Wednesday, March 29, 2023

“I Am The Lord Your God” - The Law of Moses in the Liturgy of Lent

The Gospels of the Wednesdays of Lent are united by a common theme, in that they all speak, directly or obliquely, of the controversies over the person of Jesus of Nazareth: whether He was the long-awaited Messiah, and the nature of the Messiah’s rule and authority. Ash Wednesday, a later addition to the Roman Rite, is an exception; the Gospel, Matthew 6, 16-21, is His words from the Sermon on the Mount about the proper way to fast, for obvious reasons.
In the first week of Lent, on Ember Wednesday, the Gospel is Matthew 12, 38-50, in which the scribes and Pharisees ask the Lord to perform a sign to prove that He is in fact the Messiah. To this He replies that they will be given no sign but “the sign of Jonah”, the first reference to the Resurrection in Lent, and hence to its necessary premise, the Crucifixion.
Christ and the Wife and Sons of Zebedee, ca. 1565 by Paolo Veronese (1528-88); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
The following Wednesday, the Gospel is Matthew 20, 17-28, which begins with Christ’s third prediction of the Passion and Resurrection, followed by the discourse with the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee. Her request that her sons sit at Christ’s right and left in His kingdom strongly implies that she also understands the Messiah’s kingdom to be an earthly one, but on Good Friday, Jesus Himself will say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
In the third week, the Gospel is Matthew’s account (15, 1-20) of the controversy over the rites observed by the Pharisees, particularly, the custom of washing the hands before eating. Here, the controversy is an implicit one: does Christ have the authority to dispense His followers from observing such a “tradition of the elders”? The reading ends with His own declaration that He does, for He simply states, as one speaking with authority, “To eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”
The fourth week is St John’s account (9, 1-38) of the healing of the man born blind, a considerable portion of which (verses 13-34) is taken up with the Pharisees’ discussion of what the act of healing means in regard to the Healer. “Some therefore of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not of God, who keepeth not the sabbath.’ But others said. ‘How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles?’ And there was a division among them.”
Christ Heals the Man Born Blind, 1871, by the Danish painter Carl Bloch (1834-90); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The final Gospel in this series is also from St John (10, 22-38). During the feast of the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, the crowd says, “How long dost thou hold our souls in suspense? If thou art the Christ, tell us plainly.” But when He says, “ ‘I and the Father are one’, they took up stones to stone Him.”
Since the Thursday of Passion Week was originally an aliturgical day, on which no Mass was celebrated, this Gospel would originally have been the last one by which Roman liturgy set the stage, as it were, for the Passion, an explanation that the priests and Pharisees wanted to kill Him because they regarded Him as a blasphemer. With the Gospel of Friday, John 11, 47-54, the Passion begins as they start to plot against the Lord in earnest.
On alternating weeks in this series, the first, third and fifth of Lent, the Epistles are taken from the books of Moses. On Ember Wednesday (Exodus 24, 12-18), he ascends the mountain to receive the Law, and there beholds the glory of the Lord, “and was there for forty days and forty nights.” This sets the pattern for the Lenten fast of forty days, observed also by Elijah in the second reading (3 Kings 19, 3-8), and by Christ Himself in the Gospel of the previous Sunday (Matthew 4, 1-11.) The three of them then appear together on Ember Saturday and the following Sunday in the Gospel of the Transfiguration, the first open manifestation of Jesus’ divinity to His disciples.
A mid-12th century icon of the Transfiguration, from the monastery of St Catherine on Mt Sinai; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
This manifestation is echoed in the Epistle of the Wednesday of the third week, Exodus 20, 12-24, which begins with the second part of the Decalogue, the seven among the Ten Commandments that regard one’s dealings with other men. This is followed by the manifestations of God’s glory that so terrify the people that they say to Moses, “Speak thou to us, and let the Lord not speak to us, lest perchance we die.”
This series culminates on Passion Wednesday with one of the Roman Rite’s few readings from the book of Leviticus, a selection of verses from chapter 19 (1-2a; 10c-19a; 25b). This selection seems to have been inspired by the third book of St Augustine’s Questions on the Heptateuch, on Leviticus, which limits its treatment of this chapter to almost exactly these verses.
The opening two verses are merely an introduction: “In those days, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to all the assembly of the sons of Israel, and thou shalt say to them:’ ” The fragments of verses 10 and 25 that open the reading (after the introduction) and close it are the same “I am the Lord your God.” When read at the same Mass at the Gospel in which Christ says, “I and the Father are one”, this is clearly intended as an assertion of His divinity, which is prophesied in the Law, and that He is indeed the Messiah whose coming is foretold in the Law. As Philip says to Nathaniel in chapter 1, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets did write, Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth.”
Christ in the Portico of Solomon, 1886-96, by the French painter James Tissot (1836-1902); from the website of the Brooklyn Museum.
Since this is the middle of Passion week, this reading also presents the violence done to the Lord in His Passion as a violation of the Law of Moses. “Ye shall not lie” (vs. 11), but “there came two false witnesses, and they said, ‘This man said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and after three days to rebuild it.’ ” (Matt. 26, 61) “Thou shalt not swear falsely by my name, nor profane the name of thy God” (vs. 12), but “the high priest said to him, ‘I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us if thou be the Christ the Son of God,’ ” (Matt. 26, 63) the same question posed in today’s Gospel. “Thou shalt not calumniate thy neighbor, nor oppress him by violence. (vs. 13) … Thou shalt not do that which is unjust, nor judge unjustly. (vs. 15) Thou shalt not stand against the blood of thy neighbor. (vs. 16)”
The Introit preserves an Old Latin reading of Psalm 17, “My deliverer from the wrathful nations…” where the Vulgate has “from my wrathful enemies.” In such a context, this seems to present the Lord’s persecutors as Jews who have become like gentiles by their violation of the Law which God gave to their people.
On the ferias of Lent and Passion week, the Communion antiphons are taken each one from a different Psalm in sequential order, starting on Ash Wednesday with Psalm 1. The days which were formerly aliturgical do not form part of this series, namely, the six Thursdays, and also the first and last Saturday. (See the table below; click for larger view.) The series is also interrupted on six days when particularly important passages of the Gospels are read, and the Communion is taken from them instead.
The Communion for today is taken from Psalm 25, because it follows this sequence, but the specific choice of verses (6-7) is not casual. “I will wash my hands among the innocent”, refers to Christ’s innocence, and to the controversy with the Pharisees over the washing of the hands before meals. “And encompass thy altar, o Lord”: the Gospel takes place during the dedication feast of the temple, where the Lord’s altar is. “That I may hear the voice of thy praise, and tell of all thy wondrous deeds.” An early commentary on the Psalms expounds this verse as follows: “So that when I have learned, I may explain to others that miracle, how Thou didst suffer for us, and didst rise.” (Breviarium (i.e. short commentary) in Psalmos, formerly attributed to either St Jerome or St Augustine; PL XXVI, 893C)

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