Monday, May 07, 2018

On the Fifth Sunday after Easter: Fulfilling the Law of Love in the Liturgy

(What follows is a reflection on the Proper of the Mass for the Fifth Sunday after Easter in the usus antiquior, celebrated yesterday morning.)

Today’s Mass is a marvelous reminder and summons to give to the Lord the glory due His Holy Name. The Introit bids us: “Declare it with the voice of joy, and make this to be heard, alleluia: speak it out even to the ends of the earth.” In its breathless exuberance, the opening command does not define what “it” and “this” is! One is reminded of Mary Magdalen in the garden, so focused on the Lord that she says to the man she takes for the gardener: “Sir, if thou hast taken him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him” — as if he already knows her inmost thoughts. The Introit then tells us what “it” and “this” is: “The Lord hath delivered His people, alleluia, alleluia.”

What has He delivered us from? The Lesson speaks of the man who only hears the word and does not do it. This was — this is — the old Adam who hears the Law but does not keep it, the people of Israel who receive the justice of the Law from without, on tables of stone, not yet the mercy of the Law written on their hearts in tongues of fire. We cannot be doers of the word unless the Lord grants us His grace, that “new law” that does not abolish the old law but brings it to completion in our desires and actions. The people of Israel were just like the man who sees himself in a mirror — who knows his true identity as a son of God — but then walks away from the mirror and presently forgets what manner of man he was. The one who has besought and received the grace of Christ, in contrast, “hath looked into the perfect law of liberty and hath continued therein.”

In the Gospel Our Lord teaches us that we must ask for this gift of grace, if we are to become men whose “religion is not in vain” but “clean and undefiled”: “If you ask the Father anything in My Name, He will give it you.” Jesus tells us precisely how to ask: in His Name. The very pattern of all prayer, the public prayer of the liturgy and our personal prayer in the time between liturgies, is thus established: we are to ask the Father for the grace of sonship, in the Name of Jesus, His beloved only-begotten Son, to whom we are joined in the bond of the Holy Spirit. This is trinitarian prayer, and therefore it is true, pleasing, and efficacious prayer. The liturgy is the most perfect embodiment of this prayer, for it is offered by the whole Mystical Body — by Christ Himself as Head, and His people as His members.

Liturgical prayer was not something human beings cobbled together on their own; it was and is a gift received from above, coming down from the Father of lights like every good and perfect gift. Our Lord implies this much in the Gospel when He says: “The hour cometh when I will no more speak to you in proverbs, but will show you plainly of the Father.” All worship before the Sacrifice of the Cross was like a speaking in proverbs — hinting at and pointing towards the grace of Christ, but not containing it and effecting it. In the fullness of time, in the institution of the sacraments and especially of the Mass, and in the organic unfolding of this worship over time, Christ shows us plainly of the Father, revealing His face ever more to us, His children, “for the Father Himself loveth you.”

Like the Son who “came out from God” — “I came forth from the Father and am come into the world” — so too does the liturgy come forth from the Father into the world, making known His love and making Him known and loved. We are like the disciples who can finally cry out: “Behold, now Thou speakest plainly and speakest no proverb.” In the liturgy, that which was in olden times veiled in riddles is revealed in its saving truth, yet still under the veil of our earthly “rites of tender devotion” (haec piae devotionis officia), as the Secret says, by which we “pass over into heavenly glory” (ad coelestem gloriam transeamus).

As if to offer us a perfect illustration and actualization of the teaching of the Gospel as well as of the Lesson, the Church places on our lips two exemplary prayers that complement one another magnificently: the Collect and the Postcommunion. In the former, we pray:
O God, from whom all good things do come [this includes, of course, our good works, and the grace that anticipates, accompanies, and follows them], grant to us, Thy suppliants, that by Thine inspiration we may think what is right, and under Thy guidance perform it. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son…
To be a doer of the word, there must first be the word, the knowledge, the right thought; so that is the first thing for which we pray: “that we may think what is right.” We ask that our intellects be in conformity with the divine Intellect, for God is the first Truth, the source and measure of all truth, outside of whom there is no truth. So far from truth ever becoming an “idol,” as some have idly suggested, the worship of God and adherence to truth are totally coextensive, practically synonymous, and utterly inseparable. But knowing the truth is not enough; we must actually live by it, or in the semitic expression of St. James, “do” the truth. First, we conform; second, we perform.

