Lent 2010: February 2010 Archives

Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us

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Psalm 113B
Second Vespers of the Second Sunday of Lent
Holy Family Cathedral,
Tulsa, Oklahoma
28 February 2010

In the Light of His Face

At Sunday Vespers in both December and January, we focused our meditation on Psalm 109 and 111 respectively. This evening, once again, it is the second psalm of Vespers that will draw us into the mystery of Christ. Not for a minute can I forget that is the Sunday of Our Lord's Transfiguration on Mount Thabor; I propose, then, that we approach our meditation of the psalm in the light of His transfigured Face shining more brightly than the sun, the same Face that radiates invisibly, and penetrates our hearts, from the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.

His Exodus

Psalm 113 has two parts; the first, Psalm 113A, sung at Vespers on Sunday of the First Week, uses a lively poetry to describe the jubilation of nature as the children of Israel, bearing the Ark of the Covenant in procession, make their way into the Promised Land. The Western Church's tradition refers to Psalm 113 by its opening words in Latin: In Exitu, "in the Exodus." These two words link the psalm with today's Gospel of the Transfiguration. We read in Saint Luke's account of the glorious event on Mount Thabor: "and behold there talked with Him two men. And they were Moses and Elias, appearing in majesty. And they spoke of His exodus that He should accomplish in Jerusalem" (Lk 9:30-31).

The exodus of Our Lord, that is to say, His passion, death, and resurrection, completes and fulfils the exodus of Israel out of Egypt. No longer do we sing only of the exodus of Israel, for in Christ Jesus, people of all nations are called out of bondage in the Egypt of their sins.

Glory to God

Not to us, Lord, not to us the glory; +
let thy name alone be honoured; *
thy name for mercy, thy name for faithfulness;

why must the heathen say, *
Their God deserts them?

Our God is a God that dwells in heaven; *
all that his will designs, he executes.

Psalm 113B is divided into five sections. It opens with a confession of God's glory: "Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory" (Ps 113B:1). Glory belongs to God alone because of his mercy and truth. The children of Israel experienced during their exodus the steadfast mercy of God, his utterly reliable love. The Lord glorified Himself by revealing His mercy in wondrous deeds. The psalm flings back right into the face of the heathen their ancient taunt, "Where is your God?" (Ps 113B:2).

Idols

The heathen have silver idols and golden, *
gods which the hands of men have fashioned.

They have mouths, and yet are silent; *
eyes they have, and yet are sightless;

ears they have, and want all hearing; *
noses, and yet no smell can reach them;

hands unfeeling, feet unstirring; *
never a sound their throats may utter.

Such be the end of all who make them, *
such the reward of all who trust them.

The next section takes on the perennial problem of idolatry. Man, left to his own devices, becomes a maker of idols. Idols are, the psalm says, "the handiwork of men" (Ps 113B:4). Look closely at verses 5-7. You will notice that the psalmist gives precisely seven descriptions of the impotence of idols. Why seven? Seven is the biblical number of perfection. (1) They have mouths but they do not speak. (2) They have eyes but they do not see. (3) They have ears but they do not hear. (4) They have nostrils but they do not smell. (5) They have hands but they do not handle. (6) They have feet but they do not walk. (7) No sound comes from their throats. By making use of seven affirmations, the psalmist is telling us that the idols, made by men are perfectly empty, absolutely and utterly nothing, deader than deadest of the dead. This section ends with a remarkable piece of wisdom: "If you make idols, you will become just like them. If you trust in idols, you will become just like them: empty, false, powerless, and dead.

Adoration and Trust

It is the Lord that gives hope to the race of Israel, *
their only help, their only stronghold;

the Lord that gives hope to the race of Aaron, *
their only help, their only stronghold;

the Lord that gives hope to all who fear him, *
their only help, their only stronghold.

The third part of the psalm (verses 9-11) is an exhortation to trust God. Trust is an expression of adoration. It addresses three classes of people: the Sons of Israel, the Priestly Order (the House of Aaron), and all who fear God, that is all righteous Gentiles. If you would worship God, trust him. Adoration without trust is hollow. A 17th century French mystic (Mère Mechtilde du Saint-Sacrement) put it this way: adorer et adhérer, "adore and adhere." If you would adore God rightly, adhere to His will for you, and trust Him with your life.

Blessings

The Lord keeps us in mind, and grants us blessing, *
blesses the race of Israel, blesses the race of Aaron;

all those who fear the Lord, *
small and great alike, he blesses.

Still may the Lord grant you increase, *
you and your children after you;

the blessing of the Lord be upon you. *
It is he that made both heaven and earth;

to the Lord belongs the heaven of heavens, *
the earth he gives to the children of men.

