylonian slavery
through the favour of Thine only-begotten Son,
Who is the glory and exultation of the people of Israel
and of that Jerusalem which is our Heavenly mother,
may with sincere hearts show forth their joy.
Wherefore, O Lord, on this day,
when the Church exults in Thy name and manifests her joy by this sign [the rose], confer upon us through her true and perfect joy
and accepting her devotion of today;
do Thou remit sin, strengthen faith, increase piety, protect her in Thy mercy,
drive away all things adverse to her and make her ways safe and prosperous,
so that Thy Church, as the fruit of good works,
may unite in giving forth the perfume of the ointment of that flower
sprung from the root of Jesse
and which is the mystical flower of the field and lily of the valleys,
and remain happy without end in eternal glory together with all the saints.

Laetare Sunday, Mothering Sunday, the Sunday of the Rose! Wear pink. Smell a rose. Sing “Laetare!” If you can, have a sweet cake with your tea today. Do something to mark the joy that already rises, like the Paschal Alleluia, in the heart of Mother Church. The mysteries of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection are but a few days away, the mysteries of our joy, the end of every sadness.

Laetare, Jerusalem!

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Fourth Sunday of Lent

1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

“Be glad, Jerusalem! Hold an assembly, all you that love her: rejoice and be glad, you that were in sadness: that you may exult and be suckled plentifully with the breasts of her consolations” (Is 66:10-11). Listen to Dame Aemiliana Löhr’s splendid commentary on the signature antiphon of today’s Mass: “Here is a hymn of joy in the midst of the gloom of Lent. The Church has put on clothing to match it. The long-missed flowers are here in God’s house, and the dark violet of the priest’s vestments has become a gentle rose colour. . . . The first sounds of the Introit lie like a breath of springtide upon the Mass today. The text cannot find words enough for its joy, and the melody is even deeper in its rejoicing. This Laetare, once heard, is unforgettable, and anyone who knows the music of the liturgy knows why. Easter tones ring out of it” (The Mass Through the Year, p. 243).

The Hidden Alleluia

The first few notes of today’s Introit are identical with the last few notes of the great first Alleluia of the Paschal Vigil. [Sing: Al-le-lu- ia —Lae-ta-re.] This no mere coincidence; it reveals the underlying unity of the mystery. The Church cannot wait until the Paschal Vigil, so great is her joy already. Through the eyes of the man born blind, she looks into the face of Christ, “the light of the world” (Jn 9:5), and cannot contain her gladness.

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She already sings the paschal alleluia but, for the moment, disguises it beneath a rosy veil. The alleluia of the Paschal Vigil is given us today wrapped in another word, a single jubilant cry: Laetare! These are mystagogical details of the sacred liturgy, too precious to be missed, too rich to be left aside.

Back to Dame Aemiliana: “Today,” she says, ”the glory of the resurrection is made present out of time, and in a single word all of the splendour of the foreplay for the feast of Easter is gathered. . . . Jerusalem! Sion! It is to Jerusalem that the call goes out. Jerusalem is the shining reason for this joy. Jerusalem, the holy city” (The Mass Through the Year, p. 243).

Jerusalem in Rome

Jerusalem is, according to the psalmist, “the dwelling of all joy” (cf. Ps 86:7). In Rome, where the Lenten liturgy is celebrated in ancient stational churches, the Mass of Laetare Sunday is set in the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. In that context, the great cry, “Jerusalem!” has a special resonance. You may ask why this basilica came to be called “in Jerusalem” when, in fact, it stands in Rome. In antiquity, it was called simply, “Jerusalem.” To go to the Basilica of the Holy Cross was to go “up to Jerusalem.” When, in the year 326, Saint Helena returned from the Holy Land, laden with relics, she had with her the most astonishing treasure: she had filled the entire hold of a ship with earth excavated from the holy places in Jerusalem. She had this sacred earth from Jerusalem deposited beneath the Sessorian palace that, enriched with relics of Our Lord’s blessed Cross and Passion, was to become her own church. Saint Helena’s church became “Jerusalem come to Rome.”

Cistercian Abbey of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

Cistercian–Benedictine monks of the Congregation of Saint Bernard have had the care of Santa Croce for five centuries. Saint Aelred, one of the fathers of the Cistercian Order, said: “Our Order is the Cross of Christ.” For the monks of Santa Croce, this was a prophetic word: their particular vocation is to radiate the joy of the Cross at the heart of the Church.

Up to Jerusalem

Today’s stational celebration is a way of going “up to Jerusalem” without leaving Rome and, in a very real sense, a going up to the joys of heaven, a foretaste of the joy that lies beyond the gates of heaven thrown open by Christ the Prince of Life. The psalm that accompanies the entrance antiphon sings just that: “O my joy when they said to me: Let us go up to the house of the Lord” (Ps 121:1). To go up to Jerusalem is to go up to the highest joy. The psalmist prizes Jerusalem “above all his joys” (cf. Ps 136:6).