The Postcommunion, for its part, looks not at knowledge but at desire, not at the cognitive and executive power of man, but at the appetitive power, by which we are inclined towards the good, seeking it and holding on to it:
Grant to us, O Lord, who are filled with strength from this heavenly Table, that we may both desire what is right, and obtain what we desire. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son...
As St. Augustine cleverly says, the Old Law and the New Law have the same ending but different beginnings: timor and amor. The one stems from fear of punishment, the other from love of God. Christianity is not a religion of the abolition of desire, like Buddhism, but a religion of the intensification of the right desire, the desire for God Himself and for eternal life, that comprises, elevates, and transcends all desires. By the strength of the divine food we have received, we are capable of asking and of receiving right desire, desire of what is righteous, and righteousness itself. We can become, like the prophet Daniel, a “man of desires.”

Thus, the Collect and the Postcommunion taken together sum up the entire Christian teaching about law and love, good works and grace. Lord, make us think what is right and then do it; make us desire what is right and obtain it. And this, not by our own lights or strength, but by Thine inspiration and Thy guidance, and by the strength of the Holy Eucharist.

The marvels of the Proper of this Mass are certainly not yet exhausted! For there is an additional dimension to its teaching.

Earlier we said that the liturgy, like the Son of God whom it brings into our midst, comes forth from God into time and shows us plainly the Father. But exactly how does it do this? Not simply through teaching, for then it would be reduced to a didactic vehicle like the old Law, more of those “proverbs” that Jesus says He will surpass with a more potent gift. No, the great Christian liturgy — all the authentic liturgical rites of Eastern and Western Christendom — proceeds rather by way of fulfilling what the verse of the Introit says (or sings): “shout with joy to God, sing ye a psalm to His Name, give glory to His praise.” We do not merely announce in speech the salvation of God; we chant it; we express it in noble neums and mounting melismas, glorious garments, rich vessels and stately ceremonies. We do not merely praise God; we give glory to His praise. What else does this mean, except that, to the very best of our ability and our resources, we expand and deepen the liturgical praise of God with the glory of the Church’s treasuries that she has placed at our disposal? She has lavishly bequeathed on us the gold and silver mined and refined over millennia, and we, for our part, with all the powers of our souls and bodies, take it up to “give glory to His praise.” In this way we fulfill the injunction of the Offertory antiphon: “O bless the Lord our God, ye nations, and heed carefully the voice of His praise.”

How insistent is today’s Mass on this point can be seen from the series of imperatives that characterize its Propers. In the Introit: annuntiate (twice!), jubilate, psalmum dicite, date gloriam — declare, jubilate, utter a psalm, give glory! In the Offertory: benedicite, obaudite — bless, listen carefully! In the Communion: Cantate, cantate, benedicite, bene nuntiate — sing, sing, bless, proclaim it well! A veritable shower of imperatives, like rain falling on saplings or milk fed to children, that we may grow up into cedars of Lebanon, into the fullness of the manhood of Christ! And in its paradoxical way, the solemn liturgy has the schola chanting about announcing while the priest whispers about singing, as if we are being summoned to pray in every possible way at the same time, so that no manner of praise be lacking.

And how well such full and various praise befits an “Easter people”! For “Christ is risen,” as the first Alleluia chants, “and hath shone upon us.” It is through the solemn liturgy that the light of the glorified Christ shines upon us. We are not left in the darkness of proverbs, to wrestle with words alone; the light of the Word Himself shines upon us, the radiance of His glory peers through the splendor of the Church’s liturgical rites, a foretaste of that “heavenly glory” into which we pray to pass over by our “rites of tender devotion.” If the liturgy leads us to the verge of glory, it too must already partake of that glory, as the heliotrope turns to the sun and in its vivid yellow already partakes of the light shining upon it.

May Christ, who hath redeemed us with His precious Blood (cf. Alleluia), unite us now and forever with His high-priestly prayer, that we may declare with His voice and sing with His lips: “The Lord hath delivered His people, allelulia, alleluia.”

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