The fourth part of the psalm sings that God will bless those who bless Him. The tone is eucharistic. The praise that ascends to God as the people's offering returns to them in blessings. All are blessed, "the little no less than the great" (Ps 113B:13). The praise we offer the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit returns in a superabundance of blessings upon our heads.

The Work of the Living

From the dead, Lord, thou hast no praises, *
the men who go down into the place of silence;

but we bless the Lord, we, the living, *
from this day to all eternity.

Psalm 113B ends with a solemn promise to worship and praise God. "But we who live will bless the Lord now and forever" (Ps 113B:18). Praise is the work of the living. Those who follow their idols down in to the silence will never know the bliss of endless praise. Man's perfect happiness is in the praise of God.

The Tonus Peregrinus

Psalm 113 has the unique distinction of having its own proper tone in the chant: the hauntingly beautiful Tonus Peregrinus or Pilgrim's Chant. It is the only psalm to which a particular musical tone is attributed. In exitu Israel de Egypto, * domus Iacob de populo barbaro. The Tonus Peregrinus is found in an almost identical formula used by the Yemenite Jews for the same psalm. It is one of the few chant formulae the origins of which can be traced back to a Hebrew model. This, of itself, is a compelling reason for our preserving it in the liturgy today, and passing it on to future generations.

The Currency of Adoration

Psalm 113 reminds us today that the worship of carved and artfully fashioned images are not the only forms of idolatry. Our culture is saturated with images; television, videos, DVDs and the internet flood the imagination with sights and sounds and, all too easily, feed new forms of a very old sin: idolatry. Whoever worships things made by man, more than the Maker of all things, is an idolator.

How does one know what one worships? The question is best answered, I think, by another one: where do you spend your time? For whom and with whom do you spend it? Time is the currency of adoration. Jesus says, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Mt 6:21). Our treasure lies where we put our time. Time spent with idols makes us just like them: empty, sterile, and dead. Time spent with Christ, time before His Eucharistic Face, is transfiguring. It makes us like Him: merciful, fruitful, and gloriously alive to God.

O mulier, magna est fides tua

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A Favourite Antiphon

This evening's Magnificat Antiphon, taken from the gospel of the day (Matthew 15:21-28) is one for which I wait all year long. Its yearly occurrence is an occasion of grace for those who have ears to hear:

O mulier, magna est fides tua:
fiat tibi sicut petisti.

O woman, great is thy faith:
be it done unto thee even as thou wilt.

This is another lovely example of the gregorian melody (see the Antiphonale Monasticum, p. 350) providing exactly the right musical vesture for the body of the sacred text. It enhances the sacred text and prolongs it, without impeding its movement and its integrity.

A Eucharistic Thursday

Before considering the antiphon any further, let us look briefly at the Mass of the day. The stational church is that of San Lorenzo in Panisperna, so called because it was, in ancient times, the location of a distribution of bread (and some say ham, i.e. panini) to hungry pilgrims and to the poor. Whenever bread appears in the liturgy, even tangentially, one can expect to find allusions to the Bread of Life, a fortiori on a Thursday, the weekly rememoration of the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist. In light of this, consider today's eucharistic Offertory and Communion Antiphons:

Offertory Antiphon: Psalm 33:8-9

Immitet Angelus Domini in circuitu timentium eum,
et eripiet eos:
gustate et videte, quoniam suavis est Dominus.

The Angel of the Lord shall encamp around those who fear Him,
and shall rescue them:
O taste, and see that the Lord is sweet.

One might reasonably expect to find this text used as the Communion Antiphon. It is, in fact the designated Communion Antiphon for several Masses per annum, and in antiquity served as the common Communion processional. Here, however, it is sung at the Offertory. Why? Is it only because Saint Laurence, today's titular saint, is reputed to have prayed this verse while being roasted on his grill? Or might it not also reflect the Gospel that immediately precedes it?

The Angel of the Lord

Who is the Angel of the Lord in this context? Might it not be our Lord Jesus Christ, the Angel of Great Counsel (Is 9:6) sent "to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel" (Mt 15:24)? He is close to them that fear Him, that is, to the humble who adore Him and persevere in crying out their need. Enter the Gospel's Chanaanite woman, coming from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon: "And behold a woman of Chanaan who came out of these coasts, crying out, said to Him, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Thou Son of David: my daughter is grievously troubled by a devil" (Mt 15:22; also today's Benedictus Antiphon).

The Bread of Sons

In speaking to the Chanaanite woman, Our Lord alludes to "the bread of sons" that is not to be given to the catelli, that is, to little puppies (Mt 15:26); Saint Thomas uses this very image in his glorious sequence for the Mass of Corpus Domini, the Lauda Sion. It is, by the way, Saint Thomas, who changes the endearing catelli of the Gospel text into dogs!