Eruditi et Nutriti

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Wednesday of the Third Week of Lent

Deuteronomy 4:5-9
Psalm 147: 12-13, 15-16, 19-20 (R. 12a)
Matthew 5:17-19

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The Word Repeated

The liturgy is circular, not linear. The liturgy is fond of repetition, returning again and again to the same word, ever spiraling into the heart of the mystery. Rightly celebrated, the liturgy creates for the Word an acoustical space within the community and within the heart of each one. Within this space, the Word, continually repeated and echoed, reaches optimal resonance. Meditatio is the ceaseless repetition of the sacred text. The repetition of the Word softens the heart, breaks it, and pierces it. Meditation, like holy preaching, is essentially the repetition of the Word in other words.

Day and Night

You may recall that on Ash Wednesday the Communion Antiphon was taken from Psalm 1. “Blessed is the man whose heart is set on the law of the Lord, on that law, day and night, his thoughts still dwell” (Ps 1:2-3). Are we to hear in this antiphon a subtle suggestion that Lent invites us to begin again, to start over at the First Psalm? Yes, of course — but even more — it is a program of Lenten observance, an invitation to repeat the word tirelessly, to repeat the word ceaselessly, to repeat the word assiduously until, having pierced the heart, it becomes prayer within, and returns to the source whence it came. “My word that goes forth from My mouth shall not return to Me empty, says the Lord, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Is 55:11).

Nourished by the Word

Today’s Collect presents the Word of God as nourishment. The Latin text says that we are eruditi (schooled) by our Lenten observance and nutriti (nourished) by the Word of God. The Word proclaimed and heard, the Word repeated, the Word prayed, the Word returning to the Father is the Eucharist of the intelligence.

Food, if it is to profit an organism, must be assimilated. This is why repetition of the same texts, in the same way, at the same time is so important to our prayer. The liturgy itself, repeating the Word in other words, by means of antiphons, responsories, and other chants, by preaching, and by prayer texts quarried from the Scriptures, allows us to assimilate the Word, to chew it, to savour it, and to hold it in the heart.

The Fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets

Today's Gospel can remain somewhat obscure unless we scrutinize it through the lens of the First Reading and the Responsorial Psalm. “Do not think that I have come to set aside the law and the prophets; I have not come to set them aside, but to bring them to perfection” (Mt 5:17). The “law and the prophets” include the Psalter; Jesus numbers King David among the prophets. After the resurrection, Jesus is explicit. “This is what I told you, He said, while I still walked in your company; how all that was written of Me in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, must be fulfilled” (Lk 24:44).


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Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent

Introit

I cried out and you heard me, O God;
bend your ear and hear my words:
keep me, Lord, as the apple of your eye;
protect me under the shadow of your wings (Ps 16:6, 8).

Today’s Introit asks God to protect us in the way a man instinctively protects the apple of His eye. More recent translations refer to the “apple of the eye” as the “pupil of the eye.” While anatomically correct, the expression is less poetic. The pupil is the contracting and expanding opening in the iris of the eye through which light passes to the retina. One can almost see the gesture of protection: the palm of the hand closes over the eye to shield it from any projectile. We are, each one of us, in the eye of God and, for that reason, cherished and assured of His protection.

Again we ask God to hide us under the shelter of His wings. We are fragile and vulnerable but God is quick to shield us, and ever ready to hide us close to His heart. Traditionally, this same verse of Psalm 16 is prayed every night at Compline, making it all the more familiar and comforting. In the darkness of the night, as well as in the darknesses that steal over the soul, we are in need of divine protection.

Collect

Let your grace, O Lord, not forsake us;
rather may it make us dedicated to your sacred service,
and gain for us your ceaseless help.

In the Collect we beg God that He not allow His grace to forsake us. Gratia tua ne nos, quaesumus Domine, derelinquat. The sense of the petition doesn’t really strike us unless we consider for a moment what it means to be “forsaken by grace.” It should cause us to shudder. Today’s prayer goes to the core of our worst fears: the fear of being left alone, abandoned, and forsaken by the grace of God.

Jesus entered into this worst fear of ours, experiencing it in all its horror, when from the Cross He prayed for each of us, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” (Mt 27:46). By taking the horror of “being forsaken by grace” upon himself, Jesus made it possible for us “never to despair of the mercy of God” (RB 4:74). The grace of God is never far from us. When we pray that grace not forsake us we are really asking that we be kept from ever forsaking grace, that we not cease to believe in mercy and in forgiveness, even after offenses multiplied seventy times seven times. In this way the Collect relates to today’s Gospel.

Quaerens me, sedisti lassus

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Third Sunday of Lent
John 4:5–52

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A Monk’s Prayer

Saint John makes a point of saying that, “Jesus, wearied as He was with His journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour” (Jn 4:6). A monk of the twelfth century, took this one sentence of the Gospel, listened to it over and over again, and repeated it to himself. The word of the Gospel passed from his mouth to his ears; from his ears into his mind; and from his mind into his heart. There, by the light of the Holy Spirit, he was opened to its deeper meaning and, in his heart, the word became prayer, a prayer that found expression in his poetry:

Quaerens me, sedisti lassus:
Redemisti Crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus.

Faint and weary, Thou hast sought me,
Crucified hast dearly bought me;
Shall such grace be vainly brought me?

