The season of Lent and the three Sundays of Septuagesimatide that precede it are marked by a certain liturgical character of restraint. Certainly, in Lent itself we intensify our individual practice of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, but the sacred liturgy itself is also affected by this penitence, in perhaps a more communal and ecclesial way, most markedly by the omission of the Gloria in excelsis on Sundays, and the insertion of a Tract in place of the usual meditative chant before the Gospel. The texts of all of the propers are intrinsically linked to the music to which they have been set, and vice versa. They are a form of cantillation: “a song which arises from the text, a song which is essentially a heightened proclamation of a verbal message.” The promotion of, and principled use of the propers given for every Eucharistic celebration was a central tenet of the twentieth century liturgical movement, together with the restoration of the chant as the musical language of the Church’s song of praise. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, even stated: “Gregorian chant [is] specially suited to the Roman liturgy . . . it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (SC 116). Thus the propers, by which we mean principally the text, but also the music that serves it, is part of the Church’s law of prayer, the lex orandi, that informs and articulates her law of faith, the lex credendi.
In the earliest days of the Church the extended vigil of the Mass of Ember Saturday, which we celebrated yesterday, meant that no distinct Mass was celebrated on this day until around the fifth century; the vigil went through the night, as on Holy Saturday. Thus the texts appointed for the Mass today are, relatively speaking, a later addition to the liturgical canon. In fact, the majority of the propers we hear today are simply repeated from Wednesday, the first of the Lent ember days, that is with the exception of the Tract.
The Tract, Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus, is thus a good place to begin our reflection. The text, taken from Psalm 105, seems at first to be at odds with the penitential tone of the day: “Give glory to the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever. Who shall declare the powers of the Lord: who shall set forth all his praises? Blessed are they that keep judgement, and do justice at all times.” Yet in the final verse a more Lenten message is introduced: “Remember us, O Lord, in the favour of thy people: visit us with thy salvation.”
The Gospel we have just heard, that of the transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor, follows the Tract immediately, as if to respond to our call. “Visit us with thy salvation,” is in effect answered by the Lord’s transfiguration on the holy mountain, by which his glory is revealed to man as if to show (and to do so all the more poignantly in our pilgrimage toward Easter) what it is that we strive for by the union of our human nature with the divine. Even the chant itself indicates the fervour of our petition: each verse ending with the same musical phrase, save the last—“Visit us with thy salvation”—embellished to give, in musical terms, an emphasis to the text with which it is interwoven; “a song which arises from the text.”
Yet our plea, “Visit us with thy salvation,” is not just an expression of a desire to share in the eternal life offered us by Christ in the beatific vision in some future sense, but more urgently: come and bring us salvation in the here and now! Again, in reply, the voice of the eternal Father calls to us: “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him.” Thus we are given the means to receive the salvation for which we pray, following the ways of the Lord and, by so doing, returning to the covenantal relationship with him begun in us in the waters of the sacred font.
As if to continue this conversation between Man and God, the Church raises her voice in reply to the Gospel in the Offertory with words from Psalm 118: Meditabor in mandatis tuis quæ dilexi valde (I will meditate on thy commandments, which I have loved exceedingly: I will lift up my hands to thy commandments, which I have loved). In the light of our plea, and the assurance of our fidelity to the law of the Lord, the Lord God himself answers us not only in the reassuring message of the Gospel, what Saint Thomas might call “a pledge of future glory,” but more substantially in the reality of his presence in the Most Holy Eucharist. In our own time and space, the Lord God comes to us in the consecration of bread and wine on the altar in the Mass, making this very place and this very altar our own Mount Tabor, to which we daily ascend: “Bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy dwelling” (Ps. 42).
As we contemplate the Church’s cry, “visit us with thy salvation,” and the tender promises of God resounds in our hearts, may we resolve to realize the promise that now we make: “I will meditate on thy commandments, which I have loved exceedingly: I will lift up my hands to thy commandments.” Such fidelity is at the heart of our Lenten discipline, our return to the Lord with our whole heart: to be united with him in all things, so that we might die with him and so live with him for all eternity (cf. 2 Tim. 2:11). It is in this that the glory we glimpse on Mount Tabor and behold in the Most Holy Eucharist will be ours, and by which the salvation for which we long will be visited upon us. In this knowledge, may nothing divert us from our task.