This year March 25th was particularly interesting – the feast of the Annunciation coincided with Good Friday. For those of us on the Gregorian calendar this (literal) coincidence will not happen again until 2157! For more on the importance of this coincidence, I advise reading this interesting post.
Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?
And he shall grow up as a tender plant before him, and as a root out of a thirsty ground: there is no beauty in him, nor comeliness: and we have seen him, and there was no sightliness, that we should be desirous of him:
Despised, and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with infirmity: and his look was as it were hidden and despised, whereupon we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray, every one hath turned aside into his own way: and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Holy Pascha is a mere two weeks away – we’ve now entered Passiontide. The Liturgy continues its lenten “stripping”: just as we lost the joyous Gloria and Alleluia at the beginning of Septuagesima, now the Psalm prayed at the foot of the altar is gone as well. Suddenly, all images are veiled, even the cross (as a liturgical curiosity, the Bragan rite prescribes that all images and sanctuary be veiled throughout the whole of Lent – with certain exceptions – as was the original custom)! It is as if the Liturgy wishes to tell us “the Passion is coming; forget now the glories of the Church, look not on the wonders of her saints. No, this is Lent. You, the exules filii Evae, have been cast out of Eden. The Bridegroom must undergo His Passion before the gates of Eden can be openned to you again. Look at this temple where you worship, where all is hidden – it is as Eden – you cannot see its wonders, its majesty. All is focusing your attention on the Passion. Once the Bridegroom consumates His love, then you will see Eden again in all its splendour, then your temples will once again we filled with light and beauty and joyous song.” It is only the second year that I am attending Holy Mass with veiled images during Passiontide, and it does make quite an impact on me. No ammount of having previously read about it can actually give you the experience except for experiencing the thing itself (just as no ammount of reading about a solemn Mass or a vetus ordo Baptism could impress on me as much as actually participating in them). Words cannot describe enough how much I love the Prefaces (especially when they are sung), those condensed doxological “introductions” at the beginning of the Canon. Passiontide gives us this wonderful gem [Preface of the Holy Cross]:
It is truly meet and just, right and availing unto salvation, that we should in all times and in all places give thanks unto Thee, O holy Lord, Father almighty and everlasting God. Who didst set the salvation of mankind upon the tree of the Cross, so that whence came death, thence also life might rise again, and that he who overcame by the tree might also be overcome on the tree; through Christ our Lord. Through whom the angels praise Thy majesty, the dominations adore, the powers are in awe, the virtues of highest heaven and the blessed seraphim unite in blissful exultation. With them we praise Thee; grant that our voices too may blend, saying in adoring praise:
If there was one verse that stuck with me from today’s Gospel, it was this – “And you do not know Him, but I know Him“. While there is much to be said about not (fully) knowing God while still in this life, struggling within the Church, this verse brought to my mind memories of where I was spiritually a little over 9 years ago. While the Lord was leading me back to His Mystical Body, little did I know that I was on that path (even less did I know that I had my own passion to undergo before the “final” reconciliation with the Church). I thought I knew God – or better – I thought I knew god (or even that he did not exist). What confusion within, what a mix of ideas, what turmoil; like a boat buffeted by waves in a storm, I was without direction seeking here and there a safe harbour, denying that a harbour existed, doubting that it might exist… I did not know that the Church was a sacrament of Christ, that it was His sacramental presence in this world, nor that He and the Father were one. No, I hated the Church. Perhaps hate is too strong a word – I despised it. And yet, after I returned I discovered that I had never really despised the Church at all; rather I despised my idea of the Church, the caricature of it which I believed to be an accurate representation. How could I ever hate that which I had ever hoped for, which promised even more than I could ever hope for?
And yet this is quite common. I am constantly encountering people who tell me they hate the Church, hate what it represents, and so on and so forth, and yet when it comes down to it, what they hate is a spectre. What they hate simply does not exist. How one comes about such caricatures all depends on one’s personal experience I suppose, but to learn what the Church really is, to want to know Her and love Her as mother, one has to be willing to walk down the via cruxis; one has to respond to the grace for it. Sin keeps us from seeing it as it really is – sin veils our eyes.
This penultimate verse of the Vexilla Regis is my prayer for everyone I know this Passiontide, especially those who have recanted their faith:
Hail Cross, of hopes the most sublime!
Now, in the mournful Passion time;
grant to the just increase of grace,
and every sinner’s crimes efface.
Before taking up for a second time our suggested Lenten reading I thought it might profit us by reading Melito of Sardis’ Peri Pascha (On the Pascha). I had heard about it many years ago, never having gotten around to reading it until now.