Translated literally, the connection with today’s Gospel emerges more clearly:

Seeking me, all weary, Thou didst sit:
By Thy suffering on the Cross didst Thou redeem me;
Let not so great a labor come to nothing.


The Weary Christ

“Jesus, wearied as He was with His journey. . . .” (Jn 4:6). The image is profoundly moving: the weariness of a wayfaring Jesus. Not for nothing is this particular image given us today on the Third Sunday of Lent. We are at the midpoint of our own Lenten journey and susceptible, all of us, to a certain weariness. This particular Gospel of the weary, wayfaring Christ is given us today to remind us that the journey of God towards us precedes even our first step towards Him. We are sought by God before we begin to seek Him.
The Journey Driven By Love

Jesus comes to us as one weary of journeying. His journey is driven by love. His journey is towards us. Every step of His signifies the advance of love. The sound of His steps is that of “the Lord God walking in the garden” (Gen 3:8); His voice is that of the Lord God who called to the man and said to him, ‘Adam, where are you?’” (Gen 3:9). The journey is that of the shepherd who, “having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and goes after the one which is lost until he finds it” (Lk 15:3).

The Sixth Hour

Saint John adds a significant detail to his description of the weary, wayfaring Jesus, seated by the well. He says, “It was about the sixth hour” (Jn 4:6). For us to hear the full resonance of this little phrase, we have to turn the pages of Saint John’s Gospel until we come to the crucifixion of Jesus in chapter 19. There we read, “Now it was the Day of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour.” The sixth hour sees Jesus “lifted up from the earth to draw all men to himself” (Jn 12:32). After a three hour agony, the crucified Jesus will reveal the thirst of man for God, and the thirst of God for man. “Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the scripture), ‘I thirst’” (Jn 19:28).

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Second Thursday of Lent

Jeremiah 17:5-10
Psalm 1: 1-2, 3, 4, 6
Luke 16:19-31

My Yearly Rant

The circle of the year brings us back to that frightfully mistranslated line in today’s first reading: “More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? (Jer 17:9). This is something that I cannot let pass by, not because I am bent on picking at the lectionary, but because I would not want even one of you to go away today thinking yourself beyond remedy. So allow me to rant.

Not Beyond Remedy

When I first encountered the distressing phrase in the 2002 edition of the American lectionary, I knew instinctively that there was something wrong with it. I opened my Latin lectionary, the official text of the Roman liturgy, and there found the human heart described not as beyond remedy, but as inscrutable. Pravum est cor omnium et inscrutabile: “The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable” (Jer 17:9).

Grace

Can you think, even for a minute, that God would ever declare the human heart beyond remedy? What then of the redemption? And what of grace? Can you imagine God, our God, saying to anyone at all, “You are beyond remedy, irreparably damaged; I can do nothing for you”? It’s enough to push one off the edge into the deep dark pit of despair! Such is not my religion, and such is not the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ. No one is beyond remedy.

Devious and Perverse

Look at other translations of Jeremiah 17:9. I already said that the Vulgate has, “The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable.” The King James has, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” The Jerusalem Bible has, “The heart is more devious than any other thing, perverse too.” My Jewish Tanakh, translated from the Hebrew, has, “Most devious is the heart; it is perverse.” The New English Bible has, “The heart is the most deceitful of all things, desperately sick.”

The Italian lectionary has this: Più fallace di ogni altra cosa è il cuore e difficilmente guaribile. Difficilmente guaribile — now that I can accept!

Ecce ascendimus Ierosolymam

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Second Wednesday of Lent

Jeremiah 18: 18-20
Psalm 30: 4-5, 13, 14-15
Matthew 20: 17-28

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The Sorrowful Passion of the Lord

“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem” (Mt 20:17). The whole drama of the Paschal Triduum appears today before our eyes and sounds in our ears. “The Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day” (Mt 20:18). The liturgy invites us to “go up to Jerusalem” (Mt 20:17), to follow Our Lord along the via dolorosa, the way of sorrows, the way of the Cross.

Prayer With Loud Cries and Tears

In the First Reading, the prophet Jeremiah, tracked and persecuted, is an image of the suffering Christ. The intentions of the prophet’s enemies are clear: “Come, let us smite him with the tongue, and let us heed not any of his words” (Jer 18:18). Jeremiah raises his voice in prayer: “Give heed to me, O Lord, and hearken to my plea. . . . Remember how I stood before thee to speak good for them, to turn away thy wrath from them” (Jer 18:20). In the prayer of Jeremiah we hear the voice of Christ in his Passion. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear” (Heb 5:7).

Recordare, Virgo Mater Dei

In the liturgy of the Church — and, therefore, under the influence of the Holy Spirit — Jeremiah’s prayer became the Offertory Antiphon of the Mass of the Compassion of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the Friday of Passion Week, and again on September 15th. The Church takes the prophet’s plea and addresses it to the Mother of Sorrows: Recordare, Virgo Mater Dei . . . . “Do not forget us, Virgin Mother of God; speak good things for us there where thou standest in the presence of the Lord, to avert his anger from us” (cf. Jer 18:20).