Ecce Panis Angelorum,
factus cibus viatorum:
vere panis filiorum,
non mittendus canibus.
In figuris praesignatur,
cum Isaac immolatur,
agnus Paschae deputatur,
datur manna patribus.

Hail! Bread of the Angels, broken,
for us pilgrims food, and token
of the promise by Christ spoken,
children's bread, to dogs denied!
Shown in Isaac's dedication,
in the Manna's preparation,
in the Paschal immolation,
in old types pre-signified.

The Sweetness of the Lord

Could not the liturgy be presenting today's Offertory Antiphon as the thanksgiving song of the Chanaanite woman after Jesus praises her faith in Him? Christ, the Angel of Great Counsel, entered the circle of the Chanaanite woman's anguish, and compelled by her great faith, granted her petition. Thus did she, a Gentile, taste the sweetness of the Lord reserved for the sons of the Law.

Communion Antiphon: John 6:52

The Communion Antiphon completes the eucharistic imagery of the Offertory Antiphon. It is Our Lord Himself who speaks, addressing each communicant and the whole body of the faithful as they approach the altar to partake of His Body and Blood. Here, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, there are no catelli waiting for crumbs from the table, for all who are fed from the altar are sons and daughters of the New Covenant.

Panis, quem ego dedero,
caro mea est pro saeculi vita.

The bread that I will give
is My flesh for the life of the world.

At Vespers

At vespertide, the Church remembers the words of Our Lord to the Chanaanite women by singing them before and after the Magnificat. The evening sacrifice of thanksgiving ends with Jesus' saving words addressed not only to the woman from Tyre and Sidon, but also to the woman called Ecclesia: His Bride and the Mother of the faithful:

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Every Lent I choose -- or rather ask Our Lord to choose for me -- a saint or saints to be my Lenten companions. From Ash Wednesday until Holy Pascha I journey with them, converse with them, seek their intercession, and marvel at their friendship. Last week, as I prayed over this, I found myself strangely moved to pick up an old book that first came into my hands thirty-eight years ago! Published in 1925 by the Abbey of Maredsous as part of the wonderful old monastic collection Pax, it bears the title: Une mystique bénédictine du XVIIe siècle, La Mère Jeanne Deleloë, Reliquiae. Reading the volume's lengthy introduction by Dom Bonaventure Sodar, O.S.B. -- who also inscribed the book with an elegant Latin verse -- I was moved by a particular passage on the saints. I found it so compelling, in fact, that I decided to translate it for the readers of Vultus Christi. In a few places I was obliged to lighten or rework Dom Sodar's gloriously subtle tournures de phrase. I hope that, in reading it, you will find the text as stimulating as I did in translating it.

The Exigencies of the Divine Majesty

After the sacraments, which introduce us into the circulation of the very life of God, the great blessing that He gives us is contact with the saints. No one can approach the saints without rather quickly feeling a salutary uneasiness: the uncomfortable memory of a past that is lost to us and of a present that is more or less off course. The saints have a way of affirming that the exigencies of the Divine Majesty have a bearing on them; this casts low our prideful pretensions and throws us into a state of amazement. The saints have a certain way of thinking of God, of silencing themselves before Him, and of pronouncing His Name, which compels us to groan with them . . . and to say as they did, trembling all the while, "Where then is our awe?"

For Those Caught in Life's Wreckage

The saints also have a way of thinking of an other, of listening to an other, of speaking to an other; they stretch forth their hands to those caught in life's wreckage, they make every poverty their own poverty, they restore dignity to those who have fallen. The saints have a certain way of not thinking of themselves and of emptying their souls of themselves. Doing this, they open within their souls an abyss of detachment capable of holding whatever miseries we care to hurl into it.

Right Into the Arms of Christ

The saints act upon us less by their exhortations than by their examples, and less by what they do than by what they are. It is the radiance of their charity that presses us right into the arms of Christ. The saints are irresistible, as the Almighty is irresistible, because, in the image of God, they have become pure love.

Their Sympathy Opens Our Souls

One who has not kept company with the saints passes his time on earth in a cold isolation. One who has not been charmed by them knows nothing of the price of friendship. One who would know oneself, and move beyond the wisdom of the world's philosophers, must yield to the attraction of the saints. More than analysis and more than study, their sympathy opens our souls. When an unfulfilled heart yearns for the mysterious joys of a noble love with its battles and its triumphs, it need only recall that never has love been sung, or wept over, or lived as by these heroes. The saints stand ready at every moment to intone with accents that are ever new the canticle of eternity: Unus uni. "My Beloved is mine and I am His. Mine eyes have dried up with weeping as I wait for my Beloved."