Reading this work has reminded me of why I fell in love with the Fathers of the Church when I discovered them all those years ago. The Fathers introduced me to Typology, which helped me to understand the relationship between Old and New Covenants. In the OT one finds types – “models”/prefigurements – of antetypes – realities/full embodiments – in the NT. The Deluge is understood as prefiguring Baptism; the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai, the descent of the Holy Spirit in the Cenacle; Isaac, Jesus; the Tree in Eden, the Cross;… Is this approach a proper one to the Scriptures? Is it reading into the text what isn’t actually there? This was how the early Church read the Scriptures. St. Paul interprets them this way. Even Our Lord uses it Himself when He speaks of the sign of Jonah – the three days in the belly of the fish prefiguring the three days He would spend in the “belly of the earth”, the tomb.
The Scriptures suddenly came alive to me, and I relished in finding these types and antetypes. I questioned why had I only been taught the historical-critical approach to the Scriptures? When used properly it is a very helpful tool, but the way I was taught it was dry and only led to putting them into question.
The Fathers showed me that Christianity was so much more than just an ethical philosophy among so many others; that there was a transcendent dimension to it, and that their typological approach was complimented by the Liturgy, with its elaborate rites and symbols.
Opting to read the Peri Pascha outloud was one of the best things we could have done. The words read aloud came alive in a way that they could not if read silently. Coincidentally, the day after we finished the final reading father prior had this to say on his blog, while on the topic of a quote from St. Ambrose:
I have always said that the best school of homiletics is reading the Fathers, and reading them aloud. A mere visual reading dulls the effect of their rhetorical artistry with its brilliant alliterations, repetitions, and plays on words. One must hear the Fathers. This is the whole point of reading the Fathers at Matins every day.
On the Pascha presents us with the Christian interpretation of the Exodus story. It tells us of types and antetypes, of how the new supersedes the old:
Without the model, no work of art arises. Is not that which is to come into existence seen through the model which typifies it? For this reason a pattern of that which is to be is made either out of wax, or out of clay, or out of wood, in order that by the smallness of the model, destined to be destroyed, might be seen that thing which is to arise from it–higher than it in size, and mightier than it in power, and more beautiful than it in appearance, and more elaborate than it in ornamentation.
It goes all the way back to Adam, and how through him man became captive to death. Then, the Lord’s passion is foretold throughout the OT:
Accordingly, if you desire to see the mystery of the Lord, pay close attention to Abel who likewise was put to death, to Isaac who likewise was bound hand and foot, to Joseph who likewise was sold, to Moses who likewise was exposed, to David who likewise was hunted down, to the prophets who likewise suffered because they were the Lord’s anointed.
Christ is seen as the fulfillment of the paschal lamb:
This is the lamb that was slain. This is the lamb that was silent. This is the one who was born of Mary, that beautiful ewe-lamb. This is the one who was taken from the flock, and was dragged to sacrifice, and was killed in the evening, and was buried at night; the one who was not broken while on the tree, who did not see dissolution while in the earth, who rose up from the dead, and who raised up mankind from the grave below.
As we reached the end, there are a series of reproaches (of which I cite just a few) which brought to my mind both the Improperia and Simeron Kremata liturgical chants:
Why, O Israel did you do this strange injustice? You dishonored the one who had honored you. You held in contempt the one who held you in esteem. You denied the one who publicly acknowledged you. You renounced the one who proclaimed you his own. You killed the one who made you to live. Why did you do this, O Israel?
For you brought to him scourges for his body, and the thorns for his head. And you bound those beautiful hands of his, which had formed you from the earth. And that beautiful mouth of his, which had nourished you with life, you filled with gall.
The one who hung the earth in space, is himself hanged; the one who fixed the heavens in place, is himself impaled; the one who firmly fixed all things, is himself firmly fixed to the tree. The Lord is insulted, God has been murdered, the King of Israel has been destroyed by the right hand of Israel.
The text ends with a proclamation of Jesus’ victory, followed by what seems to be a form of the Creed (which I do not cite):
But he arose from the dead and mounted up to the heights of heaven. When the Lord had clothed himself with humanity, and had suffered for the sake of the sufferer, and had been bound for the sake of the imprisoned, and had been judged for the sake of the condemned, and buried for the sake of the one who was buried, he rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed.
Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven, I, he says, am the Christ.
Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness, I am the passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you, I am your ransom, I am your light, I am your saviour, I am your resurrection, I am your king, I am leading you up to the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up by my right hand.
Do you wish to regain a sense of mystery and wonder about the Christian faith this Lent? Do you want to deepen your understanding of what will take place during the Paschal Triduum? Do you want to learn how to see the Old in light of the New? Read this work with your family. Read it aloud; let the repetitions of the text impress upon your soul. (Re-)discover the Fathers.