Over the words, a nobis, “from us,” the Gregorian melody soars higher and higher into the uppermost notes of the first mode and then, peacefully, in a sublime expression of confidence, descends until it comes to rest in silence. The chant melody is a kind of musical icon of the supplication of the Church, and of her reliance on the intercession of the Mother of God.

The Man of Sorrows

One sees in the liturgical use of this text just how the Holy Spirit authorizes us to search out the Scriptures and to find in them, like the treasure hidden in the field, the mystery of the prayer of Christ: a prayer inseparable from that of his Holy Mother, a prayer continued through the ages in the supplications of his Bride, the Church. The original prayer belongs to Jeremiah: innocent and persecuted, he is the figure and the voice of Christ, the “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Is 53:3).

The New Eve

The prayer of Christ, the New Adam, is inseparable from that of his Mother, the New Eve. She enters heart and soul into his priesthood; standing on Calvary, she receives into herself every word of his uttered from the Cross. She enters into his priestly offering and, in so doing, models our own participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass.

On Monday, 19 February 2007 His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI addressed the Confessors who serve in the four major basilicas of Rome. At the same time, he spoke to "all the priests of the world who dedicate themselves to the ministry of the confessional." My own experience here in Rome is that people do come to confession whenever a priest makes himself available by sitting in the confessional. Time spent waiting for penitents in the confessional is not lost time. It is a means of entering into the eternal patience and mercy of the Crucified who waits for souls to approach His glorious wounds and to yield to His merciful embrace. Besides, one can always use the time praying the rosary for sinners.

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The Ministry of the Confessional

. . . I wish to extend a cordial thought to all the priests of the world who dedicate themselves with commitment to the ministry of the confessional.

A Wonderful Event of Grace

The Sacrament of Penance, which has such importance in the Christian life, renders present the redemptive efficacy of Christ's Paschal Mystery. In imparting absolution, pronounced in the name and on behalf of the Church, the confessor becomes the conscious means of a wonderful event of grace.

Minister of the Consoling Mercy of God

With docile compliance to the Magisterium of the Church, he makes himself minister of the consoling mercy of God, he draws attention to the reality of sin, and at the same time he manifests the boundless renewing power of divine love, love that gives back life.

Through the Words and Gestures of the Priest

Therefore, confession becomes a spiritual rebirth that transforms the penitent into a new creature. Only God's grace can work this miracle, and it is accomplished through the words and gestures of the priest.

By experiencing the tenderness and pardon of the Lord, the penitent is more easily led to acknowledge the gravity of sin, is more resolved to avoid it in order to remain and grow in renewed friendship with him.

Condemned

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Monday of the Second Week of Lent

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Daniel 9:4b-10
Psalm 78: 8, 9, 11 & 13
Luke 6:36-38

Sin’s Slimy Trail

Last Friday the Gospel obliged us to look at the sin of anger. On Saturday the Gospel challenged us to look at the way we treat those with whom we are at enmity. Today the Gospel treats of the sin of judging.

There are but three verses in today’s gospel. Each one is capable of calling forth a lifetime of repentance. True penitence addresses not only the isolated, incidental sin; it also takes on those habits of sin that like the tangled roots of a great tree lie below the surface. Rare are the sins that, popping out of nowhere, surprise us, and leave behind no slimy trail. A careful discernment of the heart reveals that sin, if it goes unchecked, quickly tends to become habitual. One slides imperceptibly from the isolated, incidental sin, into habits of sin.

The Sin of Judging

This is as true of the sin of judging as of any other sin. With each repeated sinful act we grow less sensitive to the horror of the sin, hate it a little less and, finally, grow accustomed to living with it. Habitual sin, like habitual virtue, is the result of repeated acts, often of very little acts. One judges just a little the first time, a little more the next and, finally, by linking judgment to judgment, one forges a heavy chain of condemnation that is nearly impossible to break.

First Step: I Notice

Look for a moment at the classic sin of judging. The first step is taking note of the behaviour of another. I observe that my brother or sister does this or does not do that. Rarely are one’s observations lucid and dispassionate. If the person being observed has already been a cause for annoyance, if there is a pre-existing antipathy or an old resentment, one’s observation is clouded and one’s perceptions distorted. How can one cut off the sin of judging in the first step? By minding one’s own business. By saying to oneself, “that is no concern of yours.” By imposing silence on one’s thoughts and by mortifying one’s curiosity.

“Whenever Abba Agathon’s thoughts urged him to pass judgment on something which he saw, he would say to himself, ‘Agathon, it is not your business to do that.’ Thus his spirit was always recollected.” Centuries later, Saint John of the Cross says the same thing: “Pay no attention to the affairs of others, whether they be good or bad, for besides the danger of sin, this is a cause of distraction and lack of spirit.” Not too long ago it was common for religious to write pious initials on their papers. Benedictines: U.I.O.G.D. (That in all things God may be glorified.) Jesuits: A.M.D.G. (To the greater glory of God). The wisdom of the saints suggests another motto: M.Y.O.B. (Mind your own business).

