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The high altar of Saint John the Evangelist, Iffley Road

The high altar of Saint John the Evangelist, Iffley Road, prepared for Passion Sunday

This homily was given at Old Saint John’s, Silver Spring, Maryland, at a Low Mass in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite:

It is difficult to believe the transformation from the joy and consolation of last Sunday’s festivities to this. Holy Mother Church now stands in solemn anticipation of the passion of her blessed Lord, as her preparation in the weeks of Septuagesima merge into those of Lent itself, and now unfold into Passiontide. The sacred liturgy today is marked by an increasingly sombre mood; each of the texts evokes the impending drama of road to Calvary. The church is draped in mournful violet – not just the Priest and the altar, but so also the figure of the crucified Lord himself. As we read in the gospel, the Lord ‘hid himself and went out of the temple’, so our representation of him is poignantly removed from our sight as we fix our eyes not simply on a sign of his sacrifice, but that sacrifice itself.

The veil is a great sign in the Christian liturgy. By tradition we veil the tabernacle – with a coloured canopy, a curtain inside the door, and a covering over the ciborium containing the Blessed Sacrament. We veil the chalice. Even the communion rails symbolize the veil of the temple, marking the sacred from the profane; the temple courtyard from the holy of holies. In some of the Eastern rites, too, the veil of the chalice is honoured with sweet-smelling incense and is wafted over the simple bread and wine as a sign of the coming of the Holy Spirit. So, too, the violet veils which bedeck the church from now until the Easter vigil point us toward something special, something sacred. They remove from our sight the obvious, in order that we might enter more deeply into the mystery; a mystery which in the coming days will be dramatically re-told.

The sacrifice of Christ on the cross, re-presented for us in the Eucharistic action we come here to celebrate, is that mystery par excellence. It is the paradox of the Christian religion that by such a cruel instrument of excruciating torture  and death, we come to eternal life. The fruit of that ‘one and only noble tree’, which brings man’s disobedience at the tree in Eden full circle, is not condemnation but reconciliation in the covenant we have with God. It is a mystery to us, and yet it is a reality that, by our lenten observance we have come to understand. Through the sacrifices and penances we undergo we come to see that it is only by divesting ourselves of sin and selfish desire that we can hope to enjoy the life, and peace, and joy of the resurrection life. We cannot serve both God and man; we cannot have life if we always choose death.

It is in the single sacrifice of Christ that the Son offers himself to the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. It is that single sacrifice in time which is now the eternal worship of heaven, and of which we catch a glimpse in the offering of the Mass. The epistle to the Hebrews emphasizes this. Here Christ is described as the Pontifex futurorum bonorum; the High Priest of good things to come. In the one sacrifice of the Lord the countless sacrifices of the old covenant – the blood of goats and oxen – are eclipsed by the Blood of Christ. It is for this reason we pray, ‘I will praise thee, O Lord, with my whole heart’, because it is by his offering of himself once and for all on the cross that we come to share in his risen life.

The sacred triduum, the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, show us this sacrifice writ large. We see there the institution of the Eucharist, the sacrifice of the cross, and the resurrection on the third day. The offering, the consummation, and the fulfillment of the sacrifice we celebrate at every Mass is held before us as a great canvas, depicting in awesome detail the life in which, by baptism, we share.

It is toward these events the Church now bids us turn. With the mystery of the Lord’s passion before her, she begins her journey to the gates of Jerusalem. There we will stand and cry, ‘Hosanna’ as the Messiah receives his triumphant welcome. There we will stand in the cenacle as he utters first his irresistible command, ‘Do this’. There we will stand, together with his blessed mother, as the sky turns black and he cries out over the land, ‘It is accomplished’. And as the veil in the temple is torn from top to bottom, it is there, too, that we will glimpse again the beauty of this awesome mystery, and come to see the source of our salvation and our joy.