Lent 2007: February 2007 Archives

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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