Vultum Tuum, Domine, Requiram

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The Second Sunday of Lent
The Transfiguration of the Lord

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Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18
Psalm 26: 1, 7-9, 13-14
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 9:28-36

The Transfigured Face of Jesus

Twice yearly, on August 6th, forty days before the feast of the Glorious Cross, and again on the Second Sunday of Lent, the Church is illuminated by the glory of God shining on the Face of the transfigured Jesus. The Introit of today’s Mass is the same one used on August 6th. It directs the gaze of our hearts to the Face of Christ. “Of you my heart has spoken, ‘Seek His Face.’ It is your Face, O Lord, that I seek; hide not your Face” (Ps 26:8-9). Some of you know the text, “Tibi dixit” in its chant melody, so full of longing, of desire, of peace.

To Seek God Truly

When our father Saint Benedict speaks of the dispositions to look for in one who seeks to enter the monastery, he emphasizes, above all, that one come to seek God truly. How are we to orient this search for God? God is elusive, hiding himself from those who seek Him, seeking those who hide from Him. “Where shall wisdom be found, asks Job, and where is the place of understanding? Man does not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living. The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’ and the sea says, ‘It is not in me’” (Jb 28:12-14). The bride of the Canticle speaks no differently. “Upon my bed by night I sought Him whom my soul loves; I sought Him but found Him not; I called Him but he gave no answer” (Ct 3:1). Are we to look up or down? Are we to search within or without? Where are we to seek God first? “If I climb the heavens you are there, if I lie in the grave, you are there. If I take the wings of the dawn and dwell at the sea’s furthest end, even there your hand would lead me, your right hand would hold me fast” (Ps 138:8-10). God is everywhere and yet our gaze has to be somewhere if it is to rest upon Him.

When God Brings One Outside

Today’s first reading may give us a clue. It begins with a curious little phrase. “God brought Abram outside” (Gen 15:5). Two things strike me. First, God takes the initiative, coming first in search of Abram, meeting Abram on his own ground, in his own space. God accommodates His immensity to the limits of Abram’s little domestic world. He comes to the nomad Abram in his tent, in surroundings that are intimate, familiar to Abram, and secure. Second, he brings Abram outside, outside the tent, outside the familiar, obliging Abram to “look toward heaven” (Gen 15:5), to stretch toward the vastness of stars too many to be counted. Then, no sooner has God shown Abram the stars than he hides them. “A deep sleep fell on Abram, and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him” (Gen 15:12).

Lest We Stop Seeking

The search for God —and the monastic vocation, a particular response to God’s search for us— may begin in a familiar place but, inevitably, it leads us outside — outside of our tents, outside of ourselves. For some, paralyzed by fear, incapable of leaving the comfort of the narrow spaces that we call our own, the search is thwarted from the outset. Mercifully, God is patient, and a late response is rewarded, in every way, as generously as one made early. “God brought Abram outside” (Gen 15:5). He does the same in the life of anyone who seeks Him. Just when we think we have found the place of the encounter with God, He calls us outside, lest we stop seeking, even for a moment. He calls us into a dread and great darkness lest we mistake any lesser light for the light of His Face. “‘What can bring us happiness?’” many say. “Lift up the light of your Face on us, O Lord” (Ps 4:7).

Convertens Animas

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Saturday of the First Week of Lent

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Entrance Antiphon

The law of the Lord is unspotted, converting souls:
the testimony of the Lord is faithful, giving wisdom to little ones (Ps 18:8).

Today’s Entrance Antiphon, taken from Psalm 18, tells us two things about the Word of God. First, it converts souls. Convertens animas. This means that the Word of God turns back souls, places them in a face-to-face with God.

Second, the Word of God gives wisdom to little ones. Sapientiam praestans parvulis. For the proud, the sophisticated, and the grand of this world the Word of God is a closed book; it is all foolishness. For the little, the humble, and the poor in spirit, the Word of God is a ceaseless communication of wisdom. Recall the words of Jesus: “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will” (Mt 11:25-26).

All of this is, of course, contingent on one thing: our persevering, faithful, self-exposure to the Word of God, first of all in the Mass and Divine Office, and then in lectio divina. If you really want the conversion of your own soul, expose yourself relentlessly to the Word of God. If you would learn the “secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Cor 2:7), immerse yourself in the Word of God with humility.

The liturgy of Lent insists on the primacy of the Word. Lectio divina is the foundational Lenten observance; everything else flows from it. It is the beginning of true penitence, the taste of divine wisdom to the palate of the soul.

Sackcloth and Gladness

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Wednesday of the First Week of Lent

Jonah 3: 1-10
Psalm 50: 3-4, 12-13, 18-19 (R. 19b)
Luke 11:29-32

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Nineveh

Nineveh is in the news. Nineveh is, of course, the present day city of Mosul in Northern Iraq, not far from the Turkish border. Its ruins spread over 1800 acres: a huge green space on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. The ancient Nineveh of the Assyrians was an immense city, seven times larger than the Old City of Jerusalem.

The very mention of Nineveh cast fear into every Jewish heart. Sennacherib, the King of Assyria whose palace was in Nineveh, invaded Judah in the days of King Hezekiah. To placate Sennacherib, Hezekiah gave him “all the silver that was found in the house of the Lord, and in the treasuries of the king’s house” (2 K 18:15). He even “stripped the gold from the doors of the temple of the Lord” (2 K 18:16) and gave it to Sennacherib. God intervened to save Jerusalem from the invading Assyrians. “The angel of the Lord went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians. . . . Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went home, and dwelt at Nineveh” (2 K 19:35-36).