After three Sundays of preparation Lent is finally here (or is it upon us? One is never quite certain with the usus antiquior; but then I kind of like the uncertainty). This is the second year that I have actually been able to participate in the older rite on Ash Wednesday and, while I am normally a Solemn Mass man, the silence of the Low Mass celebrated was not without its effects. We were spectators in this seemingly arcane rite which was being performed on our behalf; and yet we were participants in it as well, offering ourselves up with the Lamb who was immolated from eternity, praying that what was happening on that most holy altar would take place within us as well. The hushed voices of the priest and server all the way up in the apse, which floated down as gently as snow to us all the way back practically in the narthex, brought to my mind a series of thoughts that have lately just been floating around in my head on the subject of Lent.
This post will be very fragmented, with no apparent link between any of the parts, and I write it mostly just to order the thoughts in my head, so I ask whoever reads this (and perseveres until the end) to please bear with me.
What is all this “nonsense” of getting one’s forehead “sullied” with ash at the beginning of Lent? Biblically, ashes are generally a sign of mourning, of repentence (cf. 2 Sam 13:19; Jer 6:26; Job 2:8;42:6; Ez 27:30). There are several prayers used in the blessing of the ashes according to the usus antiquior; let us see what the Liturgy has to say:
[…] that they may be a wholesome remedy for all who humbly implore Your holy Name […];
[…] that all who are sprinkled with these ashes for the forgiveness of their sins, may receive health for their bodies and salvation for their souls [reminiscent of the sprinkling of the red heffer’s ashes?];
[…] are to be placed upon our heads as a sign of humility and a pledge of Your forgiveness […];
[…] by the ashes sprinkled upon the heads of Your servants mercifully pour forth upon them the grace of Your blessing, fill them with the spirit of repentance and truly grant what they ask for in the right way […]
While Latins are generally accused of having a legalistic outlook (and these prayers do use a bit of legal jargon), one finds in them constant mentions of a merciful God, who only desires that His children return to Him. The prayers found in the Bragan missal remind us as well of the First Adam’s transgression (All powerful eternal God, who declared to the first man transgressing your commandment, nor confessing his sin, that he was dust and to dust he shall return), and reinforce the idea of a loving Creator (All powerful God who hath mercy on all, and who hates nothing of those things which thou hast made). Adam’s lack of repentence merits the warning that he will return to the dust from which he was made; now, we put on dust [ashes] in sign of repentance so that we will not return to it.
So these ashes are sacramentals. They’re not merely an outward sign of our (supposed) interior state; they are conduits of grace to help us repent, and a “reminder” to God of His mercy.
We processed silently up the aisle to receive the ashes, and as we knelt it would not have been strange to me at all to hear the line from the Dies Irae:
Oro supplex et acclinis; cor contritum quasi cinis.
Low I kneel, with heart’s submission; see, like ashes, my contrition.
For a long time the readings on this day baffled me. “Rend your hearts, not your garments […]; […] when you do fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not be seen fasting by men […]”. “Isn’t it hypocritical to be walking around all day with ash on my forehead when the readings are against this kind of ostentatious behaviour?” I would ask others and they would have the same question; I never received a decent answer from any of the clergy or people in a position to teach. It took a long time to learn that these readings on this day were not paradoxal, nor that we were doing something apparently hypocritical. I had to learn how to read the Scriptures properly. I had to learn what these passages meant in their proper context as well as in the context of the Bible, as well as certain jewish rhetorical styles. The contradiction I perceived between the readings and our actions was only superficial; I had taken things at face value and not really bothered to go beyond the surface. These condemnations were not of what the Law prescribed, but rather of the spirit with which they were done. The exterior signs are necessary, but one should not use them as a source of pride; all must be for God. So much time to learn something so simple…
Later that evening at home we thought it apropriate to pray the Canon of Repentence to Our Lord Jesus Christ (a Byzantine prayer). It was the first time we ever prayed it, and the words struck deep, especially
O woe is me, a sinner! Wretched am I above all men. There is no repentance in me. Give me, O Lord, tears, that I may weep bitterly over my deeds.
We ended the day with a kind of Chapter of Faults/Rite of Forgiveness, in which we both asked for each other’s forgiveness and prayers.
And so began our Lenten journey. The silence of the Mass, as I said, made quite the impression on me, so much so that I’ve wondered if Silence is not to be the staple characteristic of this Lent.
The liturgical year has come full circle and we find ourselves immersed in Advent once again. I thought I would comment a bit on my experience of Advent; it is not my place here to give a profound explanation of what this liturgical season is (there are plenty of sites that have done it far better than I ever could); the aim is simply to share my personal experience.
I still recall the joy of my first Advent after returning to the Church. For the first time I would be celebrating Christmas properly – for the correct reasons – and I set about preparing clumsily for it. I guess you might describe it as the joy of a child awaiting Christmas day, anticipating all the presents they will receive. The short days, growing smaller all the while, seemed to impress upon me the idea of anticipation all the more, as if nature itself was “building up” to that climatic point. Going to midnight Mass for the first time (while not the most reverent of celebrations), the fire blazing outside in the cold night air, kissing the foot of the Infant at the end of Mass – all these things left quite an impression on me.