The Hand of An Other

Seeing the saints so full of courage, so uncompromisingly given to God alone, who of us would not say, "And I, am I not Christian too?" -- and then -- Quod isti et quod istae, cur non ego? "If they succeeded, why in my place should I not try ?" A noble ambition, but it is not prudent to set out unaccompanied on a path so perilous and harsh. So as not to slip and fall, one needs the hand of an other. Lest one grow faint and succumb to weariness, one needs the example of their enthusiasm. Lest one lose one's way, one needs the brightness of their torches. In the chaos and obscurity of this vain and empty world --inanis et vacua -- it is their light that makes life's great avenues places of security and order, even unto salvation.

The Dates That Count

It is the saints who make history's epochs what they are. More than captains, and academics, more than politicians, and artists, and philosophers, it is the saints who confer distinction on the centuries. The saints determine the dates that count. Should one want to reduce the events of world history to their true proportions, it would be enough to mark the passage of the saints. They alone signal the days and hours of the coming Kingdom, and the unfolding drama of the Divine Warrior, and of His conquest of souls.

Between the porch and the altar

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The priests shall pray, with fasting and with weeping, and shall say: Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people, and give not Thine heritage to destruction. V. The priests shall weep between the porch and the altar, and shall say: Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people, and give not Thine heritage to destruction (Joel 2:17).

In the First Lesson at Mass on Ash Wednesday (Joel 2:12-18), as well as in one of the magnificent Lenten responsories at Matins, the Prophet Joel emphasizes the role of the priests who serve in the temple, the ministers of the Lord. Taking their place as mediators between the porch and the altar, they represent sinful men before the Face of the All-Holy God, and the Mercy of God before sinful men. Theirs is, in effect, a mediatorship of intercession and reparation.

The priestly mediatorship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the men with whom He shares His priesthood through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, fulfils and perfects the priestly mediatorship of the Old Dispensation. The Servant of God Pope Pius XII writes in Mediator Dei, his monumental 1947 encyclical on the Sacred Liturgy:

Mediator between God and men and High Priest who has gone before us into heaven, Jesus the Son of God quite clearly had one aim in view when He undertook the mission of mercy which was to endow mankind with the rich blessings of supernatural grace. Sin had disturbed the right relationship between man and his Creator; the Son of God would restore it. The children of Adam were wretched heirs to the infection of original sin; He would bring them back to their heavenly Father, the primal source and final destiny of all things. For this reason He was not content, while He dwelt with us on earth, merely to give notice that redemption had begun, and to proclaim the long-awaited Kingdom of God, but gave Himself besides in prayer and sacrifice to the task of saving souls, even to the point of offering Himself, as He hung from the cross, a Victim unspotted unto God, to purify our conscience of dead works, to serve the living God.[3] Thus happily were all men summoned back from the byways leading them down to ruin and disaster, to be set squarely once again upon the path that leads to God. Thanks to the shedding of the blood of the Immaculate Lamb, now each might set about the personal task of achieving his own sanctification, so rendering to God the glory due to Him.

In the life of adoration and reparation that is beginning in the Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle, there is a compelling awareness of the call to participate in Our Lord's priestly mediation by abiding "between the porch and the altar," that is, between those of our brother priests on mission to the world; those whom circumstances have, in some way or another, separated from the altar; and those who, being alienated from the altar, have lost sight of the wellspring and summit of their priestly service.

The word "altar" represents not only the place of sacrifice, but also the one offered upon it, and the fire from heaven that ratifies and consumes the oblation. Pope Pius XII writes, "The Church prolongs the priestly mission of Jesus Christ mainly by means of the sacred liturgy. She does this in the first place at the altar, where constantly the sacrifice of the cross is represented and with a single difference in the manner of its offering, renewed." As Adorers of the Eucharistic Face of Jesus, living within the enclosure of the monastery, or living as Oblates in the world, we are called to place our own bodies in the breach and, in some way, by the oblation of ourselves, to close the gap between "the porch and the altar."

Listen again to Pope Pius XII:

The divine Redeemer has so willed it that the priestly life begun with the supplication and sacrifice of His mortal body should continue without intermission down the ages in His Mystical Body which is the Church. That is why He established a visible priesthood to offer everywhere the clean oblation[4] which would enable men from East to West, freed from the shackles of sin, to offer God that unconstrained and voluntary homage which their conscience dictates.

The priestly life of the Redeemer -- one of supplication and of sacrifice, or victimhood -- is prolonged not only in the priesthood of the ordained, but also in the oblation of the layfaithful who take to heart the exhortation of the Apostle:

I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercy of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God, your reasonable service (Rom 12:1).

One of the singular graces of this Lent will be, it seems to me, a more profound awareness of what it means to abide in a state of adoration and victimal oblation "between the porch and the altar," before the Eucharistic Face of Jesus, for the sake His beloved priests, and of His Spouse, the Church.

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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