Stupendous Repentance

Knowing something of the background of Nineveh helps us to understand that the repentance of the Ninevites was something stupendous. God sets Nineveh before the eyes of His own people as an example of penitence, a model of conversion. The Israelites were stubborn in resisting the message of the prophets. Rather than repent, they rejected the prophets and contested them. They turned a deaf ear to their message. They discussed, debated, and procrastinated.

Sackcloth and Ashes

The Ninevites, on the other hand, responded immediately to Jonah’s preaching. No discussions. No haggling over the details. No attempt to justify themselves. No negotiations. “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth from the greatest of them to the least of them” (Jon 3:5). The movement of repentance rose from the grassroots.

Let Every One Turn From His Evil Way

The conversion of Nineveh began, not by royal edict at first, but in the hearts of the people “Then tidings reach the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jon 3:6). Only then did the king make his proclamation: “Let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily to God; yea, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from His fierce anger, so that we perish not?” (Jon 3:8-9).

God’s Change of Heart

God was touched by the penitence of the Ninevites. The heart of God was moved, turned around. God repented because Nineveh repented. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which He had said He would do to them; and He did not do it” (Jon 3:10). Jonah’s message is considered so essential to Judaism that it is read annually in synagogues all over the world on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance.

Draw Me to Thy Open Side

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In response to the Holy Father's invitation to contemplate the wounded Side of Christ, I offer my own translation of a prayer "Alla Piaga Del Costato di Gesù," To the Wound in Jesus' Side, composed by the Servant of God Father Eustachio Montemurro (1857–1923). The Venerable Eustachio of Jesus and Mary, a physician and a civic leader, a man of noble ideals and courageous initiatives, became a priest at forty–five years of age, desiring to bringing healing to souls as well as to bodies. Shortly thereafter he founded two religious congregations: The Little Brothers of the Most Holy Sacrament and the Sisters Missionaries of the Sacred Side.

The holy founder was accused of "an excess of zeal" and, for the good of the institutes he had established, chose to exile himself from his spiritual sons and daughters. With the permission of the Pope, he moved to the sanctuary of the Madonna of the Rosary of Pompei, founded by Blessed Bartolo Longo, to devote himself selflessly to the service of souls. Father Montemurro died at Pompei on January 2, 1923, loved by all, and leaving a reputation for holiness.

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O painless thrust of the spear
forever awaited with passionate love by my Saviour
that thou shouldst repair in the Father's sight
the terrible wound opened by the sin of Adam
in the heart of humanity!

O glorious wound,
gushing forth life, love, and peace!
I adore thee inexhaustible wellspring of salvation,
the womb of new children
born of the water and of the blood of the Bridegroom.
Thou art for me an ever open refuge,
the door giving access to the nuptial chamber,
the vestibule of the banquet of the Lamb.

The living water that, at every moment, springs from thee,
invites me with the language of love
to enter, through thee, into the heart of my Saviour
that therein I might take the regenerating rest of new life
and spread it all about me
just as the bride coming forth from the nuptial chamber
radiates among her friends the signs and the sweetnesses of love.

Be thou for me, then, O blessed wound,
my blissful abode.
May I be drawn always to thee,
that in thee I may live and die.
In thee may I find the splendid riches
which eye has never seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart experienced.

I love Thee, Lord Jesus,
glory of my mind, joy of my eyes,
melody of my ears, gladness of my heart,
and peace of my soul.

I am Thine for time and for eternity;
nothing shall ever separate me from Thee,
for Thou hast espoused me,
drawing me with bands of goodness to Thy open side
and pouring out of Thy heart into mine
the joys of the Spirit
and the mercy of the Father who always hears Thee.

Cum Ipso Sum in Tribulatione

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The First Sunday of Lent

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Nestling Under the Shadow of God

Today the sacred liturgy transports us into the desert: an arid wilderness, uncharted, inhospitable, and haunted by evil spirits. This being said, the tone of today’s Mass is reassuring and full of confidence. Psalm 90 (Qui habitat) runs through the Mass of the First Sunday of Lent from beginning to end. “He will give thee the shelter of his arms; under his wings thou shalt find refuge, his faithful care thy watch and ward” (Ps 90:4-5). The desert is, paradoxically, the very place where, cut off from all else, we experience the closeness of God. The opening verses of Psalm 90 have, in the translation of Ronald Knox, a note of intimacy that may escape us in more familiar translations:

Content if thou be to live with the Most High for thy defence,
under his Almighty shadow nestling still,
him thy refuge, him thy stronghold thou mayst call,
thy own God, in whom is all thy trust” (Ps 90:1-2).

Christ Praying in Us

This is the psalm that today’s liturgy places in the mouth of Christ. This is the prayer of Christ that exorcises the desert, that cleanses it, and that sanctifies it. The liturgy places the same psalm in our mouths. We repeat it; we pray it; we sing it; we allow it to inhabit us. Held in the heart, it becomes Christ’s own prayer for us, and with us, and in us, to the Father. Psalm 90 functions today as a sacrament of the prayer of Christ. It is that by which we are given a holy communion with the prayer of the tempted and lonely Christ, the means by which the prayer of Christ himself can inhabit all our moments of temptation, loneliness, and fear.

The Psalm of the Day

Psalm 90 occurs no less than five times in today’s Mass, not counting the oblique references to it in the Gospel itself. It is clearly the psalm of the day. The Church gives us Psalm 90 as we prepare to go into the desert. It is a mother’s provision for the son going off to war. “Take this,” she says, “keep it close to your heart, and when, all around you, the battle rages repeat it, knowing that I am praying it with you.” “Though a thousand fall at thy side, ten thousand at thy right side, it shall never come next or near thee” (Ps 90:7).

Psalm 90 is one of the few psalms that we find used universally in both East and West on a daily basis. When we discover that the practice of the Church is to pray a given psalm every day, it must be because that psalm has, in the light of experience, been found indispensable.

The Noonday Devil

In the East Psalm 90 was assigned every day to the Sixth Hour, that is noon. This particular choice was inspired by verse 6: “Thou shalt not be afraid of . . . the arrow that flieth in the day . . . or of the noonday devil” (Ps 90:5-6). The fathers and mothers of the desert identified the noonday devil as the evil force that attacks those who are “burned out” and weary. The noonday devil insinuates thoughts of dejection and of disgust for prayer and the things of God. The noonday devil whispers dark thoughts and plants them in the mind: thoughts of discouragement, despondency, and despair. “Give it up. What’s the use? Why go on? It all means nothing. You’ve been taken in, deceived. There is nothing on the other side. There is no hope for you. Your life is a failure. You are beyond redemption. You are not salvageable.” These are the classic temptations of desert-dwellers from Saint Anthony of Egypt to Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, tempted to suicide during her final illness.

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Saturday After Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:9-14
Psalm 85:1-2ab, 2c-4, 5-6
Luke 5:27-32

The Voice of Mercy

While we are yet on the threshold of Lent, Mercy passes by, looks into our hearts, sees every bit of your story and of mine, and, astonishingly, says, “Follow me” (Lk 5:27). He wants us for himself. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:32).

Saint Augustine

We do well to attend to the traditional Lenten Stational Churches of Rome. We are, after all, Roman Catholics; our liturgy and our piety are shaped by the practices of the Church that is at Rome. The best peoples’ missals used to offer a map of the Eternal City marking the location of the Stational Churches so that, at least in spirit, Catholics the world over could follow the Christians of Rome in their Lenten progress. Every day in Lent offers us the opportunity to make a spiritual pilgrimage to the designated Stational Church. I speak of this because today’s church, that of Saint Augustine, is wonderfully suited to today’s gospel. The Confessions of Saint Augustine are confessions of the Mercy of God. “Though I am but dust and ashes,” says Augustine, “allow me to speak in your merciful presence, for it is to your Mercy that I address myself” (Confessions, Book I, 7).

Mercy on the Face of Christ

Our friends from the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation would tell us that the core of their commitment is in the event of an encounter with Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Today’s gospel relates exactly such an experience: the event of Levi’s encounter with Jesus. The richness of God’s Mercy is revealed in Jesus. We see the Mercy of God on His face. We hear the Mercy of God in His voice. We feel it in the touch of His hands. We experience it flowing from His heart. Christ, being the Mercy of God, is the Way to those who, confused and disoriented, have lost their way in life. Being the Mercy of God, He is the Truth to those who go stumbling in the darkness and knocking at all the wrong doors, hoping to find truth at home. Being the Mercy of God, He is the Life to those deceived by a culture of death.

Friday Stations

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Red-covered they were passed out
one by one like a Lenten communion
drawn out of the cavernous tabernacle
of Mercy sleeves,
and distributed by a pale virginal hand,
made whiter still by Friday’s dusting of chalk.

Little hands,
sweaty from an interval in the schoolyard,
fingered them,
those fragile little books,
a little faded and a little worn.
So many children had turned them this way and that
kneeling and rising and and saying in voices that knelt and rose:
“We adore Thee, O Christ and we bless Thee,
because by Thy Holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world.”

The candle flames flickered their way around the Church,
and between them a crucifix held high by one of the big lads,
and veiled these last two weeks in a purple sadness
like the saints covered in their Passiontide shrouds.

The priest surpliced in a lacy whiteness
with a double stream of violet falling over his chest,
read Saint Alphonsus,
boring some, I fear,
and bringing one or two quiet boys to tears,
or at least to the pity that, like a flood,
rises in a child’s heart
and then returns like the receding tide.

At the Cross her station keeping,
the Mother of Sorrows watched as
children, tired and not a little restless,
learned the journey of suffering love;
and, now and then, a few were compelled to look
at the Face fourteen times depicted
and feel something,
just something of her pain.

In the hearts of a few
(there are always a few who listen)
that Face engraved itself
so that the passing years
should become a procession from one station to the next,
not without falls in dust and in mud,
more than three, I fear,
and not without thorns, blood, and tears.

The little red book,
forgotten by most,
became for some a prophecy
and the prayers of its finger-worn pages
the secret of joy.

M.D.K.

Fasting

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Friday After Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-9a
Psalm 50: 3-4, 5-6ab, 18-19
Matthew 9:14-15

Holy Fasting

Today the prophet Isaiah puts a question to God: “Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it? (Is 58:3). The problem lies not in God not seeing, nor in God failing to notice. The problem lies in our fasting. The fasting pleasing to God is incompatible with quarreling, with oppression, greediness, and complacency. Holy fasting is incompatible with “the pointing of the finger, and speaking of wickedness” (Is 58:9). Saint Benedict says that we are “to love fasting” (RB 4:13). How can we begin to love fasting? How do we fast? Fasting and abstinence are, first of all, about training the will to seek the “things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1). “Set your mind on the things that are above,” says the Apostle, “not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2).

Media Fasting

Fasting and abstinence have to do with more than food and drink. Contemporary life obliges us to look seriously at “media fasting and abstinence.” Media fasting and abstinence affect our use of television, radio, computers, internet, videos, telephone, and e-mail. Media fasting is one area in which one can be very radical without impairing one’s health. The secular media have a pernicious effect on the interior life. It happens almost imperceptibly. First we tell ourselves that television, or movies, or videos, or DVDs, or “surfing the net” is useful. Then it becomes necessary. Then it becomes a right that we are ready to defend the way a dog defends a juicy bone. This is why during Lent it is so important to practice media fasting. It opens up time in the day and in the week. It is, like all the other forms of fasting, liberating and refreshing. It refines the spiritual senses, opening the eyes and attuning the ears of the soul to “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived” (1 Cor 2:9).

Contemplata Aliis Tradere

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One may think it strange that I should be writing this on, of all things, a blog! Why do I continue to write Vultus Christi even during Lent? Should I not abstain from blogging? The question is a good one. This blog is an extension of my lectio divina. It is a way of reaching out to souls, a kind of sancta predicatio. Other bloggers and readers may disagree with me. “Not in bread alone doth man live,” saith the Lord, “but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). For this monk, the Dominican adage holds true even during Lent: Contemplata aliis tradere. Far be it from me to compare myself with the Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, but can you imagine what his blog would have been like? (I, for one, think that Archbishop Sheen would have had a blog, had the internet existed in his day. Saint Maximilian Kolbe probably would have had one too.)

Let Dawn Our Darkened Spirits Bless

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Turner's "Sunrise" is, I think, the perfect illustration of our Lenten Lauds Hymn, Jam, Christe, Sol Iustitiae.

The Lengthening Day

Lent is a lovely word. It belongs to that distinguished family of old English church words. Some of them — Shrove Tuesday and Maundy Thursday, for example — are still familiar to us. Most other languages refer to Lent with a term derived from the Latin Quadragesima, signifying forty days, but we English-speaking Catholics hold to our Lent. It comes from the Old English lengten, meaning spring, and refers to the lengthening daylight hours.

Who among us is not yearning for longer sun-filled days? It is time for Lent, time for all that is dark and cold to shrink, time for a lengthening brightness. This is, I think, something of what Saint Paul was getting at in the second reading. “Behold now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). The same Paul, in his defense before King Agrippa, recounts his own conversion experience, his “day of salvation,” and says, “At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round me and those who journeyed with me” (Ac 26:13). This was Paul’s “acceptable time” (2 Cor 6:2); this was his “day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). A spiritual resurrection takes place.

From Darkness to Light

Christ says to Paul, “Rise and stand upon your feet” (Ac 26:16). He then sends Paul to the Gentiles, saying, “Open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Ac 26:17-18). The imagery evokes the mysteries of the Paschal Vigil: the turning from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God for the forgiveness of sins in baptism and a place among those sanctified by faith in the risen Christ, that is, in the Eucharistic assembly of those sealed with the Holy Spirit. The lengthening light of this “very acceptable time” (2 Cor 6:2) will become, after forty days, the unfading light of Pascha, the “day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2).

A Quickening of the Spirit

Jesus says, “Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become children of light” (Jn 12:35-36). We are to walk then — no, run — while we have this lengthening light. Holy Father Benedict says in the Prologue, “Let us then at last arouse ourselves, even as Scripture incites us in the words, ‘Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep.’ Let us then, open our eyes to the divine light, and hear with our ears the divine voice as it cries out to us daily. ‘Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, and again, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches’” (RB Pro:8-11). “Run, he says, while you have the light of life lest the darkness of death overwhelm you” (RB Pro:5). Lent is a cheerful alacrity, a quickening of the spirit in response to the light.

The Light of Grace

All of this is borne out in the hymn given us by the Church for weekday Lauds during these first weeks of Lent. Composed in the sixth century, it sings of the lengthening light, of Christ, the Sun of Justice. Allow me to quote just two stanzas in the fine old translation of the English Primer of 1706 and to offer a few words of commentary.

Now Christ, Thou Sun of righteousness,
Let dawn our darkened spirits bless:
The light of grace to us restore
While day to earth returns once more.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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